What is Global Compassion and How Can We Attain It?

Moving toward a more compassionate world by defining compassion and suffering

global compassion

Excerpts taken from Moving Toward Global Compassion pp. 13-16

What is global compassion?

In the last few years, there has been a renewed interest in compassion. Yet focus on how another person’s suffering affects our own cognitive and emotional states and behavior is not new. There is a long history of research on related and not often clearly differentiated concepts such as empathy, emotional contagion, sympathy, and altruism.

The impetus for what I have written is my conviction that human society must move toward what I am calling global compassion: a concern to alleviate the suffering of anyone, regardless of their nationality, language, culture, or religion. It is my hope that by first distinguishing among different interpretations of what the words suffering and compassion can mean and then developing a typology of compassion, questions will be revealed for research and theory about the nature of compassion, which could start us on new paths in the pursuit of developing more widespread global compassion.

Defining Suffering

Compassion is generally understood to be a response to the suffering of another person, but the kind of suffering that compassion is aimed at is not a simple matter – Buddhists distinguish three types of suffering. The first, most obvious way they define suffering is that caused by and/or due to disease or injury, which stimulates pain sensations; included with that is mental anguish not due to an external injury or disease but resulting from interpersonal events, real or imagined. The second way of defining suffering is more a malaise, a dissatisfaction with life. A third type of suffering refers to the Buddhist view that all human beings are vulnerable to mental suffering, which results from a failure to grasp the interdependence of our existence with the reification of the self’s independent and unchanging existence. What I discuss applies directly to the first and to some extent the second type of suffering.

Defining Compassion

Some definitions of compassion emphasize empathically feeling the emotions experienced by the person who is suffering. I will refer to this as empathic compassion. A second focus of compassion is more on the actions that attempt to relieve physical and emotional pain. I will refer to this as action compassion. Other definitions describe what can be best characterized as a concern for the person who is suffering, emphasizing the compassionate person’s motivation — a desire, urge, or feeling—to alleviate suffering. I will refer to this as concerned compassion.The Buddhists describe something somewhat different, a compassion that is more cognitive than emotional, an aspiration or intention. I will refer to this as aspirational compassion.

Why do these distinctions matter?

The value of these distinctions is twofold: it encourages those who train or investigate compassion to specify which type of suffering they are focusing on and which type of compassion they are examining or cultivating… The second benefit of making this distinctions is that it draws attention to questions that could be answered by further research. The questions are limitless, though what is clear is that compassion of any kind will not occur unless the compassionate person accurately recognizes that someone is suffering now or is likely to suffer in the future.

What’s next?

Read more about the types of compassion and steps towards cultivating global compassion in Dr. Ekman’s Moving Toward Global Compassion found here, and watch Dr. Ekman discuss global compassion with the Dalai Lama here

Paul Ekman is a well-known psychologist and co-discoverer of micro expressions. He was named one of the 100 most influential people in the world by TIME magazine in 2009. He has worked with many government agencies, domestic and abroad. Dr. Ekman has compiled over 50 years of his research to create comprehensive training tools to read the hidden emotions of those around you.

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