Skillful Thinking: Compassion

Eight Mindful Steps to Happiness (pp. 74-81)

“And what, is Right Thought?  Thought associated with renunciation, thought associated with absence of ill will, thought associated with absence of cruelty.  This is called Right Thought.”  – The Buddha

Note that Right or Skillful Thinking is not about making yourself think the correct thoughts. Rather, it is having the intention to recognize thoughts as skillful or unskillful and cultivate the skillful ones.

Skillful Thinking:  Compassion

What is thought associated with absence of cruelty?  Compassion

Comparing Compassion to Loving Kindness (Metta):

“Compassion supplies the complement to loving-kindness:  whereas loving-kindness has the characteristic of wishing for the happiness and welfare of others, compassion has the characteristics of wishing that others be free from suffering, a wish to be extended without limits to all living beings.” –Bhikkhu Bodhi

In Loving-Kindness practice, we use the phrase “May ____ be free from suffering” Compassion comes in when we know that actual suffering is taking place.

What is compassion?

“Compassion is the melting of the heart at the thought of another’s suffering.”  –Bhante G

Compassion is the intention to relieve the suffering of others. It arises with the recognition of the universality of suffering and the realization that all living beings desire happiness. We need to express compassion through our actions and not just hold it as a thought in our mind.

You cannot generate compassion.  It is solely by experiencing your experience of another’s suffering that leads to the appropriate action.  Otherwise, compassion just remains as a thought. 

Nyanaponika Theraexternal_link says it very well:

“The world suffers. But most men have their eyes and ears closed. They do not see the unbroken stream of tears flowing through life; they do not hear the cry of distress continually pervading the world. Their own little grief or joy bars their sight, deafens their ears. Bound by selfishness, their hearts turn stiff and narrow. Being stiff and narrow, how should they be able to strive for any higher goal, to realize that only release from selfish craving will effect their own freedom from suffering?

It is compassion that removes the heavy bar, opens the door to freedom, makes the narrow heart as wide as the world. Compassion takes away from the heart the inert weight, the paralyzing heaviness; it gives wings to those who cling to the lowlands of self.

Through compassion the fact of suffering remains vividly present to our mind, even at times when we personally are free from it. It gives us the rich experience of suffering, thus strengthening us to meet it

Compassion is not pity.  Pity although defined in some cases as compassion is really feeling sorry for someone from a distance.  This is a separation as we feel that we are a separate self.  This does not allow the full experience of someone else’s suffering.”

How do you cultivate compassion?

  • Reflect on your own suffering
  • Be aware of the suffering of others
  • Know that suffering is universal (make the connection between your suffering and others).

This can also work in reverse as you are aware of the suffering of others you can see the connection with your own suffering. 

There is wisdom (the understanding) and compassion (the practice).  Both are necessary in balance.

Put another way:  Wisdom knows that no one suffers and compassion knows that it still hurts.

Final words:

“The dew of compassion is a tear” – Byron

“And what is the highest manifestation of compassion?  To show to the world the path leading to the end of suffering, the path pointed out, trodden and realized to perfection by Him, the Exalted One, the Buddha.”  Nyanaponika Thera


  • Look around to see suffering (in yourself, your loved ones).  Can you feel compassion arise?  Can you just BE with it?

Next: Skillful Thinking: Dealing with Unskillful Thoughts
Previous: Skillful Thinking: Letting Go of Ill-Will: Dealing with Anger