Compassion, Mindfulness, Empathy, Sympathy, Kindness: Difference?

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In attempting to grasp the nuances of how these words differ, it’s important to note that this is not an exercise in language, for there are some of us for whom English is one of several languages we speak, and the meaning of any one word, in any one language, is inextricably entwined in the rich tapestry of our multiple cultural, ethnic, national, religious identities.

Instead, this is an invitation to sense a deeper truth that transcends any language. It’s a bit like love. When recalling moments of love, you may recall struggling to find words that truly describes what’s going on inside you. The struggle though in no way obviates the physical sensation that was absolutely real, completely all-consuming, and stubbornly unforgettable, i.e. your body feels, and recognises, the honesty of that experience, that moment.

With that said, let’s begin.

Different perspectives of compassion

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  1. The etymology of the English word “compassion” is comprised of “com” derived from the Latin root of “cum” (with) + “passion” derivative of “pati” which, being a word of uncertain origin, is generally believed to denote ‘that which is to be endured . So “compassion” may be understood as “enduring together”.
  2. Recent scientific research suggests that compassion, just like fear, is part of the brain’s motivation system. If that is true, it means that compassion is hardwired into our genes, and is part of our instinctive survival operating system.
  3. The ancient Chinese sage, Mencius, when asked by an emperor whether he was fit to rule, was believed to have responded by saying that compassion is the true reason to hold power. In Confucianism, compassion is believed to be the beginning of all actions that lead to a good life.
  4. On the Vatican News website, Pope Francis had been quoted to say in 2019 that compassion is the language of God, and it is compassion that enables a person to see reality and to understand the true dimensions. Because compassion, is the lens of the heart.
  5. The Mahayana school of Buddhist philosophy understands compassion to be the state of being which motivates in a person the desire to alleviate suffering. In this regard, compassion is neither an emotion, nor a feeling, nor a personality trait, nor an intention.

And so, the differences are …

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  1. Mindfulness, otherwise known as awareness / attention / mind training, is primarily cognitive. Anyone (literal) can be mindful, including those who you may find abhorrent. However, for a person to be compassionate requires that they additionally have 1) an ethical position of how to be in relationship with others, 2) the willingness and skills to “endure with” another in a way that sustains both, 3) wisdom to discern the essence of the moment, and 4) the ability to take meaningful action. In this regard, mindfulness is critical to sustaining a disciplined focus on what truly matters, but it is not compassion.
  2. Empathy — modeled on German Einfühlung (ein “in” + fühlung “feeling”), which was coined in 1858 by German philosopher Rudolf Lotze (1817–1881) — is today understood to be “the ability to share someone else’s feelings or experiences by imagining what it would be like to be in that person’s situation” (Cambridge dictionary). Note though the absence of 1) ethical position, 2) willingness to endure with, and 3) desire to alleviate suffering. Hence the truism ‘psychopaths are some of the most empathetic people you may ever come across’. Empathy is what’s more colloquially regarded as “sentimental compassion” which invariably leads to “fatigue and burnout. That being said, it is the necessary first step towards the state of compassion.
  3. Sympathy, from assimilated form of syn- “together” (see syn-) + pathos “feeling” is defined today as “an expression of understanding and caring for someone else” (Cambridge dictionary). The modern understanding of sympathy seems to differ from empathy in two regards, 1) it is a cognitive exercise of “I intellectually understand, but I may not know what it is really like on an emotional level”, and 2) the element of showing care which is an outward gesture, whereas empathy is about “me” feeling, but not “doing”. This is more aligned with the Buddhist conception of sympathy in its teaching that sympathy requires 1) charity of heart, 2) kindness in speech, 3) usefulness in act, and 4) equality in treatment. Unlike compassion, sympathy is a response to feelings, and not necessarily suffering, i.e. I am sympathetic to his ideology; I can see why he voted for (x); I understand why they would be upset about the decision.
  4. Kindness as a word, is somewhat complicated to trace, and supposedly affiliated with nature, kinship, and nationhood. Though it is possible to (very tentatively) venture the suggestion that unifying these lineages is the essence of recognising in another that which is familiar. In modern days, kindness is defined as “the quality of being generous, helpful, and caring”. Whilst it seems similar to sympathy, perhaps it is useful to imagine that it’s possible to be kind without either “understanding” (necessary for sympathy) and/or “feeling”. Also, it is possible to be kind without being compassionate, e.g. having flowers delivered to an employee whose child is in hospital; proactively sharing a portion of your homemade onion relish because you know your neighbours love it; appreciating someone with a sincere compliment.

In Summary

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One may be kind even if there is no suffering present (e.g. holding the door open for another person), but kindness is always present in compassion. One may be sympathetic without necessarily feeling the suffering, yet it is precisely the willingness to feel deeply that activates one’s compassionate instinct. One may be empathetic but get lost in one’s own emotions generated by the imagining of another’s suffering, whereas compassion is the capacity to not drown in suffering. One may be mindful and see the suffering perfectly yet feel no compulsion to alleviate it, but compassion compels action in service of another’s well-being. It’s like a rainbow cake, i.e. it takes mindfulness, kindness, empathy and sympathy to maketh compassion. Ultimately though, you can call it what you wish, the proof is in the eating 😊

PS. If you are curious about how I came to compassion, click here 🌹

Executive Doctoral Candidate * 6x Entrepreneur * Nonviolent Communication Mediator * Healing & Reconciliation Facilitator * Compassion Coach *

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