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Compassion and Pity


Pity by William Blake


The first thing I would like to say is that I am not what I would call a Practicing Buddhist. It just so happens that Buddhism and my natural beliefs and attitudes are expressed in Buddhist. It has actually been through your website and podcast that I have come to realize how Buddhism can help me to a an easier and more rewarding journey on path than the the way I have been struggling along on my own, so thank you very much for that. I mention this because , as an amateur, I do not have the vocabulary to talk about the more advanced concepts in Buddhism and I hope my question makes sense.

My question concerns compassion. When I find myself meditating on compassion for all living beings, there often comes a point where my I become overwhelmed by what I would say is my love for everything and everyone to the point that I compassion becomes pity. As soon as pity creeps in, I feel tainted and self indulgent and I am not able to get myself back on track.

I was hoping that you had some advice about this, or maybe some specific meditations that you or anyone else think will help keep me in line.


If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion. –Dalai Lama

The first thing that sprung to mind when I read your question was, “What’s wrong with pity? Isn’t it just a strong form of compassion?” And then it hit me. No it’s not the same at all.

Compassion is genuinely caring about others, understanding their plight and taking action in your decision to actively help in some way. Pity is an outpouring of empathy so strong that you may be tempted to help more out of the need to ease your own sense of guilt or obligation than real compassion.

Have you ever seen the television commercials for charities with the sad-looking thin and sickly cats and dogs? With the lingering shots of their sad faces and the mournful music playing in the background? How about ones with the starving children in Africa with the emaciated bodies and flies everywhere? These commercials aren’t appealing to your sense of compassion, they’re striving to create pity. Give them money, and you will feel better for having done something. The central character in pity is YOU. YOU feel bad because of whatever the problem may be, and by helping you make yourself feel better. In the “big picture” some good is still being done by donating to those charities, but your personal karma works out differently because of the motives behind the giving.

Now on to your question. You are doing metta meditation (loving-kindness meditation which we have discussed elsewhere), and you are putting yourself in someone else’s extreme situation and losing yourself in pity for them. This is yet again another form of attachment. As a Buddhist grows his or her sense of non-attachment, they can look at things more objectively and feel compassion without too much painful emotion. Compassion is your genuine desire to help others, while pity is all about helping yourself.

Pity is far from the worst emotion you can experience, but true compassion is much better for everyone involved; you should work towards channeling one emotion into the other. I’m not sure that I have any special “meditation tricks” to solve this problem. You need to have a clear understanding of the difference between pity and compassion, and I hope I have been able to help with that. Keep that difference in mind as you meditate, and as you feel yourself sliding into pity, use the knowledge to pull yourself back.

15 comments to Compassion and Pity

  • Abe Simpson

    Excellent answer.

  • Phil

    It is easy to confound pity and compassion. Both spring from a similar, if not same place. But as I see it, there is a difference. Compassion is “outward,” while Pity in “inward.” What do I mean by this? If the feeling of love and caring is based on a FEAR that “this could happen to me too,” then this in pity. If the feeling or love and caring seems boundless, totally outside and beyond your own cares, fears, and worries, this is Compassion.

    I hope this is not too simplistic or reductionist an explanation, but it works for me.

  • Another great question and answer session! Compassion arises from love and yields action. We fast sometimes to understand the position of our fellow human being, but if we remain in that action, our bodies move too far left or right of the middle way. Instead of fasting, sometimes the best action is the right motivation, intention, etc. Perhaps dwelling on the eightfold path will help us direct our compassion significantly to others instead of living in the delusion of helping another person for ego’s sake. Finally, I wonder if pity is also a recognition of our own suffering and attachment to this earth. If we remain in pity, we remain in suffering and attachment. –Jinglett

  • Mat

    Pity is whats known as the ‘near enemy’ of compassion – something which at first seems like compassion but isn’t. Pity has an element of aversion, of finding something too difficult to bear, whereas compassion is more open-hearted and welcoming however difficult a situation might be.

    Traditional Brahma Vihara practice starts with oneself – manifesting an attutude of compassion (Karuna)for oneself before radiating outward and including all beings. The idea being that we need to establish compassion for ourselves in order to be able to uphold this quality of heart and mind for other beings. Sharon Salzburg’s book “Loving Kindness” is an excellent read for more information on these wonderful practices.

  • Subjectivity9

    Pity is dualistic in that you see the plight of some other person, a person who is not yourself. This other person that you pity is suffering in such a way that you, yourself, do not share in.

    You may even go on to see yourself as being better than this other person in some way, and go about proving this to yourself by lending a helping hand.

    This is not necessarily a bad thing by any means, but does contain an error of judgment or a lack of clarity within it.

    Compassion can only truly come about when you are seeing beyond the mistaken illusion of separation. We are able then to see that within the very nature of suffering is a shared plight of those dwelling within the concept of separation.

    So it is that when we reach out in compassion, it is actually an understanding of the wholeness of ones very self and other as not separate.

    Just as love, at its highest understanding, allows for no separation. You come to understand that at some point you and this other are actually one. Perhaps we might even say that love and compassion are simply two sides of one coin.

