Community in the narrow sense is a neighborhood or a cluster of neighborhoods. But in the broad sense of the word, community encompasses small groups, including the family, larger groups such as professional associations, unions, and even towns and cities. In this discussion,?compassion will be defined broadly. Communities can range in size from a small group to a city or even a small country.
It is useful to distinguish three major types of communities: a neighborhood, which limits members to a specific place or region; a dispersed collection or association of people interacting around a common interest, e.g., a racing association or a bowling club; and a online community, which is like an association except that the members may never meet face to face.

Community Compassion

People talk about a community as compassionate, as if a community had a mind and could feel empathy. How can we attribute compassion to communities without pretending communities have minds of their own?

One way in which communities are compassionate is merely as the sum total of individual compassion. If it were possible to measure compassion well, we would probably see that compassion, like most human characteristics, is shaped like a bell. On one side of the bell-shaped curve would be a few people who almost never express compassion and on the other side, people who, like Mother Teresa, live very compassionate lives. The rest of us would lie in between.

Another way to conceptualize community compassion is in terms of compassionate inter-relationships. Instead of adding up compassionate individuals, add up the number of compassionate relationships or the intensity of compassion in these relationships.

Finally, and most importantly, communities can have their own policies and understandings regarding compassion. When people need help, a community can establish formal policies for helping them as well as promote informal understandings or norms in the community that community members should help those in need. Such understandings will likely lead to common projects or coordinated activities where people work together to help each other.
An Example of Community Compassion

Naperville, a city of 150,000 people, lies a few miles west of downtown Chicago. The City staff, including the police force, working with community leaders created a model private-public partnership to deliver services to the elderly. Once it became apparent how broad the needs of senior citizens were, they established a formal group called the “Senior Services Team of volunteer citizens as well as staff from all departments of the City government.

The Elderly Services Team meets once a month to review needs and on-going cases such as senior scams, elder abuse, financial exploitation, and the use of code enforcement to assist seniors living in unsafe conditions.?The Team has been instrumental in creating a number of new programs for the elderly including “cell phones for the elderly,” a senior photo ID database, senior living facility liaisons, and a senior home inspection program. The most important aspect of what Naperville has done to improve the well-being of the elderly is the merging of formal staff services with the energy of community volunteers.napervilleseniors

The elderly are not the only members of the community to benefit from organized community compassion. Other community-city groups address youth activities, community service, and the prevention of child abuse.

Is your compassion only “ribbon deep”? Do you worry about the possibility that your compassionate actions are insincere? Or do you just want to explore the possibility of being a genuinely compassionate person? Then this is the place for you. You can start with the background essay or skip to the Compassion Superficiality Quiz in the last section.


As I have a questionable habit of buying every new book I find on compassion, I downloaded from Amazon a 20004 book titled Conspicuous Compassion: Why Sometimes It Really Is Cruel to be Kind. Fortunately, it is a short book of only 79 pages, a fourth of which is footnotes, because it was a most depressing read.

Written by Patrick West, a prolific freelance author in the UK, the book ostentatiously critiques what he calls the “emerging culture of ostentatious caring”. If you are not familiar with contemporary British culture and politics, you may find the book obtuse as well as excessively negative. However, if you happen to sympathize with the conservative wing of Britain’s conservative party, then you may well enjoy taking a few hours to read the little book.

The essence of the book is summed up in the last sentence: “…when it comes to impersonal caring, society is divided into two camps: the romantic but wrong and the revolting but right.” Dr. West looks at the compassion around him and automatically assumes it is insincere, if not hypocritical, and hence “wrong.”

In 13 short chapters, he tells tales of celebrities and protestors who promoted charitable causes with supposedly selfish or hypocritical motives. Other stories tell of governmental aid that fattened corrupt officials or corrupted welfare recipients. West’s lenses allow for seeing only black or white, no shades of gray, no nuanced or complex combinations of motives.

In addition to his political agenda, West seeks to point out how superficial contemporary compassion can be. He argues that many choose to donate a little money for the homeless rather than talk to them or volunteer to help the homeless. Another legitimate point he makes is that people may assume that by signing a petition on the Internet, they have fulfilled their duty to help the poor or hungry.

Nonetheless, reading such tales can do you a great favor, if willing to search your soul for insincerities in your compassionate inclinations. Reading how the social climate of charity balls undermines much of the potential for true charity gave me a new appreciation for those who are cynical about the promotion of compassion.

It also lead me to design a little compassion sincerity quiz. Here it is:

The Compassion Superficiality Quiz

Instructions: Reply to each question with a Y/N (yes or no) answer. If you can’t decide, leave it blank.

