What is compassion? Empathy? I have to admit that I often lump these two together. Some educators have trouble using the word ‘compassion.’ It sounds too “spiritual” to them, whereas ‘empathy’ is something most anyone could support. Both empathy and compassion have the sense of “feeling with” another person, in some way feeling what another person is going through. But in what way do you feel the other? And why is this so important that it is called it the “golden skill?”
Paul Ekman defines three forms of empathy, the third being close to what I think of compassion.
- Cognition: an ability to discern the feelings of another or to “read” another person and the physical and action cues. A person like a sociopath can “read” another person but not care.
- Feeling: Internalize or “feel with” another person, body to body, sense to sense.
- Caring: “compassionate empathy” or to have a concern for another and the energy to help.
With compassion, you want to act to end the suffering of another person. You want to act in a kind, caring manner. You value the welfare of another person like you value your own welfare. Hidy Ochiai once said compassion is being the other person.
With compassion, you do not help others in order to feel superior; that is pity. You do not simply feel a sense of sorrow about what they are going through; that is sympathy. Both pity and sympathy are based on an emotional distance with the other being. With empathy, that distance diminishes. The situation becomes more close up and personal. Compassion is when that sense of closeness compels action.
And it is this closeness that the students want. They want to know that other people can act for the good of another person, because they want to know that people can be caring. They want to feel that care themselves, both in the giving and in the receiving.
There’s always a group of students who get very cynical. They take a stance against the possibility of compassion in order to dare someone to prove otherwise. They argue that compassion, like altruism or selflessness, is impossible. People act only to get some reward or because it feels good. If it feels good, then it isn’t compassion; it isn’t a selfless act. They think they have me or have compassion on the spear point of a logical dilemma.
I am always gladdened by their recognition that compassion feels good. When you act for the good of another, a sense of joy does arise. There is even good evidence that there are physical and psychological benefits from acting with compassion. The problem is that the supposed dilemma masks the essential point. When you act in order to get the benefits then you lose the joy of compassion. The key is the intention. The joy comes only when the caring is selfless.
V. S. Ramachandran describes how, when you watch someone doing an intentional action, like reaching out for a sandwich, the motor control neurons in areas of your brain fire in a manner as if you were doing the action. You model in your brain what another person is doing. You then respond physically and mentally to your model almost as if it represents a distinct person. You understand what the other person is doing through reading your response to your model; you understand through empathy.
The neuron systems which enable this empathy are called mirror neuron systems. If you see a person experiencing pain, your pain neurons fire almost as if you were in pain. Did you ever flinch back when you saw a person hit? Or smile when you saw someone smile? In this way you become the other person.
These neurons enable humans not only to empathize with others but to be sophisticated imitators. We mirror mostly unconsciously. We are so good at it that we need mechanisms in our brain and in our skin to prevent us from constantly imitating others. There is even a condition where people can’t stop their imitating; it is called echopraxia.
The ability to imitate in action and imagination facilitates learning and understanding. You learn through imitating the sound of a word, how to hold a hammer, how to write a formula—or solve a formula. As I said in my blog on imagination, you understand a character in a novel by creating a model of the person in your mind and then “reading” your response to the model. You can understand a time in history or how riding in a spaceship might affect you by creating a mental model and then reading your own response to the model.
Empathy and compassion facilitate thinking and communicating. In talking with students about how to write an essay or story, teachers often say “know your audience.” Without knowing your audience, it is difficult to write a coherent, focused piece. You know what to say only to the extent that you feel and imagine the people you are speaking with or writing to. Communication is not just expressing yourself, not just saying what is on your mind. You have to understand, to some degree, the mind of the other person.
What does expressing yourself mean? If no one hears you, have you had a conversation? ‘Con’ means ‘with’, ‘vers’ means ‘turn’, so a conversation can mean “turning with another” or turning together. What is on my mind changes depending on whom I am with and where I am. So, improving my ability to read, feel with, and care about another person aids my ability to communicate more clearly.
Empathy and compassion can be strengthened with mindfulness practices. Mindfulness strengthens the insula, which is an area of the cerebral cortex of the brain. It is deep down, near the temporal, parietal and frontal lobes. It is very connected to the limbic or emotion system, and to the mirror neuron system I spoke about earlier that is involved in understanding the emotion of others by experiencing the emotion in your self. The insula is also involved in the arousal of energy and focus. Compassion practices not only make the insula stronger; they ready you to act in a compassionate, kind or helpful manner.
Thus, teaching mindfulness and compassion practices can contribute to improving the environment in schools. It can improve learning, thinking and understanding. It readies students and teachers to act in ways which improve relationships and to intervene in actions like bullying which undermine relationships. Students and teachers will act to stop bullying because when they see it happen, they will feel the pain of being bullied, yet have the inner commitment and awareness to stop it.
So, when you feel a push to speak or act, especially when you are upset or angry, use compassion. Think about how you would feel hearing what you think you want to say. If you pity the other person, or feel very distant, what happens to understanding? Only by an empathetic or compassionate modeling and reading of another person’s intent do you understand what they meant to say and what you mean to say to them. Now that is a golden skill.
Next week: empathy and compassion practices.