Reflections on Compassion:

In Buddhist teaching, compassion is often poetically described as the ‘quivering of the heart in response to encountering pain and suffering’. It takes courage and steadfastness to bear witness to pain in ourselves and others, to not shrink away, avoid or escape. In therapists and non-therapists alike, turning away from suffering is tempting and often done, but the cost of silencing the heart is disconnect and loneliness. Compassion asks of us to have skin in the game. Dr Paul Gilbert, founder of Compassion-focussed therapy defines compassion as, “a sensitivity to suffering in self and others with a commitment to try to alleviate and prevent it.” This last bit is an essential addition, in my view. It highlights intentionality which in turn reflects a deeper personal value. A value that I hold dear. Helpfully, Gilbert adds that compassion is not a feeling but is based in motivation and can therefore be cultivated and fine-tuned to become a reliable and available way of being.  Empathy, in contrast, is a sensitivity to the inner experience of another, the old ‘walking in another’s shoes’ analogy. Empathy without compassion can be a hard thing to bear, especially for the more sensitive among us. But coupled with compassion it gives a way to be with the suffering of another that is neither overwhelming nor avoiding.