TED Talk Tuesday – Joan Halifax: Compassion and the true meaning of empathy

In the wake of the devastation in the Philippines, we turn to TED for a lesson on compassion in the face of tragedy and pain. I lost family in an earthquake and I remember riding the train into work the following day feeling too numb by shock to truly experience pain. My heart goes out to those who are suffering now, looking for lost loved ones, struggling to survive. I can only offer my deepest concern, compassion, and love. Know that even though we are miles apart, my heart and hope are with you.

Compassion is in an innate human quality that is rarely nurtured. In this powerful and emotional talk, Buddhist teacher Joan Halifax discusses the impact and gift of compassion. Halifax has spent many decades actively practicing compassion by tending to the incarcerated, sick, and dying. What she has learned is that compassion can heal; it can heal both internally and externally. Compassion can heal our pain and soothe the pain of and in others. How can we as individuals begin to practice compassion? How is compassion present in your life? Let me know in the comments.


So we can ask: What is compassion comprised of? And there are various facets. And there’s referential and non-referential compassion. But first, compassion is comprised of that capacity to see clearly into the nature of suffering. It is that ability to really stand strong and to recognize also that I’m not separate from this suffering. But that is not enough, because compassion, which activates the motor cortex, means that we aspire, we actually aspire to transform suffering. And if we’re so blessed, we engage in activities that transform suffering.But compassion has another component, and that component is really essential. That component is that we cannot be attached to outcome.

Now I worked with dying people for over 40 years. I had the privilege of working on death row in a maximum security [prison] for six years. And I realized so clearly in bringing my own life experience, from working with dying people and training caregivers, that any attachment to outcome would distort deeply my own capacity to be fully present to the whole catastrophe.

And when I worked in the prison system, it was so clear to me, this: that many of us in this room, and almost all of the men that I worked with on death row, the seeds of their own compassion had never been watered. That compassion is actually an inherent human quality. It is there within every human being. But the conditions for compassion to be activated, to be aroused, are particular conditions. I had that condition, to a certain extent,from my own childhood illness. Eve Ensler, whom you’ll hear later, has had that condition activated amazingly in her through the various waters of suffering that she has been through.

And what is fascinating is that compassion has enemies, and those enemies are things like pity, moral outrage, fear. And you know, we have a society, a world, that is paralyzed by fear.And in that paralysis, of course, our capacity for compassion is also paralyzed. The very word terror is global. The very feeling of terror is global. So our work, in a certain way, is to address this imago, this kind of archetype that has pervaded the psyche of our entire globe.

Now we know from neuroscience that compassion has some very extraordinary qualities.For example: A person who is cultivating compassion, when they are in the presence of suffering, they feel that suffering a lot more than many other people do. However, they return to baseline a lot sooner. This is called resilience. Many of us think that compassion drains us, but I promise you it is something that truly enlivens us.

Another thing about compassion is that it really enhances what’s called neural integration. It hooks up all parts of the brain. Another, which has been discovered by various researchersat Emory and at Davis and so on, is that compassion enhances our immune system. Hey,we live in a very noxious world. (Laughter) Most of us are shrinking in the face of psycho-social and physical poisons, of the toxins of our world. But compassion, the generation of compassion, actually mobilizes our immunity.


2 thoughts on “TED Talk Tuesday – Joan Halifax: Compassion and the true meaning of empathy

  1. Pingback: I love the internet | SoshiTech

  2. Pingback: Self-Compassion | Jennifer Hartnett-Henderson Photography

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