  • Me

    Actually, that you all. The obvious often eludes me. Clearly it is a problem I have with selfishness. I can see that clearly now and I was already feeling it (icky), if not actually realizing it as well. I do have another question though. Compassion is detachment and a will to make the world a better place for everyone, but in this wonderful age of information I feel completely overwhelmed. I live in a city and I usually take public transit and work with the public as well. Everywhere I turn and everything I hear seems to lead to something that could use help, badly. It all just makes me feel raw. How do you balance compassion/action with the multitude of things that need help? Am I just over thinking this? Should I really just find something good to volunteer with and be working on detachment?

  • TWC

    In response to Mat’s reply, pity is not just motivated by aversion. It can be, but it can also be motivated by seeing the other person as being needy in some way (“needing help” as Me said).

    Both of which as Subjectivity9 said impose a sense of separation (me vs you), but also impose a more subtle sense of separation (me vs the world as it is). Pity is in effect a personal judgement that a situation is not as it “should” be. But “should” according to who? Your own values and opinions that you have become attached to, perhaps?

    Should is a very destructive concept. It instantly introduces separation of ourselves from what is, and compounds this by adding attachment to our beliefs as to what would be better.

    In this sense, even seeing that the world needs to be a better place is imposing a value judgement, a “should” on what you observe.

    So what of compassion? To me, the best way I can describe it, compassion is the art of loving the one-ness of everything, through simply being, rather than doing.

    By simply being, one can realise being at one. By consciously doing, you introduce the separation of the do-er from that which they are doing it to.

  • jenortega

    A great answer. This really helped. Thank you.

  • sek

    when ypu’re feeling overwhelmed by ‘it’ all… come back to your breath and ask to give it over. Remember, we all have our Karma to work out and at some time we all agreed to our current situation. In order for any help you give, to change a situation a person must be willing to accept the help. Said person needs, then, to have acknowledged there’s a problem and thus asked for help. Helping before a person is ready will only lead to his/her resistance to your help and/or you. Letting the problems of the world overwhelm you is only going to bring you down. Practice your stillness and centre before you take action. Come back to your breath before you make a decision and see what happens. REgardless of the decision, you will be more likely to make it for the good of the whole (yourself is a part of that whole) and have an open, clearly motivated heart.

  • st

    i find all of this discussion self indulgent. i am a homebound and disabled person. pity is more than all that buddhist gobblely gook that was mentioned. you all forget the biggest thing pity actually DOES–(and this can happen even when the person who is in need of help has already asked for help) it makes the other person feel like crap, thereby, in buddhist speak “creating more suffering”

  • Guest

    Pity is all about guilt. When you walk past a homeless person, it’s probably their sign or image that evokes pity. I’m well and dandy, but this person is living where? Now two decisions can arise: one is pity by throwing some money their way and relieving the self out of guilt. The other is trying to understand and doing something about the issue and this might mean not giving money. Compassion might not help that homeless person get some alcohol or food that night, but action shows that one cares for the person and is not guilt-tripped into a temporary escape (i.e. by throwing money).

    I find pity to be disrespectful. It’s all about the ego and every action stemming from it really is intended to help the self overcome guilt. As st said, I think it makes both parties feel like crap, thus creating more suffering.

  • Christy

    I’m a bit late to this post, obviously. For those of us who are so empathic that we actually feel another person’s pain within our own bodies, this distinction is an important one to make. I’m not Buddhist, but this discussion is very useful. I’ve believed for a while that pity is ultimately self-centered. Feeling pity for someone certainly happens in my experience. Feeling like I can’t shut out their suffering is challenging and draining, though, especially since it comes upon me from all sides sometimes. It’s to the point that if someone walks into a room in a bad mood, I usually sense it before I even turn around. Grounding exercises and meditations help, but it takes energy to maintain all that. The emotions sometimes get “stuck” in my body, and then I have emotions about someone else’s emotion.

    So, the search continues for a way to keep feeling with people, but with a little healthy detachment.

  • Mary

    For me, one of the differences is that Pity is disempowering the other person, we are not honoring them as the manifesting beings they are, we are not honoring their hand in creating their experience.

    Compassion, on the other hand, respects the person’s creation and has empathy for the difficulties of the path or experience they created while at the same time knows they are on their way to enlightenment. In our mind, we continue to honor and respect and empower the person we are considering.

  • bill

    Pity is about humility; the plight of the condemned man is a plight such “that there but for the sake of G-d go I”, or if you prefer, a result of choice and chance.

    A recognition and acceptance of my own human frailty. That no matter how good I’d like to be I fall short of the ideal. And when someone else fall short of the Ideal I don’t condemn them for it because he is I.

    We are all flawed beings and make mistakes and pity is the recognition of our own limitations and the limitations of us all as human being.

    It’s humbling.

    Compassion is about shared suffering

  • Elaine

    Graham Greene has written a masterful novel on the very top of pity and its destructive qualities. The novel is: The Heart of the Matter. Pity vs. compassion is a major theme of the book, which also has a strong Catholic foundation.