Compassion is feeling sympathy for another’s pain or distress combined with the desire to soothe that person’s suffering. Born of empathy, feelings of compassion—whether felt for oneself or for others—are likely to improve the quality and depth of relationships and overall life experience. Whether someone acts on his or her compassionate feelings is a choice. Some therapists, researchers, and spiritual traditions advocate that a deeply compassionate life brings true happiness and fulfillment.
“If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” –Dalai Lama
The pursuit of happiness is a shared human endeavor and people achieve varying degrees of happiness in a variety of ways. Some find it in instant gratification and material pleasures; others find it in spiritual practice and contemplation. Still others find it in intimate relationships or family bonding, in the creative arts, in traveling and exploring, and/or in career choices. Many spiritual traditions, particularly Buddhist philosophy, insist that “true and lasting happiness” is possible only through the cultivation of compassion—for self and for others (Babauta, 2007).
So, how does one cultivate compassion?
Some people may feel compassion more readily than others; perhaps they are highly sensitive or empathic types by nature or have practiced to develop this skill. Those who do not feel innately inclined to experience compassion for self or others may have to work a little harder to develop it. This requires stepping outside one’s individual psyche and into shared psychic and emotional space, which may prove challenging for some.
A daily ritual of acknowledging and accepting personal thoughts and feelings is a good place to start. Ideally, this will lead to a deeper sense of acceptance and self-compassion, which will in turn inspire increased empathic awareness. In A Guide to Cultivating Compassion in Your Life, With 7 Practices, Leo Babauta (2007) encourages a practice of recognizing that each of us has a “life story” with its ups, downs, and imperfections, and that everyone experiences pain and suffering. Taking into consideration that the desire to remain free from pain and suffering is largely a shared experience may also aide in developing feelings of compassion for others.
The Role of Compassion in Therapy
The emergence of therapies that emphasize the importance of compassion is on the rise. People who practice compassion are known to experience less stress and more relaxation (Babauta, 2007). Understandably, this is useful in therapy, as anxiety, stress, and depression are some of the most common reasons people seek the help of a therapist.
Depending on a person’s reasons for seeking therapy, his or her therapist may choose to focus on developing self-compassion. Buddhist philosophy says that self-compassion is essential for truly loving and caring for oneself, and without genuine love for self, it is near impossible to love, care, and feel deeply for another—much less to act on his or her behalf. Regardless, many people find it easier to experience compassion for another than for oneself, especially if the “other” is a loved one such as a child, intimate partner, close friend, or pet (Germer and Siegel, 2012). However, the fact remains that without self-love and -acceptance, a person may go through the motions of caring for another while neglecting his or her own needs, and this will eventually lead to burnout.
As detailed in Christopher K. Germer and Ronald D. Siegel’s Wisdom and Compassion in Psychotherapy: Deepening Mindfulness in Clinical Practice (2012), “cultivating a more compassionate relationship toward oneself and others” is considered an integral component of the mindfulness movement in therapy. The authors also note that compassion is at the core of the world’s major religious teachings; the general message of “do unto others as you would have done to yourself” has been expressed in various wordings by Confucius, Muhammad, Jesus, Krishna, and the Buddha.
It is also important for a therapist to feel compassion for his or her clients. Without a sense of where a person is at emotionally, it may be difficult to assess how to truly help him or her to heal and recover. Compassion is an essential element in the therapeutic concepts of empathy, acceptance, and unconditional positive regard.
- Babauta, L. (2007, June 4). A guide to cultivating compassion in your life, with 7 practices. ZenHabits.net. Retrieved from http://zenhabits.net/a-guide-to-cultivating-compassion-in-your-life-with-7-practices/
- CompassionateMind.net. Compassion-focused therapy. Retrieved from http://www.compassionatemind.net/Cultivating_Compassion.php
- Germer, C. K., and Siegel, R. D. (2012). Wisdom and compassion in psychotherapy: Deepening mindfulness in clinical practice. New York, NY: Guilford Press.
Last Updated: 08-4-2015
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