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What We Mean When We Talk About Compassion

By Jennifer Dobner November 26, 2014 Posted in: Power Of Compassion , Article

STANFORD, CA - When we think about compassion - either as idea or a practice - what exactly do we mean?

Are we more compassionate at 50 than we are as children? Do we care mostly for those with whom we have personal relationships? Or does it extend well beyond ourselves and into the wider world?

And where does compassion come from? Is it a learned behavior that we get from our parents and others, or something more inherent? Is compassion just part of what it means to be human?

"We don't know," says Paul Eckman, PhD. and a professor emeritus in psychology from the University of California, San Francisco. "We have all the tools to get answers to this... but we don't have them yet."

The questions have been at the heart of Eckman's decades of research on emotion, his conversations with His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, and the focus of his opening address of on the first day of Compassion Week, a series of conferences and events designed to foster conversation about compassion in health care, business, and public service.

Sponsored in part by Dignity Health, Compassion Week is a joint initiative of Stanford University's Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, the Charter for Compassion, and the Tenyin Gyatso Institute.

Based on the research so far, Eckman says compassion can come in many forms:

  • Familial Compassion: This is considered the seed of compassion, which is planted through our family, caregiver-offspring experience.
  • Global Compassion: The care and concern for those around the globe, with whom we have no personal relationship.
  • Heroic Compassion: Sometimes called altruism with risk, it comes in two forms: immediate and considered. Immediate heroic compassion is acting without thought on behalf of another, like jumping on to a subway track to rescue another person. Considered heroic compassion involves something done with thought and can be maintained over many years.
  • Sentient Compassion: Extending feelings of compassion and concern to any living being. It's not clear if this is the same as Global Compassion or something different.

Despite what we know, Eckman says, there are many questions about compassion yet to be studied. Does culture, for example, impact how people experience or practice compassion? Does witnessing suffering and pain enhance or detract from our ability to feel compassion? Or is it irrelevant, leaving us not choice in our response to another being?

"We don't have any documentation," says Eckman. "But if we look at (a person's) life history, would we find they spent most of their childhood watching Mr. Rogers more than violent film? We don't know."

Despite the many questions, Eckman says one thing is clear: As a society, our practice of compassion is critical to our survival and for the survival of our planet.

"I tend to think that in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, we could get away with being selfish, concerned just about ourselves and perhaps out immediate family," he says. "But in the 21st Century it's clear that we are all connected. The Buddhists were right... and this emphasis on global compassion, it's an urgent need."

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