(Part of a series on How to Awaken.)
Compassion, as I define it, is the ability to sense and nonjudgmentally understand experience (our own and that of others), the capacity to recognize and care about suffering (our own and that of others), and the ability to discern what will help and what won’t.
Compassion has sometimes been defined as a strictly emotional phenomenon; in my opinion, this misses half the picture. Having a desire to help is important and noble; however, that desire can lead to ineffective and even harmful action unless we also have an understanding of the situation that allows us to discern how to help.
This is where spiritual practice meets psychology and other fields of knowledge; there’s no end to what we might learn to support compassionate action. On any path of spiritual awakening, I believe it’s important to have a basic knowledge of psychology and as much social and emotional intelligence as you can get.
Build Empathy and Understanding
Empathy is the ability to nonjudgmentally sense and understand the experience of others, from their frame of reference (that is, putting yourself “in their shoes”). Self-empathy is the ability to nonjudgmentally sense and understand your own experience.
Intentions for spiritual practice:
- Learn to recognize feelings and needs—yours and those of others. This may require some vocabulary-building.
- Learn to sense the experience of others. Sense what life is like from their perspective. Learn to accept the views of others (even when you disagree with those views).
- Learn to recognize stages of human development. Learn how our needs, values, and capacities change as we grow. Learn what life is like at stages of development that differ from your own.
- Learn to recognize personality types. We each develop our own way of handling life’s challenges, and this informs our personality. Learn to understand personality types that differ from your own.
I tend to lead with my intellect—and I grew up somewhat lacking in social and emotional intelligence. It’s been an important part of my spiritual journey to build relationship skills to complement my intellectual capacities.
Deepen Your Capacity for Compassionate Love
Compassionate love is the spontaneous emotional response that arises in a state of mindfulness, empathy, and understanding when we recognize suffering. An embodied experience of compassionate love is a powerful healing force—and without love, we become cold, clinical, and socially ineffective.
Intentions for spiritual practice:
- Notice your love for yourself and meditate on this feeling.
- Notice your love for others and meditate on this feeling.
- Notice your love for all beings and meditate on this feeling.
Through spiritual practice, I’ve gradually been increasing my capacity to embody compassionate love. This is still an edge for me. Occasionally, at peak moments, this feeling has become almost unbearably intense—an openhearted heartache for all beings.
Recognize how Self-Protection Shapes Life
We have an instinctive drive to protect ourselves. This drive extends to everything we identify with; everything we think of as “ours”.
Intentions for spiritual practice:
- Learn to recognize reactivity—a state of mind in which we’re inclined toward an emotional reaction to a perceived threat. Learn how reactivity impacts our perception, emotions, and behavior.
- Learn to recognize defense mechanisms—involuntary, unconscious processes that distort our perceptions, emotions, and relationships to protect us from perceived threats.
- Learn how personality is shaped by our habitual reactions to threat.
- Learn to recognize reactive patterns—recurring patterns of experience caused by our habitual reactions to threat.
Our self-protective reactions tend to operate quickly, automatically, and unconsciously, driven by fear and greed. They begin as impulses, take shape as actions, and quickly become habits which shape our personalities and our lives. Our reactive patterns interact with those of others to shape relationships, organizations, and entire societies.
The automatic, unconscious nature of these reactive patterns gives them a mechanistic quality. It’s as if we become biological robots when we are under their influence. The more intelligent we become, the more adaptable our patterns become—they gain access to the full power of our intellect and co-opt it for their own purposes. We like to think that reason trumps emotion, but it’s often the other way around.
It’s an understatement to say that reactive patterns are an obstacle to compassion. They’re the closest thing to evil that you’ll find in this map. The first step in gaining freedom from them is to understand them; the second step is to recognize how and when they are operating in you, your relationships, your organizations, and your society.
One of my own reactive patterns is narcissism, which is based on a fundamental insecurity about whether I’m okay as I am. This pattern makes me inclined to seek and identify with external sources of validation. It also makes me inclined to habitually and unconsciously devalue others in subtle ways; this has caused unnecessary suffering in many of my relationships. Gaining awareness of this pattern a couple years ago was a significant milestone in my personal growth and emotional healing. My awareness of this pattern has allowed me to start to free myself from it.
Building Empathy and Understanding
- Drama and fiction can be great ways to learn about people and relationships.
- I learned the basics of empathy through Nonviolent Communication. For an introduction, read Speak Peace in a World of Conflict: What You Say Next Will Change Your World by Marshall B. Rosenberg, then find a local practice group.
- For a deeper introduction to empathy, I recommend Client-Centered Therapy: Its Current Practice, Implications, and Theory by Carl Rogers.
- For an introduction to stages of human development, see Spiral Dynamics : Mastering Values, Leadership, and Change by Don Edward Beck and Christopher Cowan. For more details, see Ken Wilber’s writings, including Integral Psychology: Consciousness, Spirit, Psychology, Therapy and Integral Spirituality: A Startling New Role for Religion in the Modern and Postmodern World.
- My favorite book on personality types is Personality Types: Using the Enneagram for Self-Discovery by Don Richard Riso.
Deepening Your Capacity for Compassionate Love
- Wake Up To Your Life: Discovering the Buddhist Path of Attention by Ken McLeod (Chapter 7: The Four Immeasurables).
- Listen to heart-opening music. For starters, search for profile jkg011 (that’s jkg zero one one) on Spotify and check out my public playlist “Compassionate Love”.
Recognizing how Self-Protection Shapes Life
- To understand reactive patterns, see Wake Up To Your Life: Discovering the Buddhist Path of Attention by Ken McLeod (Chapter 5: Karma and Dismantling Belief).
- To understand defense mechanisms, see The Wisdom of the Ego by George E. Vaillant.
- To learn how personality is shaped by our habitual reactions to threat, see Personality Types: Using the Enneagram for Self-Discovery by Don Richard Riso and Psychoanalytic Diagnosis, Second Edition: Understanding Personality Structure in the Clinical Process by Nancy McWilliams.
In Other Frameworks
The concepts of compassion and compassionate love in this framework are related to similar concepts in psychology and many spiritual traditions.
The published work of Buddhist teacher Ken McLeod has informed several ideas in this article, including the concept of reactive patterns.
The published work of philosopher Ken Wilber has informed my understanding of stages of human development.
My approach to recognizing feelings and needs and sensing the experience of others is informed by the published work of psychologist Carl Rogers and by my experiences with his student, Marshall Rosenberg.
My view of defense mechanisms is informed by psychoanalytic theory (in particular, by the published work of psychiatrist George Vaillant and the published work of psychoanalyst Nancy McWilliams).
(Read the next article in this series: How to Cultivate Intuition.)