A series on Karuna: What is the true meaning of compassion?

This is the first part in a mini series on Compassion. Written by Emily Curtis for Parimukti

What’s pity got to do with it?

I’ve been meditating a lot on the nature of compassion in its numerous forms: self-compassion, compassion for other, for family, and compassion for societies and larger communities. It’s a big topic.

I was talking to a friend recently about it. She expressed her difficulty fully understanding what it means. She was conflicted because she was trying to understand how one could be compassionate, and still have conditions. For example, she had been looking at a painting of Kwan Yin, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, in which Kwan Yin is crying. She asked, “why is she crying? She unconditionally loves, but doesn’t she also have boundaries or conditions? When one feels compassion for another, one is not sinking into the suffering of the other…right? But then why does she cry?”

Guanyin and child

It seems to be a general consensus in my orbit. Compassion is not sinking into the sadness of the other. So, the question arises: how do I practice compassion for another without losing my ground—without falling into their sadness—or relating it to my personal story? How can Icry tears of understanding, witnessing, love, but maintain my inner balance?

My natural response was to insert a boundary. Me. Other. This boundary, I imagined, would define where I began, and ended, the origins of my emotions versus the emotions of another, and it would help me to keep a grip, and stay present. This tussle did not sit well. I became over-indulged in the intellectual pursuit of remedying this discrepancy. Me. Other.

One dictionary defined compassion as: “sympathetic pity or concern for the suffering of others.” And sympathy as: “feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune.”


When I’m sharing my emotions with someone, I personally don’t want to be pitied for how I’m feeling. What I do want is someone to understand my plight, good-bad-ugly-lovely. This mutual understanding sounds more like the definition of empathy: “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.”

And here is my favorite definition of compassion, from Pema Chödrön: “Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It’s a relationship between equals. Only when we know our own darkness well, can we be present with the darkness of others. Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity.”

And it dawned on me:

There is no boundary necessary to be present and maintain a balanced mind. The ‘boundary’ I was looking for is implicit to the process of self-awareness, self- acceptance, and self-love. My practice of self-compassion is the requisite for my ability to really see others, to feel the texture of their lives, to not take their suffering personally, and to be able to generate feelings of genuine compassion.

Easier said than done!

To be continued…

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