Compassion vs. Empathy: Understanding the Difference Between Empathy and Compassion

empathy vs. compassion

The terms “empathy” and “compassion” are often used interchangeably, but from a Buddhist perspective ultimately they are very different. In this article, we’ll explore compassion and empathy, the place and value of each, and the core differences between compassion vs. empathy.

Let’s start by looking at empathy and compassion individually, and then we’ll explore their differences.

Empathy vs. Compassion: What Empathy Is

The Oxford English Dictionary describes empathy as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” To this definition, Carl Rogers, the founder of person-centered therapy, adds: “as if it was your own, but without losing your own perspective.”

Empathy is about sharing the emotion or pain of the other.

So empathy is about sharing the emotion or pain of the other. Because we can empathise, we care about the other. When we receive empathy we are not alone, as if the walls of our separateness have been breached.

The Value of Empathy

In many ways, empathy is the basis of love and connection between people: that we can feel as if we are the other, and therefore we do not want them to suffer and we wish them well.

“When a person realizes he has been deeply heard, his eyes moisten. I think in some real sense he is weeping for joy. It is as though he were saying, ‘Thank God, somebody heard me. Someone knows what it’s like to be me.'”

Carl Rogers

So empathy is a gift we give to the other.

Empathy vs. Compassion: What Compassion Is

Tanya Singer, who researches the neuroscience of compassion, discusses two aspects to compassion: an emotional response to the other, and a broader understanding of reality and life.

Compassion has two aspects: an emotional response to the other, and a broader understanding of reality and life.

These two aspects of compassion are akin to relative and ultimate bodhicitta in Mahayana Buddhism. Bodhicitta literally means awakened heart, the mind of enlightenment. Relative bodhicitta is the warmth that we can feel toward the other; ultimate bodhicitta is awakened mind, ultimate reality.

Relative compassion—relative bodhicitta, the emotional response to the other—is synonymous with empathy. Absolute compassion, however, is different, and we experience it quite differently, as the example below illustrates.

Relative compassion, the emotional response to the other, is synonymous with empathy. Absolute compassion, however, is different.

Empathy vs. Compassion: An Illustration

In Tanya Singer’s work with Mathieu Ricard, a Buddhist monk, he was asked to tune into the suffering of others whilst having a brain scan. He chose to think about and feel the suffering of Romanian orphans whom he had seen on a TV programme recently. He was easily able to imagine them, but when asked how the experience was, he said, “The empathic sharing of their pain very quickly became intolerable to me, and I felt emotionally exhausted.”

He was then asked if he wanted to continue empathising, or to bring compassion to this experience. He immediately chose to focus on compassion. Although the images of the suffering children were still as vivid as before, they no longer induced distress: “Instead, I felt a natural and boundless love for these children and the courage to approach and console them. In addition, the distance between the children and myself had completely disappeared.” Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche called this nondual warmth “radiation without a radiator.”

When Matthieu Ricard focused on empathy, he was actively trying to feel into the other’s distress, to care, and thus he began to feel overwhelmed by their distress. When he extended compassion to the suffering of the orphans, he was bringing a sense of warmth to the situation, and he could rest in that warmth forever.

Compassion vs. Empathy: The Difference Between Empathy and Compassion

Summing up, here’s how to understand compassion vs. empathy:

  1. Empathy is feeling what the other is feeling as if you are in their shoes: it is an emotional response in one person to another.
  2. Compassion has two aspects: relative and absolute.
  3. Relative compassion, our caring emotional responses to others, is synonymous with empathy.
  4. Absolute compassion is different from empathy because there is no separateness between the person feeling compassion and the person suffering.

This ultimate or truest expression of compassion is where compassion and empathy become distinct.

The difference between empathy and compassion from a Buddhist perspective is that there is no separateness between the person feeling compassion and the person suffering.

Empathy is a feeling; compassion is a perspective. Compassion is realizing that the other’s pain is the same as your pain. When we truly enter into this, we dissolve the dualistic barrier between ourselves and others, and between our conscious mind and our feeling. In true compassion, one’s relationship to the other’s suffering is not centred on oneself, how it affects us.

Empathy is a feeling; compassion is a perspective.

Empathy vs. Compassion: Summing Up

Empathy and compassion, or relative and absolute bodhicitta, are both crucial parts of the Buddhist path, and of the basic goodness of our minds. One is not “better than” the other: instead, the absolute, nondual warmth of compassion is the ground for our caring emotional responses to others.

If you would like to deepen yourself in empathy and compassion, a great place to start is practicing self-love. As Pema Chödrön says, “The reason we are not there for others is because we are not there for ourselves,” and self-love practice can help with this.

Thank you for reading!

This article is part of the Shambhala.org Community Blog, which offers reflections by Shambhala community members on their individual journeys in meditation and spirituality.

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2024-07-24 12:19:56