Compassion... may have an important role to play in helping us to face the enormity of the earth’s ecological and climate emergencies...
Compassion has many different facets. It can be thought of as an emotion, an attitude, a trait like disposition or a motivation. It is “a multi-textured response to pain, sorrow and anguish. It includes kindness, empathy, generosity and acceptance” and it is “the capacity to open to the reality of suffering and aspire to its healing” (Feldman and Kuyken, 2011). It enables us to respond with courage but also with an acceptance of the limitations of our powers and resources. Compassion can be directed towards our own suffering and towards the suffering of others.
Implicit within compassion are positive feelings of warmth, benevolence and love. These positive feelings don’t suppress the negative, but rather they add an additional layer or dimension. With compassion we move away from pity, which can often be experienced from a perspective of superiority. With pity we see ourselves as different from or above those who are suffering; with compassion we recognise that suffering is universal.
We all have the potential for compassion within us, but it can also be cultivated through compassion training. Often this training is based on a foundation of mindfulness, which helps us to be fully present with our experience, enabling us to respond skillfully rather than to react. Through this process we can learn to move towards our discomfort or difficult emotions, rather than trying to move away from them.
Cultivating compassion can enable us to respond to our own suffering and the suffering of others without being overwhelmed or succumbing to empathy fatigue (Klimecki and Singer, 2012) as well as helping us to deal with feelings of guilt and shame (Held and Owens, 2015). Compassion, therefore, may have an important role to play in helping us to face the enormity of the earth’s ecological and climate emergencies without resorting to sophisticated psychological defence mechanisms such as splitting. It can also help us to widen our circle of empathy, reducing in-group/out-group differentiations and fostering a compassionate response to the suffering of all humans, non-humans and the natural world (Pfattheicher and Sassenrath, 2016).
Compassion in action
Importantly, compassion has been shown to increase our sense of agency and our motivation to help (Leiberg, Klimecki and Singer, 2011). The recent Extinction Rebellion protests, dubbed the ‘Compassionate Revolution’, are a powerful example of this. Feelings of grief and sorrow, arising from an understanding of the scale of the environmental destruction we are now experiencing, were transmuted into non-aggressive (but disruptive and determined), acts of love and kindness. Protestors courageously faced arrest and potential imprisonment with chants of “We love you. We do this for your children”. Perhaps all of us can learn lessons from this as we face the eco challenges that arise in our every day lives.
Feldman, C. and Kuyken, W. (2011). Compassion in the landscape of suffering. Contemporary Buddhism, 12(1), pp. 143-155.
Klimecki, O. and Singer, T. (2012). Empathic distress fatigue rather than compassion fatigue? Integrating findings from empathy research in psychology and social neuroscience. In: Oakley, A. Knafo, G. Madhaven and D. Wilson (Eds.). Pathalogical Altruism. New York: Oxford University Press.
Held, P. and Owens, G.P. (2015). Effects of self-compassion workbook training on trauma-related guilt in a sample of homeless veterans: a pilot study. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 71(6), pp. 513-526
Pfattheicher, S., Sassenrath, C. and Schindler, S. (2016). Feelings for the suffering of others and the environment. Environment and Behavior, 48(7), pp. 929-945.
Leiberg, S., Klimecki, O. and Singer, T. (2011). Short-term compassion training increases prosocial behavior in a newly developed prosocial game. PLoS ONE 6(3): e17798. [Online]. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0017798
Photograph courtesy of Robin Pope (Instagram: @RobinLDN)