I'm so glad that you are reading this blog post. Like the nature of language itself, this is a working document which means that it is evolving and subject to change. Here, we'll discuss the meaning of the word compassion and what it means to Compassionate Technologies.
As the founder, maybe my own personal definition is the most important. And maybe I shouldn't admit that my definition is itself, a bit hazy. I think we all know what compassion feels like, and we may have different words for it in different cultures. The experience of compassion is commonly referred to in religious and spiritual texts, and is the backbone of our moral concept for 'doing good'. But as for exactly what it is, that's a more difficult question.
I like to think of compassion as a non-judgmental, distanced, and wise caring for others and yourself -- because at the end of the day, our selves and others are not separate, but two sides of the same coin. Compassion is often mixed with empathy, which I feel is a part of compassion. But I feel that compassion embodies a distanced, or wise empathy.
Compassion [..] a non-judgmental, distanced, and wise caring for others and yourself -- because at the end of the day, our selves and others are not separate, but two sides of the same coin.
The Double Edged Sword of Empathy
I see empathy as the feeling of others' emotions as your own, which is certainly crucial in relating to others. However, the two large practical problems with empathy are: 1) we could be wrong! and 2) suffering alongside someone doesn't make us very helpful or effective in alleviating suffering.
What I mean by 'we could be wrong' is that just because I think someone is sad, and I experience sadness on their behalf, doesn't mean that this someone is actually sad! Sometimes our neural hardwiring and cognitive softwares mix things up, and thinking that just because we feel something very strongly makes it true, is the root of much of human conflict today.
For example, if a stranger scowls at me on the street, and I 'feel their anger' and decide that this person is now an enemy -- this stranger could merely have been having a bad day and was scowling at his own discomfort, and the anger I felt is my own anger, and not theirs. Once we begin empathizing, and thinking in terms of 'my feelings' and 'their feelings', it becomes difficult to accurately differentiate. And in this regard, mistakes are costly.
In terms of 'suffering alongside' another, two scared and sad people do not think better than one! The best way to help another who is sad or scared is to understand the root of their suffering, and help them through the pain, rather than to get lost in the pain yourself.
Translating Understanding into Action through Moderation
A large part of compassion is to translate our understanding of another person's pain or suffering into action. By using our entire selves to understand, we can feel with our hearts the pain of another (empathy), know with our minds the cause of their pain (knowing), and then have the desire to alleviate the pain with our actions (compassion).
Balancing these three systems is certainly a challenge! It can be overwhelming to feel with our hearts another person's pain, and often we try to distance ourselves from those who are suffering. Or we can try to help using purely intellectual approaches, such as attributing lack of money as the cause of an issue, rather than feeling and acknowledging the emotional and cultural effects of poverty.
Inaccurately identifying a problem means that our actions will be ineffective. Accurately identifying a problem without the empathy or desire to help means that no actions will be taken. Balancing our heartfelt empathy with rigorous analysis of the problem, and moderating our own desires and fears, is the purest and most effective way to compassionately and effectively alleviate suffering in the world around us.
Other Definitions of Compassion
Often biblical translations for emotional words such as joy, hope, peace, etc. carry very different meanings in the original language, than they do in our modern context and in the English language. For example, the Bible uses the word 'racham' (רָ֫חַם) in Hebrew loosely defined as compassion, but also meaning 'mercy' and 'deeply'.
In Buddhist texts, the closest word to compassion is the word 'karuna' in Pali. It is said that through meditation and pursuit of right living, one can attain four sublime states of being: the experience of boundless mettā (goodwill), karuṇā (compassion), muditā (appreciative joy), and upekkhā (equanimity).