Often misunderstood as being “caring or soft” or “feeling what other people feel,” compassion is not an emotion — it’s a state of mind. Compassion allows us to understand where people are coming from, feel genuine concern, and take action to help them be successful. It’s also something we can actively cultivate. We sat down with two extraordinary members of our Women Together faculty to find out how — and why we can’t afford not to.
While attending high school, in Amman, Jordan, Uvinie Lubecki and Anna Kawar witnessed firsthand the pain and suffering caused by the ongoing Middle-East conflict — and they became determined to find solutions.
After years of research and reflection, both independently came to the same conclusion: humans inherently seek connection with each other, individually and communally, and it is through compassion that this connection comes to fruition. Anna and Uvinie have come to define compassion as “understanding where people are coming from, feeling concern for them in a genuine way, and acting to help them be successful.”
Compassion has evolved within us to fulfill a specific function — to alleviate our suffering. For thousands of years, the Eastern wisdom traditions have conveyed the importance of the conscious development of compassion for all living beings, including oneself. Today, loving-kindness meditation, originally a Buddhist practice, has been widely adopted throughout the world. As the Dalai Lama often points out, compassion can quite literally transform our minds. Recent scientific research validates this observation.
“We can’t solve the world’s problems by thinking up the most innovative solution or debating or analyzing or thinking — we need to connect with each other through compassion,” says Uvinie, who along with Anna founded Leading Through Connection last year. The organization offers workshops and presentations to teach people how to find common ground and relate better by learning compassion.
Here are three things that might surprise you about compassion.
- Compassion is a state of mind that was hardwired into the human brain 200,000 years ago.
Studies show that when we’re practicing mindful compassion, we’re mostly using the area of the brain known as the frontal lobe, the part that helps us manage time, perform tasks — and care for those closest to us. So if our brains are hardwired for compassion, why aren’t we all more compassionate? Today’s stressful, fast-paced world overstimulates our nervous systems, making us more reactive and quicker to judge others. Plus, most of us don’t live in small groups of 10 to 50 people as our hunter-gatherer ancestors did. Our brains simply aren’t wired to care for larger groups, much less the whole of humanity. If ever there were a need for compassion, it’s now, as the world faces increasing global conflict, oppression, poverty, and so many other serious problems.
- Being compassionate with others requires that we start by learning self-compassion — and how do we do that? By paying attention to our minds.
“While watching the latest episode of your favorite TV show, do you ever feel you should be doing something more productive?” asks Uvinie. “When you’re working late, do you ever feel you should be going to the gym? While the ‘shoulds’ in our lives help anchor us to what we believe matters in the world, unrealistic expectations of ourselves can become a source of suffering.”
The origin of these unrealistic expectations is a lack of self-compassion — the ability to recognize our own suffering coupled with the desire to alleviate it.
While being kind to ourselves about skipping a workout or overeating might sound like small potatoes when set alongside some of the brutal suffering that is happening in the Middle East and many other parts of the world, our first step to cultivating compassion — to connecting to others’ humanity — really does start inside of ourselves, with practicing that gentleness in relatively small ways (with transformational results), then with those closest to us, then less close, then with strangers, then those we’d rather not have compassion for at all. Just because we don’t like someone, doesn’t mean they don’t suffer in those deeper human ways, too.
“Compassion can allow you to be so much more effective when you are dealing with other people,” says Anna. “For example, you might give someone a bit of constructive criticism about how they could speak more effectively if they would stop saying ‘um’ so many times. If you deliver the advice to that person with kindness, they will receive it. But if that same criticism is delivered without kindness, it won’t be received.”
- Compassion, sympathy, and empathy aren’t the same. (And you might be surprised by the differences).
You have empathy for a neighbor injured in a car accident, but does that also mean you have compassion for her? You send a sympathy card when someone dies, but why isn’t it an empathy or compassion card? Empathy, sympathy, and compassion are three words that some people mistakenly use interchangeably. Empathy means that you feel what a person is feeling. Compassion, on the other hand, is not merely a feeling — it’s the willingness to do whatever you can to relieve their suffering. Compassion goes well beyond empathy by inspiring constructive action to make things better for the other person or persons. Compassion might look fierce or gentle, but it always ushers others toward relief or success. Why does this difference matter? Mistake empathy for compassion and you could be in for some emotional trouble.
Healthcare workers or caregivers who are frequently faced with trauma victims can become intensely distressed themselves, feel overwhelmed and burned out. It’s because they feel empathy, not compassion. Brain scans have shown that similar areas of the brain are activated both in the person who suffers, and in the one who feels empathy. So empathic suffering is a true experience of suffering.
By contrast, research shows that when you practice compassion for others, you benefit alongside the person receiving the compassion. Your health and overall well-being, as well your relationships, improve. Some refer to compassion as neuroscience’s latest frontier and point to a growing body of research that suggest it could even be the key to happiness and longevity. Compassion is the ultimate win-win.
Come hear Uvinie and Anna speak at WOMEN TOGETHER: The Movement Starts with You, on Friday, October 26. If you can’t make it in person, you can join us online via live-stream!