  1. Are you more likely to give to charity when someone you respect is watching you? Y / N
  1. Someone who repeatedly bullied you just lost a loved one. Do you feel glad or both glad and sad? Y / N
  1. I have been known to do something hurtful to a friend, even though I have overtly been very nice to him or her. Y / N
  1. If my favorite celebrity would be hospitalized, I would be more likely to send flowers than if my best friend were to be put into a hospital. Y / N
  1. I have put an empathy ribbon on my window or car so that others will know how caring I am? Y / N
  1. I think it is more important to feel good than to be good. Y / N
  1. If I were very wealthy, I would go to charity balls so that people would know I am altruistic. Y / N
  1. In this age of media when every day we can see tragedy on our screens, it is more important to let others know you are empathetic person than to feel empathy every time one sees human calamity. Y / N
  1. When someone like Princess Diana dies, it is easier to cry in public because so many others are doing it. Y / N
  1. Sometimes a lynch mob can be compassionate because it deters others from doing harm. Y / N
  1. Locking up convicted pedophiles is always good because it protects our children. Y / N
  1. Giving money to beggars is justified because it makes me feel good even though it may be wasted on alcohol or drugs. Y / N

To score the quiz, divide the total number of Yes answers by the total items answered. Higher percentages suggest greater compassion superficiality.

Mindfulness has reached a milestone in its evolution as a social movement. and Omega Institute, lined up Jon Kabat-Zinn (see photo on right), Congressman Time Ryan, and a few other speakers in the mindfulness movement, and then advertised a day and a half conference called “Creating a Mindful Society” was held in New York City on October 1st, 2011. How many people would you guess paid $275 each to attend this event?

Keep in mind that the vast majority of Americans don’t know what “mindfulness” means, and those that do, often cannot explain it to their friends. Those who talk about mindfulness often note the need for hours upon hours of meditation and discipline. I’ll give you another hint, Professor Kabat-Zinn, a key spokesman for the movement, warns his audiences about the pitfalls of proselytizing.

Despite these obstacles, over 500 showed up for the event, half of them arriving from outside the City. In addition, another 5,000 signed up to watch the event on their computer screens around the world, thanks to Google setting up web-casting. The “Creating a Mindful Society” event itself did not disappoint. Over 20 audience participants spoke from the floor at the final session, from which it became clear that most were inspired and fired up to share their enthusiasm with others.

dIf you missed the event, it is still possible to experience the entire conference video online free. Just go to

The most repeated phrase of the event was “The time has come.” However, by the end of the conference, it had become obvious that “The time has come” has many different meanings in the mindfulness community. For some it stood for the urgency of deep awareness of inner feelings and integration of inner selves. For others, it spoke to the desire to bring mindfulness to the masses in order to restore justice, peace, goodwill, and integrity.

While Saki Santorelli opened the conference, the opening keynote address came from the heart of Jon Kabat-Zinn, the father of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), and author of widely acclaimed books and meditation CDs on mindfulness. The Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care and Society that he started at the University of Mass has trained thousands in MBSR, many of whom have gone on to train others across the world.

Before hearing him that night, I had read some of his books and listed to one of his CDs and was prepared to hear one of the most brilliant and articulate contemporary thinkers. Except for his intellectual meandering, I was not disappointed. His charisma and ability to spontaneously express deep, heartfelt ideas was enrapturing.

What is Mindfulness?

Jon Kabat-Zinn defined mindfulness as moment by moment non-judgmental awareness. He went a step further and said “It is mind-body awareness, concentrating on it and accepting it.” He described this experience as direct perception, not cognitive processing. He went on to say people are starving for wholeness inside ourselves, i.e., reducing the separation between what we are and what we think we are and integration of heart mind, and body.

Mindfulness meditation is only one of thousands of different types of mediations, said Professor Kabat-Zinn. Many types of meditations are called contemplative practices. A short description of these contemplative practices can be found, with a taxonomy in tree form, in an article on this website called What are Mindfulness and Contemplative Practices?. The chief difference between mindfulness and meditation that Kabat-Zinn tried to make is that mindfulness is a state of being and meditation is collection of mental exercises. But they are not conceptually distinct because meditation is designed to bring one to desired states of being, and for the states of being to eventually become traits.

The Mindful Society

Kabat-Zinn addressed the societal and political links to mindfulness, which I think are best addressed in his discussion of politics in his 2005 book “Coming to our Senses: Healing Ourselves and the World through Mindfulness.” At the conference, he argued that mindfulness is essential to politics because politics has to do with community, which depends on citizens to take social responsibility. While he also argued that mindfulness has an ethical foundation, he did not develop that connection. His above book does have a chapter on ethics, however.

As a way to explain his view of how mindfulness can contribute socially, he gave two examples, one is Via Verde, a South Bronx housing project combining mindful architecture with social policies, and a second, that has connected over 600,000 donors to the micro financing of those living in poverty around the world. He pointed out that KIVA is a distributed organization and he several times expressed favor for distributed organizing.

Kabat-Zinn contrasted the mindfulness approach to activism with the Wall Street Occupation occurring at the other end of Manhattan. In so many words, he said that mindfulness activism occurs when we are caring individuals working toward doing what we are being.

A point of contention came up during the questions of the final session, the Town Hall. At one end of the spectrum were those ready to leave the meeting fired up to change the world, and at the other end were those convinced that their highest priority should be to focus upon being and becoming. Kabat-Zinn linked the two opposing positions together by pointing out some political options, but he leaned toward the reflecting-meditating end of the spectrum.

