“True compassion develops when we ourselves want happiness and not suffering for others, and recognize that they have every right to pursue this.”
Compassion, what is it really? How can we develop more compassion and what will change for us and others if we do so?
The ‘co’ in compassion means together, and ‘passion’ means a strong feeling, an intense desire or enthusiasm for something.
Compassion means to develop a feeling of connectedness toward other living beings, instead of separateness. Compassion is when we see other living beings suffering, when we feel their pain as if it were our own. Compassion is when we strive to help them to get rid of their pain or at least to lessen it. Compassion means to open our hearts to reach out to the sufferings of others and to do whatever we can to reduce their suffering. Compassion means to feel responsibility for other living beings’ well-being. Compassion is just the opposite of hatred and anger:
Compassion is expressing non-violence.
Compassion’s cornerstone number one – Connectedness
Understanding the broad scope of compassion is essential, because it describes the difference between caring about friends and family and caring about other living beings. Understanding this difference is the key to avoiding one of the biggest misconceptions about compassion. And that’s our often limited and biased perspective that restricts compassion to our loved ones.
Instead, the broad scope of compassion covers “living beings.” This scope is based on the idea that we are all connected to each other. For more details, please have a look at my connectedness blog post here. Amongst other ideas, I tried to bridge between science and a more spiritual view of connectedness. And who could articulate that any better than astrophysicist, cosmologist, author, and science communicator Neil de Grasse Tyson?
“We are all connected to each other, biologically, to the Earth chemically, and to the rest of the universe, atomically….That makes me smile…It’s not that we are better than the universe…We are part of the universe; we are in the universe, and the universe is in us.”
–Neill de Grasse Tyson
In case you practice meditation, you may already know this deep feeling of connectedness within yourself that may show up in achieving a deep level of inner peace. Such a personal experience is, of course, a much deeper way to feel connectedness across body, mind and soul than to “understand” a scientific statement with your mind only.
Along my journey, it was, and it is always very satisfying to connect the dots between science and my (spiritual) experience. For me, it’s just the other side of the same coin, that’s called life. It’s about connecting and balancing body, mind and heart.
Compassion’s cornerstone number two – Responsibility
The term “living beings” covers more than human beings, “living beings” covers the entire animal kingdom and everything in our nature that is living. The difference between the animals and the plants is that the animals are considered sentient living beings as humans, whereas the plants are considered living beings.
Let’s look at animals first. Compassion addresses all animals, pets, farmed animals, wild animals, and whatever labels human beings have given to different groups of animals. These labels are nothing else than judgements that are used to “legalise” certain actions to take place. Those actions range from the horrible practices in the animal agriculture industry; to the fur and leather industry, up to various hunting practices.
The category of farmed animals, for instance, can be exploited, abused and tortured in horrible ways (watch Earthlings), and it is all legal. In parallel, doing the same crime to a pet can have serious consequences in most countries. Now look at a different culture and you will see that your “pets” are their “farmed animals.” But is there a difference between a pig, a cow, a sheep, a cat or a dog as living beings? No. All these animals just want to live and avoid pain, and they should have every right to pursue this. So, what do these categorisations really mean? In my own humble opinion, those categories are made to justify that one category can be treated differently than another category. So, you can exploit and abuse a chicken in an egg battery and it’s still legal. But abusing a dog is a crime. Now, from a compassionate perspective, there is no difference. So, just because something is legal, does not mean that it is acceptable from a moral and ethical perspective.
Now, look back in history at the changes that happened regarding, for instance, apartheid, slavery, homosexuality, and women rights. All these examples demonstrate a lack of respect, a lack of responsibility and a serious lack of compassion. And see what has been achieved over decades. Take a single issue like women’s suffrage, and make your research. You will see that this issue alone has taken up to two hundred years and it’s still not reality in every country.
For us humans, a broad scope of compassion has consequences. Ultimately, compassion comes with responsibility because the animals and human minorities don’t sit at the table when people and societies define laws and regulations how to treat those living beings based people’s judgmental categorizations of animals. The plants don’t sit at the table either when people define how to treat plants, for instance, destroying their identity by engineering them genetically for no other reason than making a profit.
“Woe to humanity, should only a single animal have a seat in the Last Judgement.”
— Christian Morgenstern
These issues come all down to one major misconception people face. And that’s to assume that humans are more important than any other species on this planet. It’s the opposite of what we learn when we develop genuine compassion. And that’s understanding connectedness instead of sticking to a false belief of separateness (I consider that a false belief because even science is on the same page here).
Genuine compassion has to be universal in scope. Compassion for those living beings who have no voice has to guide our actions and decisions.
And another thought that might be hard to accept: Compassion is not connected to the attitude and the behaviours of others. Correct, it is not. Compassion is way beyond any “tit for tat.” That’s not always an easy challenge to overcome. You may fall back a few times, but your iterations will bring you to a slightly higher plateau with every iteration.
True compassionate actions are based on your own compassionate values and principles that do not depend on other living beings’ behaviors and attitudes. For me, this is all about developing humanity in humans.
“Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity.”
― Pema Chödrön
Developing compassion – my journey so far
For me, developing compassion has led – amongst others – to the decision to go vegan more than three years ago. If you are interested in more, click here. I simply didn’t want to support animal cruelty and exploitation anymore. So, I changed what matters and I changed what I can control as a single living being. And that’s all about what I’m consuming and what I’m eating on a daily basis. The change came slowly and then suddenly.
I wasn’t aware of it when I changed, but these three years have been a truly liberating experience: liberating for my mind, my heart, my body and my consciousness. And it’s driving my compassion even further. It is liberating to become more and more independent from an entire industry that only wants to make profit, regardless of exploited, abused, tortured and killed animals, regardless of their “products” that make people addictive or ill, and regardless of the tremendous negative impact on our environment.
Then, I learned and experienced that my body is the temple of my soul. The experience has led to another project: I have launched a sister blog called “Peaceful Soulfood.” Here, I share delicious peaceful recipes, mixed up with spiritual thoughts as well as facts and figures that may help you to connect the dots between your actions and habits and the impact on other living beings.
Developing compassion is a life-long learning experience. And I’m just somewhere along this journey, as you are. And what I share here, is just what I experienced so far.
It always begins with ourselves, with opening our hearts first. Then, it continues with learning techniques that keep our hearts and minds open to whatever arises. It’s about developing inner peace and trust in your own compassion that allows you to jump in at the deep end. Honestly, we don’t know what will happen. We have to learn and to adapt as things are happening, every time in a more and more compassionate way.
“We can reject everything else: religion, ideology, all received
wisdom. But we cannot escape the necessity of love and compassion….
This, then, is my true religion, my simple faith. In this sense, there is no need
for temple or church, for mosque or synagogue, no need for complicated
philosophy, doctrine or dogma. Our own heart, our own mind, is the temple.
The doctrine is compassion. Love for others and respect for their rights and
dignity, no matter who or what they are: ultimately these are all we need.
So long as we practice these in our daily lives, then no matter if we are
learned or unlearned, whether we believe in Buddha or God, or follow some
other religion or none at all, as long as we have compassion for others and
conduct ourselves with restraint out of a sense of responsibility, there is
no doubt we will be happy.”
― Dalai Lama XIV