Empathy, Compassion and Altruism

By Pierre Zimmerman

The word empathy is a translation from the German word Einfuhlung, which refers to “the ability to feel the other from within.” Empathy can be set off by an affective perception of feeling for a person with whom we enter into resonance or by cognitive imagination evoked by the other person’s experience. Emotional resonance usually precedes cognitive resonance and depends on the intensity of our emotions as to whether we can really respond or become reactive instead.

heartTrue empathic concern consists of becoming aware of another’s needs and then feeling a sincere desire to come to his or her aid. It doesn’t involve pity, which is egocentric or condescending, or for that matter emotional contagion, which results in distress or empathy fatigue because we confuse our feelings with that of the other.

Compassion is the capacity to use our heart to relieve the suffering of another and all the possibilities to accomplish this. It includes the realization that ignorance is the fundamental cause of suffering and gives rise to an array of mental obscurations, lack of love, meaning, confidence and absence of a clear compass. Motivation for taking actions for release of suffering counts more than their outcome or results. Compassion doesn’t exclude anything possible to prevent the other from continuing to harm or break the circle of hatred.

Altruism is the motivational state that has the ultimate goal of increasing another’s welfare. It is a willingness to lead a life devoted to the well being of others without the need of ulterior motive. Valuing others and being concerned about their situation are essential. Buddhism defines it as the wish that all beings find happiness and the causes of happiness. In this context, happiness is not just a temporary state of well being, but a way of being that includes, wisdom, inner freedom and strength, as well as an accurate view of reality.

Altruistic love and compassion add joy when perceiving the happiness and good qualities of others as well as impartiality. Rejoicing means that we don’t want others’ qualities and happiness to diminish, but instead to increase and persist. This serves as an antidote to competitiveness, jealousy and envy and is a remedy for depression or despairing views. Impartiality or equanimity doesn’t depend either on our personal attachments or the way others behave towards us. Altruistic love requires courage; fear and insecurity are major obstacles to altruism. We need to develop an inner strength that makes us confident in our inner resources, which help us face the constantly changing circumstances of our lives.

Pierre Zimmerman is Director of One Big Roof and an instructor with the Saratoga Stress Reduction Program.