Academic journal article Journal of Transpersonal Psychology

Self-Transcendence through Shared Suffering: An Intersubjective Theory of Compassion

Academic journal article Journal of Transpersonal Psychology

Self-Transcendence through Shared Suffering: An Intersubjective Theory of Compassion

Article excerpt

Compassion has an enigmatic, sphinx-like quality. On the one hand, its etymology defines it as a negative emotional state, deriving as it does from the Latin terms com (with) and pati (to suffer). As Schulz et al. (2007, p.6) put it, compassion involves "a sense of shared suffering, combined with a desire to alleviate or reduce such suffering." This would seem to identify compassion as a dysphoric experience, energising the person into striving to reduce or eliminate this state. And yet, it is not uncommon to find compassion heralded in affirmative terms as a desirable quality. For instance, in Compton's (2005, p.4) Introduction to Positive Psychology, compassion sits happily in an 'A-Z' of topics alongside undeniably 'positive' qualities and outcomes such as happiness, creativity and savouring. Going further, many religious and spiritual traditions, from Christianity (St. Thomas Aquinas, 1273/1981) to Buddhism (H.H. the Dalai Lama, 1997), exalt compassion in the highest possible terms as the most important and elevated of human qualities. The question driving this article then is, given its seemingly dysphoric qualities, why is compassion so valorised by most major religious and spiritual traditions? Certainly, it is generally recognised in society that compassion is conducive to civic harmony and the upholding of the social contract (Porter, 2006). However, when Buddhism is expressly defined as a "religion of compassion" (Price, 2010, p.53), clearly compassion holds some deeper significance beyond simply contributing to the creation and maintenance of a lawful society.

In this article then, one explanation for the significance of compassion is offered, based around the issue of personal identity. In essence, I argue that feelings of compassion serve to shift one's sense of identity from an individualised locus to a more 'intersubjective' mode of being. This shift is of crucial significance for the esteem in which compassion is held, for the following sequence of reasons: (a) traditions like Buddhism regard individualised modes of selfhood as the fundamental cause of unhappiness, with attachment to and pre-occupation with one's limited 'ego' being the root of suffering, (b) overcoming or transcending this narrow sense of selfhood is therefore the key to alleviating such suffering, (c) cultivating compassion - i.e., identifying with another person and sharing in their feelings - is a powerful and direct way of overcoming/transcending such selfhood, and (d) therefore, while ostensibly involving negative emotions, at a deeper level, compassion serves to alleviate one's own suffering, and engenders psychospiritual development. This theory will be elucidated here over the course of three sections. In the first section, I examine some of the ways in which compassion has been conceptualised, both in contemporary academia and in religious/spiritual traditions. The second section then introduces various models of selfhood, and suggests that in contrast to the 'individualistic' sense of self that many people commonly experience, compassion allows one to experience self-transcendence and enter into a more 'intersubjective' mode of identity. Finally, I explore how self-transcendence and consequent intersubjective selfhood may be beneficial to wellbeing, with potentially profound consequences in terms of psychospiritual development.

COMPASSION

This first section elucidates various perspectives on compassion, to better understand the nature of the concept. I begin by highlighting contemporary academic perspectives, before engaging with views from religious/spiritual traditions such as Buddhism and Christianity (since, as emphasised above, the key question driving the formulation of this article is why these traditions place such great emphasis on compassion). Most contemporary psychological models of compassion construe it as being multifaceted. For example, Neff (2003, p. 224), a prominent theorist on compassion, defines it as "being open to and moved by the suffering of others, so that one desires to ease their suffering. …

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