Uncovering Empathy and Compassion –
for Others, for Your Self
September 2015
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Ways to Channel Compassion in the Face of Suffering

figure standing in fieldWhen someone we know is suffering, one of the most profound gifts we can offer is our presence.
Yet it can be hard to know exactly how to respond. Most of us have never been taught how. And truth be told, it can feel easier to step back, walling in our own feelings, than to engage with the effects of illness, loss, hardship or the untold sorrows a person may be enduring.
Still, we may feel a heart-tug or have our own nagging thoughts that we could do something. We just don’t know what. Is there a process that might help us proceed with wisdom and compassion? Especially when we’re not sure what that “something” is? 



By Mary Oliver
In Singapore, in the airport,
a darkness was ripped from my eyes.
In the women's restroom, one compartment stood open.
A woman knelt there, washing something in the white bowl.
Disgust argued in my stomach
and I felt, in my pocket, for my ticket.
A poem should always have birds in it.
Kingfishers, say, with their bold eyes and gaudy wings.
Rivers are pleasant, and of course trees.
A waterfall, or if that's not possible, a fountain rising and
A person wants to stand in a happy place, in a poem.
When the woman turned I could not answer her face.
Her beauty and her embarrassment struggled together, and
neither could win.
She smiled and I smiled. What kind of nonsense is this?
Everybody needs a job.
Yes, a person wants to stand in a happy place, in a poem.
But first we must watch her as she stares down at her labor,
which is dull enough.
she is washing the tops of the airport ashtrays, as big as
hubcaps, with a blue rag.
Her small hands turn the metal, scrubbing and rinsing.
She does not work slowly, nor quickly, but like a river.
Her dark hair is like the wing of a bird.
I don't doubt for a moment that she loves her life.
And I want her to rise up from the crust and the slop and
fly down to the river.
This probably won't happen.
But maybe it will.
If the world were only pain and logic, who would want it?
Of course, it isn't.
Neither do I mean anything miraculous, but only
the light that can shine out of a life. I mean
the way she unfolded and refolded the blue cloth,
the way her smile was only for my sake; I mean
the way this poem is filled with trees, and birds.

Originally published in House of Light

extended hand

Volunteerism: Compassion In Action

We don’t have to wait until crisis arises to practice compassion.
Compassion is something we can – and I believe should – do in our daily lives. It is action grounded in an attitude of care and understanding in our interactions with others.  
It’s also something we can take beyond our immediate sphere when we reach out to unknown others through the act of volunteering.
Freely giving our time, energy, concern and attention to those who have not even asked may be one of the greatest gifts we can give to a fellow human being.
No doubt you can think of any number of nonprofit organizations you could gift your time and talents to. There’s certainly no shortage of groups that are constantly looking for people to chip in and lend a hand. (Tales of understaffing are legion in the nonprofit sector – and, frankly, one reason why many ultimately fail.) Choose one group you most believe or are interested in, and contact them about getting involved.
And if you can’t choose – or just want some options to spark your thinking – there are online volunteer match-up sites you can use to find opportunities. Consider starting your search with one of these:

Image by David Ip, via Flickr

Thich Nhat Hanh compassion quote

Empathy and Self-Compassion

What’s the difference between sympathy, empathy and compassion?
Sympathy is an outside response to another person’s distress, little different from pity. Pity is something you feel from a position of superiority: Thank goodness it’s not happening to me.
Empathy keeps you on the same level as the person in crisis. It puts you into their shoes. We imaginatively take in their feelings as our own. We relate.
And we may desire to act. What might we want or need if we were in the sufferer’s position? Proverbially walking in their shoes – even just a few steps – can reveal practical actions we can take to respond with love and care in their suffering
Compassion is empathy in action.
And – as we note in this month’s sidebar – it needn’t be something only for times of crisis. Nor is it something reserved only for others. As Dr. Kristin Neff relates in this wonderful TEDx Talk, it’s just as important that we learn to act compassionately toward ourselves:

No matter the direction of your compassion, there are ways you can cultivate the empathic imagination that underlies all compassionate action. Here are a few resources to get you started:

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Images by Brian Maleszyk and Arlane Hunter, via Flickr
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