As a teacher of mindfulness and compassion, I have learned that a big part of the job is addressing assumptions. When it comes to compassion, this is even more critical since it tends to get less attention than mindfulness. In addition, though compassion is essential and can be incredibly powerful, many people assume it’s just like empathy or no different from being warm, soft, and nice. Even those who have felt the power of a compassionate response may think it’s impossible to cultivate it or show it when needed because we can’t train ourselves to feel a certain way on cue.
I get these concerns because I struggled with them in the past. That’s why I am writing this post to help you identify the things to look for when you practice compassion in your own life. In truth, compassion is not an emotion and does not require a specific bodily response. With time and experience, however, you can identify the experience more clearly so you can understand it better and cultivate it.
A common area of confusion when it comes to compassion is the idea that it is an emotional reaction. The reason that this presents a problem is that people often assume that compassion requires them to respond with certain emotions. In reality, the clinical definition of compassion is the response to suffering coupled with the willingness to help. This means that emotions that are often involved but they don’t have to manifest in any specific way.
In fact a common sign of compassion is not emotional volatility at all, but rather calm and stability. Since compassion is the response to suffering, this calm is something that can aid in producing a response that can help the suffering individual. After all, if we are to help a person in need (including ourselves) it helps to really understand what’s going on, doesn’t it? Thus, what might seem like a lack of emotional response can be a beneficial and profoundly compassionate reaction to suffering.
Even when physical sensations and emotions are present, you may also find that they don’t stay the same throughout the compassion response. Since compassion is about suffering, the first reaction may be one of pain, discomfort, or concern. In many cases, though, these difficult emotions can shift or transform into something closer to love or connection. This means a variety of bodily sensations are likely to occur, including sensations in the belly and chest and changes to breath and heart rate.
At the end of a compassion response, many people report (and I have personally experienced) feelings of wellbeing and serenity. This is because the compassion response causes the release of the hormones oxytocin, dopamine, and serotonin which are associated with love, rewards, and satisfaction. The most common place to look for these sensations is in the area of the heart, but those can range from feelings of fullness to a sense of expansion or lightness or even warmth or tingling throughout the body.
So, what does all of this tell us about what compassion feels like? First, compassion includes present and embodied awareness. Critically, this is an awareness rooted in your own experience that is not entirely absorbed by the situation of a suffering third party. In addition, the compassion response may not be a singular response at all but could by a dynamic unfolding from discomfort and concern into opening and, where necessary and appropriate, action.
For all these reasons, I can’t tell you what compassion feels like because compassion is not merely a feeling and the details of its manifestation may vary. Because compassion is a response to suffering, the particular suffering at issue may affect how it appears. The way to understand compassion best is to pay attention to how it manifests in you as you cultivate it. In short, the big question isn’t how compassion is supposed to feel, but instead how it tends to feel for you.
Want to learn more about mindfulness and compassion? Check out my new book, How to Be a Badass Lawyer, which is available now.
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