Compassion. Empathy. These are words we might have heard in recent times, or they’re words we might not have heard in a long time. The dictionary says that we can use these words synonymously, but have we really ever stopped to think about what they mean individually? Off the top of our heads, we might associate them with feeling bad for people, or putting ourselves in the shoes of others. I know that one of the first things I think of are those awful SPCA commercials with the sad-eyed dogs and Sarah McLaughlin playing in the background… But when we really stop to consider the definition of these words, are they truly synonymous? I really hadn’t give thought to this question until I heard this bit on NPR a few weeks ago.

From Wisconsin Public Radio, Yale psychology professor, Paul Bloom, was being interviewed about his new book, Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion. I encourage you to listen to this interview, as it really brought to light (for me at least) a new way to look at these ways of relating to others. Bloom defines empathy much in the same way we would when it first comes to mind: feeling what others feel in terms of pain and suffering. He makes the point that empathy is not exactly a good thing, that it may make us feel good when we are feeling empathetic, but the empathy itself is very biased. For example, he states that we tend to empathize with people most similar to us in looks, race, religion, behavior, etc. This causes our empathy to become focused individually, rather than with people as a whole.

Bloom gives us two kinds of empathy. Emotional empathy which is when we feel what someone else is feeling, and cognitive empathy, which is amoral and relates to the way we understand others. In his research, Bloom has found that those people who tend to be the most empathetic are also those who are most prone to aggression and retribution. Because of our tendency to overidentify and empathize with people that are most like us, we can also rationalize the need for violent retribution or war. Bloom gives us the example of the Nazis. They were extremely empathetic to their own, so much that they went on to massacre millions of people that they did not identify with.

As an alternative to empathy, Bloom encourages rational compassion, which he defines as trying to make the world better place by thinking not of what will make us feel better or give our egos a lift because we feel as though we’ve contributed, but instead of the effects of our actions. Bloom speaks of those people who donate (goods/food, not money or service) excessively to disaster relief funds, even when their donations are becoming more hindrance than help. They are “scratching the empathic itch… feeling good about it.” How much are we really helping in these circumstances?

According to Bloom, rational compassion is what we expect when we see a doctor or therapist. We do not expect them to empathize with us, to feel our pain, to take on our anxieties. We expect them to understand, remain calm, and give us the help or direction we need. One of the things I liked best about this interview was Bloom describing how meditation can help us be more rationally compassionate: “We are more likely to help if we don’t feel the pain of others, but instead feel loving and kindness toward them.” This statement definitely resonated with the yogi in me.

In Buddhism, wisdom and compassion are necessary to the realization of enlightenment. The first of the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism is “Life is suffering.” We need wisdom to accept this and compassion to help others accept. Merely sharing in the suffering of others only adds to our suffering, and if we just continue to suffer, we will never reach enlightenment. I found this beautiful quote by the Dalai Lama from his book, The Essence of the Heart Sutra.

“According to Buddhism, compassion is an aspiration, a state of mind, wanting others to be free from suffering. It’s not passive- it’s not empathy alone- but rather an empathetic altruism that actively strives to free others from suffering. Genuine compassion must have both wisdom and loving kindness. That is to say, one must understand the nature of the suffering from which we wish to free others (this is wisdom), and one must experience deep intimacy and empathy with other sentient beings (this is loving kindness).”

Now that we’ve established the differences between these way of being, it’s easy to apply these differences to what is occurring in the world around us and how we as a public react to certain social events. This brings to my mind that famous quote of Ghandi’s; “Be the change you
want to see in the world.” When we view things as corrupt or wrong, rather than reacting in a negative way, isn’t it much more productive to act in a positive way? I mean, obviously. But what I’m trying to say is that instead of just dwelling on that which we find inappropriate or unsatisfactory, we should, without question, take actions that will work adversely to these things and in a way that might actually make a beneficial difference. Even now as I write this passage, I immediately draw to mind Barack Obama’s farewell speech┬áin which he implored people, “If something needs fixing, then lace up your shoes and do some organizing. If you’re disappointed by your elected officials, grab a clip board, get some signatures, and run for office yourself.” What I most gained from this inspiring conclusion to his speech was, don’t monger hatred against those you most disagree with (emphasizing with those you most agree with), instead use your energies to make the difference you want to see and that you most believe will contribute to the betterment of the world and yourself.

I did not start writing this post today (Valentine’s Day, which I am going to be open minded about here instead of my usual cynicism of over-commercialized holidays), but I feel that it’s quite fitting for me to finish this here today. I may have started off with some philosophical leading to political rambling here, but these ideas reflect back on the very purposes and motivations that yoga has given me… being kind to others, respecting those with whom you do not agree and finding a way to peacefully and productively counteract the ideas you feel need changing, finding sympathy in others’ misfortune, yet not adopting what resentment they may hold. Using yoga and meditation to objectively clear the mind helps us deal with stress, difficult decisions, and other challenges that we may face. Having an open heart and an open mind also helps us to effectively guide others through tough situations. It’s not easy, this path we are on, but we are on it together. The entire population of the human race, all the species of animals and plants, we are all in one place. In the infinite vastness of the universe, we all happen to be here together and that’s pretty special. We do not even get much time together, but when you think about it, all the time we have, we spend together. So, in this little bit of time, on this little planet floating along in the great big beyond, let’s find it in ourselves to be more compassionate, to have more wisdom, to bring more love to our lives.

Love and gratitude.