It is often said that compassion and pity are near-enemies. In this article I will explain why that is so and how to practice in order to give rise to authentic compassion. The benefits of compassion are manyfold, therefore it makes sense to develop it. So let’s have a look at the differences between compassion and pity. Compassion is also a very important facet of the attitude that carries our meditation practice.
What is Pity?
Pity thrives when our attention encounters suffering. It is a mental state that is based on comparison. It will arise when we compare ourselves to someone that has – in our own perception – bigger problems. We could also compare our current state with the “good old days” and feel sorry for ourselves. One can say that pity indulges in and is nourished by the suffering of oneself or others. It’s a way for our painful emotions to feed on the apparent misery of ourselves or those surrounding us.
It often appears as a very noble emotion. We look at hungry children in Africa, or a homeless beggar and our mind enters pity. It says: “Awww, what a poor person! Oh my god! These poor children! Why doesn’t anyone help them?” It’s almost as if pity was an emotion arising out of a deeper sense of shame or guilt. “I should feel just as bad as these poor children, otherwise it means I’m a heartless and bad human being.” Pity wants to appear noble by taking on the suffering of others, almost like a decoration. It fulfills no other function than to adopt misery and intensify it. In short: Pity is feeding on perceived pain.
What is Compassion?
Compassion is what Kindness feels when it encounters suffering. It clearly understands suffering within ourselves and others as something that everybody fears. It can relate to suffering without drowning in or feeding on it. Compassion understands both the suffering and the sufferer. It is able to accept and relate to pain in a way that allows for deep healing to arise. All types of happiness cannot arise as long as suffering obscures them.
Even though compassion wishes for misery to end, it doesn’t suffer through it. True compassion cannot arise if we don’t have a deep comprehension of tension and its cause. If we don’t discern the mechanics of stress, we will not be able to connect to a big part of ourselves and others. Being unable to let go of suffering, our “compassion” is just pity. Pity suffers instead of truly knowing how to put an end to the root of the problem.
To use an image: Pity is like two people who are drowning while feeling sorry for themselves and each-other. Compassion is like realizing ones situation (suffering) clearly, looking for a boat (a way out), finding the boat and helping your friend who was drowning together with you. True Compassion arises when we understand suffering deeply with a clear mind. This means we need to understand the mechanics of our own mind in a profound way. Once we have found a way out, Compassion comes into action when help is requested directly or indirectly. While pity is enhancing pain, compassion aims to comprehend and transcend its root.
Compassion and Pity
Pity is the near-enemy of compassion because it appears very noble and altruistic – just like compassion. However, underneath the shiny surface it is simply a painful experience that seeks something to feed on, something to help it stay alive. So when and how do we know that our compassion is actually real? That’s simple! While pity suffers the perceived misery, compassion comprehends it. So someone with compassion is much more goal-oriented, much more focused on the end of suffering. Someone with pity simply feels sorry for themselves or others.
We can feel true compassion on two levels. The first level is a level before we attain awakening and see the end of all suffering directly. The second level is after we have attained awakening. The first level is based on a thorough intellectual understanding and a very good comprehension of the mechanics of suffering. Someone who sees the world in terms of stress, the possible end of stress and a thoroughly reasonable path towards the end of stress is much more likely to focus on what truly matters in life.
The first level of understanding is not that profound but it is possible to generate a deep sense of compassion through it. We understand that we suffer and develop the sincere wish for ourselves to get out of suffering. Based on that we can also understand other peoples suffering in the same way. Compassion on this level can have some great power and should not be dismissed. The second level is after we have clearly seen the end of all suffering – Nirvana – within our own heart for the first time. The compassion that comes out of this realization is very powerful and – most importantly – completely natural.