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Susan Sontag once wrote that "life, when not a school for heartlessness, is an education in sympathy". We are constantly confronted with other people's lives through contacts, stories, media and work. Not only are we confronted, but we also interact with other people's lives and stories, affecting and stimulating their development. In a recently published anthology on compassion, in which editor Paul Gilbert has gathered texts from clinicians, researchers and lecturers in the field of psychology, Sontag's idea is thoroughly explored from a scientific point of view. It is quite a technical collection of texts. The intended audience is used to reading extensive analyses of psychological phenomena. The level of technicality is, however, surmountable for anyone with some experience of and a genuine interest in the field. And the structure of the book provides excellent guidance. One part is devoted to conceptualizations of the theme, whereas the second part focuses on compassion as a potent part of psychotherapy. However, the anthology as a whole is no clinically detached treatment of a theoretical topic -- the texts rather invite the reader to get down and get immersed. Pediatrician Sheila Wang, for example, summarizes her text with the following: "Compassion invites us to full participation in our humanity, to a full recognition of the oneness of humanity. How will we respond to that invitation?"
Compassion is that concept which is a crucial part of any therapy, but which is, like all nouns that are, after all, verbs, terribly hard to capture in words. The editor Paul Gilbert, professor of clinical psychology, kicks off by presenting a veritable anatomy of compassion, exploring it in social, biological and religious directions. By juxtaposing compassion and cruelty, Gilbert wants to show how human beings can train themselves to choose between these responses when relating to others.
"Our high-level cognitive abilities allow us to step back, reflect, and understand ourselves, and the nature and consequences of our actions. The more we learn about the nature of our minds and how to enact more compassionate ways of being in the world, the more tools we will have for confronting some of the darker sides of our minds -- sides that have also got us where we are."
He comes a long way in showing this.
In order to explain her definition, that "compassion is the feeling that arises from the realization of the deeper reality that we are all connected, we are all one", Wang, in the following chapter, fuses research on physiological and psychological responses to life with Buddhist teachings. The result is a chapter that shows how oneness can be the most primitive as well as the most evolved state of mind. In any case, a most rewarding state of mind. This theme, the rewards of compassion, is followed on in the rest of book -- physiology, biology, psychology and Buddhism are played off against each other in different variations. The question "How can we train ourselves into more compassionate beings?" is equally present throughout the texts. Interesting and thought-provoking harmonies arise.
The second part of the book brings therapy into the play. It focuses on the healing power of compassion; the potentially positive role of compassion as a psychologically beneficial ingredient in mental processes. What is especially vital about these texts is that they bring psychological states of mind that are traditionally thought of as intra-personal into a, for psychological research non-traditional, discussion of how humanity is essentially one. Allen and Knight, for example, expose a thoroughly interpersonal take on depression. In my mind this provokes the thought that depression, the flu of psychological illness, might owe its rampaging among Westerners to the fact that we are severely under-nourished with and under-educated in compassion. Our culture stimulates compassionate behavior merely on a superficial level, whereas real compassion, which is an experience different from what we traditionally consider as pleasant, is as rare as diamonds. And as precious, and possibly as sought-after. Compassion, argue the authors, is an effective antidote to cruelty, which is why we need to develop it. And what is a more common cruelty in the Western world today than depression? Constant self-criticism, neglect of the self's mental, physical and spiritual needs, a prolonged torture of unforgiving attitudes toward all the feelings, thoughts and behaviors that the self is made up of -- that, most definitely, qualifies as abuse... Considering how common depression is among patients today, it is safe to say that for a therapist to break the negative, downward mental spirals of individuals will help create a more secure and loving world. Because treating ourselves cruelly will inevitably affect other people's lives and mental states in a bad way. And as we are more aware today than ever, the proximity to 'the other' is greater than ever before.
The greatest reward of "Compassion" is that it invigorates a word that has been out of fashion for some time. 'Compassion', being a moralized term, extensively used in religious parlance and in summarizing the Golden Rule, has often been regarded as describing something that good people do for others -- almost like charity. "Compassion" is a fresh, non-shaming, non-judgmental look at a concept that desperately needs a revival in Western culture. Its major achievement is to consistently, in every single page, show how we can realize that deep longing of ours, the longing for freedom, not by distancing ourselves from others, but by relating compassionately to them. The texts give new perspectives on compassion and defamiliarizes the concept so that we may learn to know it in a new way.
At the end of the day, though, and at the end of the book, we are inexorably left with what is at the core of what we call compassion; i.e. experience. Having read the book, one conclusion is non-negotiable: compassion is in essence a task of practical nature. It is the task of integrating compassion into every single thought, every single gesture and every single act that one is the source of. It may not be easy, but it is what it is all about. Like Thomas Aquinas once concluded: "I would rather feel compassion than know the meaning of it". This book, however, is good inspiration, guidance and help for getting there.
© 2007 Minna Forsell
Minna Forsell is a psychologist, recently graduated from the University of Stockholm. She currently works as a writer, translator and research assistant. She hopes to pursue a career as a researcher in the field of environmental psychology.