How to define compassion

What is compassion and how can it help to address world problems?

The basis of compassion is rooted in the motivation to care.

Compassion is the desire for all sentient beings to be free of suffering and the causes of suffering.

When we study this motivation we see that it has a long evolutionary history that (partly) began with the way a parent cares for their offspring. The parent is sensitive to the signals of need and distress of their offspring and then works out what to do to alleviate distress and address need. Research shows that there are specific body and brain systems that enable us to:

Types of compassion

There are many types of compassion.

Some require considerable courage and wisdom as, for example, firefighters or COVID workers risking their lives in hospitals, or people standing up against injustice. Others, like psychotherapists, require skilful empathy. What binds these behaviours are three essential ingredients: strength, courage, and wisdom. Courage without wisdom can be reckless and wisdom without courage can be ineffective. And because compassion invites us to engage in suffering, it requires strength.

Compassion is very different to kindness, love, forgiveness, assertiveness or tenderness. These are ways of being compassionate. Compassion is a basic motivation – the desire to alleviate and prevent suffering.

This motivation – and harnessing it – has major impacts on our bodies and brains and on the bodies and brains of those we are compassionate to. We also know that we can train our minds to be compassionate and when we do that we actually change our brains. That is why compassion training is being taken into schools – to help children adopt compassionate values and motives.

The challenge for compassion science

Compassion is the wisest and most courageous of our motivations – and is key to helping us survive and thrive together.

But we are not always compassionate.

We know that in certain conditions, cultures, and circumstances, we can be driven to compete, fight, and hate in ways that are deeply harmful to humanity.

The challenge for compassion science – and for all of those who believe in creating a caring world in which we work together and pool resources for the benefit of all – is to understand how to create cultures and contexts which appeal to, nurture, promote, and cultivate our compassion.

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