Mindfulness Could Save Politics

One of the reasons why many were ready to leave the gathering and spread the gospel of mindfulness was the powerful speech given by U.S. Congressman Tim Ryan of Ohio, whose new book, Mindful Nation, was published in March, 2012. Tim Ryan, a true believer of mindfulness, argued that there was no question that mindfulness should be spread widely. With humor and conviction, he pointed out that in the context of extremely contentious politics, “mindfulness is something that Americans could agree on.” “Who doesn’t want students to pay attention,” he proclaimed, and followed with: ” Who doesn’t need to pay attention to the small things in life that make a difference.”

Congressman Ryan added that mindfulness gatherings could help us get re-connected, like three generations ago before insurance, when people took care of each other. He urged “We can build this from within,” but went on to say that, it would “save the nation.”

Tim Ryan defined a mindful society as one where compassion and kindness permeate the whole mind. A mindful nation would address America’s crisis, which is that we have not found ways to help the struggling kids in schools. His final admonition was to stay focused and engaged, spending some time in activism and supporting the nation going in the right direction, and don’t be distracted by others’ visions.

The state of being mentally and emotionally sensitized to an object of suffering constitutes the first stepping stone of compassion as a process. This step has been called mindfulness, attentiveness, and resonance as well as awareness. While awareness is the starting point of compassion, many view it as an important part of every step in a compassionate life, because it is a method of training and practice in compassion.

Both awareness and mindfulness techniques are associated with contemplative and meditative practices of all types including Christian prayer and Buddhist meditation. Without extensive practice, most people cannot keep their minds free of extraneous, largely random thoughts for more than a few seconds unless their minds are actively engaged in a task. Awareness and mindfulness practice typically include exercises in keeping one’s mind from jumping from one thought to another, putting one in a meditative frame of mind.

Recent neurological research has demonstrated that people like Buddhist monks who meditate extensively have brain wave patterns associated with calm, peaceful states of mind. These states of extreme awareness and mindfulness have been found to be conducive to retaining a compassionate disposition. Consequently, training in cultivating compassion often includes awareness exercises as well.

The most popular and well known form of awareness development is the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn. While mindfulness is not a prerequisite of compassion, it has been found to be very useful in mediation intended to facilitate or cultivate compassion.

Anyone trying to live a life of compassion learns that without mental preparation and practice, compassion-distracting thoughts and feelings can emerge. One such distraction is the so called compassion fatigue, commonly associated with failing to be self-compassionate while simultaneously serving others compassionately. Awareness or mindfulness meditation experiences help a compassion-oriented person from getting off course.

The Compassionate Listening Project teaches skills for peacemaking that can be utilized in our every day lives with a goal of social change both locally and internationally. This organization was based on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and was founded in1999 by Gene Knudsen Hoffman, an active global peacemaker and founder of the United States/USSR Reconciliation program as well as several other prominent programs.

The Compassionate Listening Project provides training and workshops across the United States by encouraging and fostering the development of ‘Listening with the Heart’. Hoffman designed this project to facilitate non-judgmental and compassionate listening, while seeking the truth of the person speaking.

The message crafted by Gene Knudsen Hoffman is this: by simply talking to people and truly listening you may be surprised with what you can learn. In the process you will facilitate your own compassion by showing you care about someone who may feel as though he/she is being silenced.


The worst disaster ever seen,” said the UN Secretary General today in describing the Pakistan floods in the summer of 2010. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has seen many huge disasters around the world: the Haiti earthquake, Katrina, and the big SE Asia tsunami.

Over 15 million are already estimated affected, and it is still raining. Already reports include deaths from starvation and estimates of huge numbers ill from unsanitary water. Three weeks have gone by and the American media seem to give more time to discussing the political and military implications than the humanitarian need. Reports of both public and private aid seem meager, especially in comparison to Haiti and Katrina.

Americans can perhaps put the Pakistan floods in perspective by imagining the Mississippi River flooding from near-Canada to the Gulf. If the entire populations of Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Arkansas, and Louisiana were homeless or fighting back the flood, it would be somewhat comparable. And the Pakistan flood will get worse.

In the photo above, complements of IslamicReliefUSA, parents grieve for a dead child. Many more have lost contact with family and friends but have no way to find them.

Yes, there are many reasons we can give for not helping out with our concern, time, and money: distance, cultural differences, giving fatigue, and so on. But how legitimate are these rationale?

Answers to this question needs to be made at political as well as personal levels.

I don’t have answers yet as to the deep personal dimension of what to do? It would be so much easier if I could forgot this and go on about my work. It would be a lot easier if I had a framework for deciding how to divide up my helping activities and charity so that they address all that suffer, from family, to community, to local ghetto, to victims of this and forthcoming natural disasters, to those billions that still live in poverty.

I would welcome any suggestions on the meaning of the Pakistan flood disaster for us, how we can get it in perspective, and how we can be ready for more.