What’s the Difference Between Compassion and Lovingkindness?
In 2014 I flew to Los Angeles and, along with about 50 other people, spent two days with a writer I highly respect. He shared a little about his thought process, gave incredible insight into creativity and the human mind, and then opened the floor so the group could talk about our various projects and receive direct feedback from him.
As an adoptive parent, I was kicking around the idea of writing a book about adoption. I shared some thoughts with this writer and at one point used the word transformative. He interrupted me in quite an abrupt way and said, “What is that? What does that mean? You said ‘transformative,’ what do you mean by that?”
I felt my face turn flush and stammered out something like, “Um, like something that changes you from one thing into something else.”
He turned to the group and said that as communicators we should be precise with the words we use. We cannot mindlessly fling words onto a page and assume our readers or listeners know what they mean.
Religious language can especially fall under this spell, which is what led the great Jewish philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel to say, “Words create worlds.”
It’s important to know what worlds we’re creating with the language we use.
We are all prone to use words in mindless ways. Whether speaking casually with friends, giving a formal presentation to an audience, or writing a blog, we assume that there is a mutually agreed-upon definition for every word we use, but that’s not always true.
Compassion is one of those words. We say it often but rarely define it. It’s used as both a noun and a verb. It’s a feeling or a state of being, and also something we show to others. We use compassion interchangeably with words like “love” or “care” or “selflessness.” In the world of mindfulness, compassion and lovingkindness often go together, at least as concepts.
But according to American Buddhist monk, Bhikkhu Bodhi, compassion does have a specific meaning that sets it apart from lovingkindness and other similar concepts.
He writes: “Whereas lovingkindness has the characteristic of wishing for the happiness and welfare of others, compassion has the characteristic of wishing that others be free from suffering, a wish to be extended without limits to all living beings.”
Lovingkindness (mettā) sets our minds to wish all people and all things well, but compassion (karunā) asks, “What are you going to do about it? How will you participate in helping others be relieved from their suffering?”
Simply put: compassion is lovingkindness in action.
LOVINGKINDNESS IN ACTION
Free others from their suffering
If compassion is the wish that others be free from suffering, then perhaps the most obvious expression is toward those who lack basic human needs, especially in our own communities.
For example, if you extend lovingkindness to those in your city who are homeless — you wish them to be well, happy, healthy, safe, and at peace — will you also practice compassion in order to relieve them of their suffering?
Will you carry items to share with people living on the street? Will you buy, prepare, and deliver food to a shelter? Will you advocate for better local policies that provide adequate housing, medical care, mental health, addiction support, and job training for those who need it? This is lovingkindness in action.
Free our relationships from suffering
Compassion also relieves suffering in our relationships.
If you extend lovingkindness to someone with whom you have conflict, will you also pick up the phone and invite them out for lunch? Will you listen as they share any negative feelings they have toward you? Will you offer a sincere apology and restore your relationship?
Free the environment from suffering
The environmental crisis facing our planet is reaching a critical point. Scientists and those trained to measure the earth’s sustainability are sounding alarm bells and calling for drastic measures to reverse the effects of climate change and a warming planet.
Lovingkindness toward the soil, air, water, and animals is a great starting point. But will you also reduce waste, use less energy, consume environmentally-friendly foods and products, and advocate for public action that shows care for the planet we inhabit?
Free ourselves from suffering
Finally, we cannot neglect ourselves when it comes to compassion.
Lovingkindness for ourselves does not always translate into compassionate action. We don’t always seek help when we’re depressed, ill, in debt, or lonely. But compassion for yourself means you take action to ease your suffering, even if it’s something as simple as a walk in nature or reconnecting with an old friend.
WHAT WORLD WILL YOU CREATE?
If it’s true that words create worlds, then what better world exists than one create by the words Lovingkindness and Compassion?
Make it a point today to extend lovingkindness to yourself, to those who lack basic needs, those with whom you have conflict, and our struggling planet. Then do the work of compassion to help ease the suffering of all living beings, without limits.