Compassion literally means “passion with”, as in sharing the same strong emotions along side another individual (human or otherwise). It’s an emotional connection with another, where you actually feel what it’s like to be them, what it’s like to be in their shoes, as they say – to experience the world from their perspective. It’s empathy. For a moment, at least, you and they are one in the same – a shared heart – feeling the sadness, fear, joy, anger, and/or confusion they are feeling.
Compassion often gets confused with an intellectual connection, where one “knows” what it might be like to be in another person’s position. This isn’t really compassion. It is, perhaps, better called respect and sympathy, where you are only indirectly connected to another, and where you don’t literally share their feelings, but have different feelings towards them, such as pity, kindness, or curiosity.
Compassion is what you feel when your spouse is angry about something and so you feel angry about it as well, and you’re motivated to do something to change the world to help your partner out. Compassion isn’t what you felt about people in Japan, Haiti, Libya, or New Orleans after hearing about the disasters going on there, that’s sympathy or respect for them as living things.
Putting compassion into the four main forms of awareness within the human brain, we get:
Passion – positive physical sensations are the result of being aware of conditions that affect one’s own body.
Compassion – positive emotional sensations are the result of being aware of conditions that affect one’s closest companions (generally a family member and/or a romantic partner).
Respect – positive intellectual sensations are the result of being aware of conditions that affect one’s community at large (which expands from one’s “tribe” out to one’s whole world as one matures).
Loving-kindness – positive spiritual sensations are the result of being aware of conditions that affect all living things, everywhere.
The strength of these sensations diminishes as we move away from the individual’s self. So Loving-kindness is far less intense than compassion, though all of these positive sensations are clearly powerful, and very important. And the way we become aware of our shared connection to others is by exploring how we are like them. The more we are like them, the more intimate we will become with them, and the more intensely we will share their feelings on an emotional level. When we are physically very similar to another, both inside and out, in time and space, we are more likely to have that deep emotional compassion for them. But even with those who are physically very different from us we can have respect and loving-kindness for them, because on a basic level of being alive and in our universe, they are like us in at least some important ways.