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The four mental states of psychology in light of the compassion of the Madhyamaka philosophy

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In the Introduction to the Middle Way and commentary by Ju Mipham are presented three types of compassion. The first is “compassion that has beings for its object", meaning that Bodhisattva feels compassion towards sentient beings because he sees how beings suffer. The second one is “compassion that has transience for its object”. This relates to compassion which arises in the mind of Bodhisattva in the moment he recognizes the impermanence – that all sentient beings are mortal and disintegrating moment by moment. The third type of compassion is called “compassion that is devoid of reference”. It refers to Bodhisattva on higher stages, and to Buddha himself. Here term “compassion” is actually used to express the understanding of emptiness and absence of inherent existence in all phenomena.

In philosophical movements, which evolved in the beginning and middle of the 20th century in the West, empathy was defined as an emotional mechanism that cognizes the mental states of others and affects own mental state by that cognition. Sympathy was defined as a mechanism that motivates one to care for someone and consequently, to act for their welfare.

Later in psychology, empathy became one term which merged both meanings of empathy and sympathy as they were defined in philosophy. Empathy acquired a broader definition of an emotional phenomenon that arises in response to notion of distinction or non-distinction of self and others, and sympathy was included as one of possible emotional reactions or mental states. In this assignment, I will review the four mental states that fall into the category of empathy, and try to see if they can be related in some manner to the three types of compassion as described above.

The different empathic emotional reactions were characterized in the following manner:

1. Emotional contagion

Such emotional reaction occurs unconsciously under the influence of collective emotional reaction such as panic, joy or distress expressed by surrounding people. A characteristic of this state is a temporary incapacity of the individual to differentiate between oneself and other. This can be observed, for example, on demonstrations, where agitated by skillful speaker, crowds are screaming in single emotion of hate or love to whoever he might mention. In such moments, individual in the crowd do not have own judgment. Emotional contagion is not related directly to none of the three types of compassion described above. Nevertheless it can be used by Buddhist teachers to promote strong sensation of compassion in crowd of listeners. Similarly, emotional contagion can arise during group practices related to impermanence. While chanting and repeating verses describing suffering and impermanence devotees would catch the emotions arising in others and in them - compassion similar to first and second type might rise.


2. Affective Empathy

Affective empathy is a state that is characterized as an emotional condition which one experiences independently, not necessarily sharing similar emotions with others. One might rather experiences opposite emotions from his environment. For example, feeling sadness while seeing happy child that has been diagnosed with severe illness. Other characteristic of the affective empathy is notion of difference between self and others. Within it there is expectation from others for emotional response that is in accord with one's perception of the world. In this case an ill person who is happy though he clearly understands severity of his disease can cause affective empathy in those whose perception of the situation is different.

Affective empathy can be related to two kinds of Buddhist compassion: “compassion that has beings for its objects” and to “compassion that has transience for its object”. In the first case Bodhisattva feels compassion due to the real situation of living beings in samsara and feels genuine sadness for them even though they might feel happy. In relation to the second type of compassion – it is very similar to explained above, only the cause to Bodhisattva’s affective empathy arising as compassion is focused on impermanence of all beings.

3. Sympathy

Sympathy is a feeling which expresses ones concern about another person’s welfare evoked by negative emotions or unfortunate circumstances of others and characterized by desire to benefit. In this way, mother feels sympathy for sad child because she cares about its happiness.

We can relate also sympathy to the first two kinds of compassion. Bodhisattva’s compassion sees the suffering of sentient beings as an object for feeling sympathy to living being who suffer. Thus Bodhisattva cares about welfare of living being as mother does about her child. In case of the second type of compassion, Bodhisattva understands impermanence of all phenomena and helps sentient beings from seeing self and phenomena as permanent.

4. Personal distress

Personal distress is a reactive emotion in response to negative emotions or circumstances of others. Unpleasant feeling that motivates us to help to other in order to get rid of own disgust or tension. Even though the motivation to help is egoistic, the one in need may benefit from it. In spite of the fact, that personal distress moves people to help others in many circumstances, it contradicts the Buddhist notion of compassion that gives superior importance to correct motivation of any action.

In the Introduction to the Middle Way is presented also the third type of compassioncompassion without reference point. From the perspective of Buddhism such type of compassion is beyond any convention therefore can not be related to any emotional or mental state. Thus it is impossible to relate it to any of the four mental stages described by Stueber, which are mere aspects of emotions experienced by mind.

To summarize, in my opinion comparing to the Buddhist context, modern psychology gives a deeper analysis of mechanisms which make people experience or exhibit compassion towards others. The first two compassions fall under mental states of the mind, though the mental states can describe precisely which mechanism is employed by these compassions in every particular situation. On the other side, compassion which does not have reference point can not be an object of psychological analysis, since it transcends mind.