I recently read about one woman’s experience at a Buddhist meditation retreat in India with an aged guru, and it prompted me to question what the difference is between compassion and pity; I found that the inquiry was fruitful for my own deeper understanding of kindness.
In her book Passionate Presence, Catherine Ingram delivers insights based on her experiences travelling toward a more awakened way of moving through the world. In one section, she narrates a particular encounter, captured here:
During the morning session [of the retreat] a woman who appeared to be in a state of hysteria came onto the platform with him [Poonjaji]. Her questions and comments seemed to have nothing to do with what he was teaching, but worse, she was flailing about, hysterically laughing, and practically knocking the master off his seat. Although he appeared as strong as a mountain, at that time Poonjaji was nearly eighty years old with various health ailments. It was almost too much for those of us sitting nearest him to bear, and at one point someone reached out to restrain the woman, fearing that she might accidentally harm the master at any moment. Meanwhile, Poonjaji tried in a poignant way to get through to her. “You and I are the same,” he said. “You need not be a beggar hoping to be saved; you are already on the throne of freedom.” In response the woman squealed with laughter and threw her arms around his head, pulling him to her. After what seemed an eternity, she stood up to leave, but not before asking for his handkerchief, the only one he had with him with which to wipe his brow. Of course, he gave it to her, and with arms akimbo, laughing and bumping her way through the crowd while proudly waving the treasured handkerchief, the woman went back to her seat.
The people in the front rows collectively sighed in relief. “What a waste of his precious energy,” I thought. “He should be protected from people like that. Those people need a therapist, not a Buddha.”
As I was muttering to myself, a quiet transformation was occurring on the platform. Poonjaji had grown totally silent and closed his eyes, even though we were in the dialogue part of the morning’s meeting. Those of us sitting near him then saw three or four tears roll down his cheeks. (56-57)
When I read this last part, I gave pause. Reading Ingram’s — and Poonjaji’s — experience I also felt a tinge of frustration toward the neurotic woman, and it reminded me of my experiences with similarly-presenting individuals. This only increased my feelings of frustration, and even anger. I remembered sitting in a classroom and marking peers for their inappropriate monopolizing of discussion time, or shooting someone an evil eye for acting out during a lecture. Even as a professor myself, memories of wayward students making a scene in class, disturbing the peaceful environment, came to mind.
When I read Poonjaji’s response — of crying silently — I immediately felt a surge roll through my body. Apparently, he wasn’t feeling frustration or anger, like me. What he seemed to feel, instead, was deep compassion.
And so, I meditated on this for a while last night, wondering what the difference is between compassion and pity. Honestly, what I felt for the woman in the narrative was pity — that was my first reaction to her, even before the frustration and anger, and it has been a common reaction to people like her in my life. Also, self-pity is a common response I have for my own suffering.
I suddenly felt that if I could feel the difference between compassion and pity/self-pity, then I might be able to treat myself better in times of need and, in turn, respond to others in a more loving way.
After meditating, I concluded that there is an important difference between compassion and pity. To be compassionate, one needs to encounter another (and/or oneself) with a genuine feeling of kindness. This comes with a sensation of “I understand your suffering, and I wish peace and kindness to you.” One needs to view the other (or the suffering self) as on an equal plane as the higher self; they are the same. So, for example, Poonjaji was able to feel compassion for the neurotic woman because he saw her suffering as exactly equal to his own suffering. He did not view himself as “above” her or it. And because of this, he could offer up true compassion.
Pity, however, is paired with a feeling of elevation in which one distinguishes between the place of the person being pitied (either self or other) and the place of oneself. The pitied person is viewed as occupying a lower place than the higher self of the person (and part of the person) performing the pity. Pity is offered because one looks down on another, thinking “I am grateful that is not me going through that suffering.” And a feeling of pity emerges, rather than compassion. Innate in pity is an elevation of the self, as above the suffering, so that the pitied person does not share the same plane. Compassion cannot be given in a situation such as this.
This insight was central for me because I struggle to show self-compassion and lovingkindness toward myself in moments of suffering. Instead of offering these I seem to sink into a pit of self-pity. Also, when I encounter a difficult (suffering) person, I feel pity much more than compassion.
I think that just simply being aware of the differences can aid me in moving closer to a space of compassion.
But doing so is scary, right? In order to really open up to compassion and love, we need to see our pain as equal to another’s — in a truly authentic way. That means that there is no suffering that we do not know; it means that even the most abject individual is equal to us, that there really is no pedestal…at all.
We occupy a space shared by all. And no other.
In theory, yeah sure. But in actuality, that takes some serious fearlessness.
I continue to try to move there across my seven years of meditation practice. And I’ve got to tell you — I am a long way off, still.