Compassion is one of the ‘abilities’ that most of us believe we possess. What we generally mean by it is that we can experience an emotion ‘as if’ we are another person. But there’s a trap: it is rather easy to reflect what we, ourselves would feel, if we were in the position we perceive another to be in. Technically, that would be ‘sympathy’, rather than compassion. We imagine that it’s what the other person would be feeling, and although that assumption is often correct, sympathy is a ‘projection’ rather than a perception.
What aids our identification with the imagined sympathy, and stops us from seeing it for the projection that it is? In short, it is the large number of ‘unconscious’ clues that we get from the other person. From a very early age, we learn to focus on these clues. We correlate them with other aspects of our experience, and we form ‘models’ of how other people telegraph their feelings and intentions. If that seems a little alien to you, consider how well you can feel compassion for someone who you can only hear (on the phone, for example) versus someone you can also see. And typically we feel even less compassion (or sympathy) for someone who is only communicating via text, email or letter.
You might be wondering if I am ‘splitting hairs’ by calling out sympathy as something different to compassion. Does it really matter, when the objective is to make allowances for another person, instead of charging in with senses blind to the hurt we might be causing or seeing? Well, here we enter the philosophical, rather than the psychological. And I would agree that sympathy is better than blindness, even though it really is just another form of blindness. What I mean, is that if we can allow for another as we would allow for ourselves, we are at least giving them some respect. But not compassion.
In order to really possess compassion, we need to be able to stop our own analysis of ‘good’ and ‘bad’, relative to our attachments. And we need to stop that analysis not just for our own being, but for another. Only then can we begin to interpret those unconscious clues to get a sense of what another person is feeling. Only then can we hope to see a situation in the same way that they see it. Only then can we hope to ‘understand’ the situation from their perspective, and perhaps show that we match their own feelings.
As I have mentioned in other posts, it is quite hard to lose our perceptions of good and bad. We lean on those perceptions so much, in ordinary life, that we even feel ‘naked’ without them. And many of the attachments behind them will have an air of ‘unassailable truth’. That latter comes from the harm we expect or fear to encounter if the ‘truth’ turns out to be false. For a good number of people (but not all), one of their ‘unassailable truths’ is that they can ‘read’ other people and guess their emotions. Scammers and confidence tricksters make extensive use of that ‘truth’.
If we want to lose our perceptions of good and bad [and many just don’t] then we need to learn to see when they crop up. We need to trace them to the attachment that produces the positive or negative perception. And then we need to work on that attachment, to see what we are attempting to ‘make true’ to support it. We then need to apply ‘conscious suffering’ to help break down the conditioning that led to the attachment.
Every one of us has the potential for compassion. Most settle for sympathy, instead. And a few don’t want either.
Featured image from Shutterstock.