What is Compassion?

As a yoga teacher, I see myself as a guide. I don’t claim to be an expert, guru, or enlightened one. I believe I learn at least as much from my students as they learn from me. I do little talks before most of my classess and typically ask students to take time to think about how a talk, reading, or quote relates to their own life. I think of these little talks as planting seeds. I am here to scatter those seeds, but it is not up to me to water them and keep them free of pests and weeds. That is work for the student. I am here to show them the entrance to the path. It is their duty to choose which twists and turns to take.

Current events surrounding racial inequality got me thinking of the words empathy and compassion. Empathy is a word I have studied before. Believe it or not the first time I heard the definition I was interviewing for a food serving job at Pusser’s in Annapolis, MD. Part of our training was to have empathy for other staff members. One night of training was devoted to being a hostess. To put ourselves in their shoes to understand what their job was like. It was truly an invaluable experience.

I never really thought about the actual definitions of empathy and compassion. According to Dictionary.com “the term (empathy) is now most often used to refer to the capacity or ability to imagine oneself in the situation of another, experiencing the emotions, ideas, or opinions of others.” Compassion is defined by the Miriam Webster Dictionary as the “sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it.” So you see that compassion takes things a little further than empathy by attaching an action of trying to help alleviate some sort of suffering by another.

Why is this important? It is wonderful to have empathy, to have the ability to imagine how someone else is feeling. But compassion can be used to actually alleviate suffering through some sort of action. Perhaps the next time you encounter someone suffering, you can practice compassion by trying to alleviate some of their distress. The action you take will vary depending on the situation. Maybe a phone call or email could help, or maybe running errands or bringing a meal is the thing that can help reduce the suffering of someone else.

When we take empathy a step further and begin to practice compassion we can truly change the world. If this practice is new to you, you can start by practicing compassion towards yourself. According to Positive Psychology today, there are 5 ways you can practice self compassion. These include forgiving yourself, employing a growth mindset, practicing gratitude, finding the right level of generosity, and being mindful. Once you have worked through these steps, you can begin to practice compassion towards others.

How do you practice compassion?

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