Compassion in Music, Society, and Psychiatry


Though compassion would seem to be part and parcel of psychiatry, its value and expression has seemed to vary.




A couple of days ago, I was not thinking of this focus for the column today, but then again, it is hard to predict when another horror will erupt in the Middle East that seems to call for a reflection. Right before my wife and I set out to a performance of the jazz trio led by the MacArthur Genius award-winning Vijay Iyer, Iran had launched a retaliatory air attack toward the land of Israel, similar to what Russia has done toward Ukraine in what could be said to be examples of the clash of civilizations.1 It has been reported that virtually all missiles were intercepted, including over the Muslim Holy Site of the Temple Mount.

As the trio was about to begin, Iyer said that much of the music would come from his new recording titled “Compassion,” saying that compassion was needed more than ever, seemingly a reference to the escalation of the war. Given our cultural conflicts in the United States and the world, it was striking to see and know of the personal cultural variety of the trio. Like the best of jazz trios, the music seemed unpredictable, creative, flowing, and by the end, collectively uplifting, just like life can be at its best in resolving most any dissonance, this time with my breakthrough thoughts about Israel and Iran. Since it is always hard to be sure of how to describe such music, he says his song titles are intended to provide an emotional entry into the music’s objectives.

In his liner notes to his recording, Vijay, on piano, described more of what he meant, including how “Compassion” connected to his prior album, titled “Uneasy”:

“The unease I experience making art in times of suffering never goes away, nor should it; that tension shapes the creative process at every stage.”

He goes on the describe his father, who came to the United States from India, as “the most compassionate man I have ever known” and dedicated the piece “For My Father” to him. Another piece, “Arch,” sort of a circular meditation, was a tribute to the late Archbishop Desmond Tutu from South Africa.

About compassion, he concludes:

“I am no more qualified than anyone else to tell you anything new about compassion. But I hope that this word, placed alongside this music, offers us all a reminder, an assurance, a plea, and perhaps an inspiration to find each other in this together. Thank you for listening.”

For me, his pleas apply to psychiatrists, too. During the escalating war in the Middle East, conflict between Jewish and Muslim psychiatrists has also escalated. About half of my formerly interfaith and cross-cultural working relationships have dissipated. Another psychiatrist from another part of the world wrote me a swear word rant about the tragic loss of life in Gaza.

Compassion is such a commonly used word that it seems to not need a definition, but in general it is defined along the lines of sympathetic concern for the suffering of others. There is a range of such sympathy, from the inadequate even to the excessive.

Though compassion would seem to be part and parcel of psychiatry, its value and expression has seemed to vary. One psychiatrist said it was missing in action in some inpatient settings that often felt traumatic and terrifying to patients.2 Over recent times, compassion-focused psychotherapy has developed in order to integrate its caring and safe influence into psychiatry.3 Although compassion has been cultivated in contemplative traditions for thousands of years, recent research confirms its physical and psychological benefits, including enhancing well-being, addressing mental health difficulties, and promoting prosocial behavior.

Compassion sounds simple, but it is complex. It can exist and be needed for loved ones, oneself, strangers, and even enemies at the same time as opposing them in action. For individuals, it can be enhanced in various ways: journaling, sounds, chanting, yoga, dance, music, biofeedback, and psychedelic drugs among them. In psychiatry, a compassionate therapeutic relationship is a key for the journey of sharing the joys of moving forward and the sorrows of setbacks. In society, compassion would necessitate sympathy for the suffering of all victims of trauma and violence, and adequate enough to use one’s abilities to try to reduce the source of that suffering. Globally, it is hoped to be an essential part of a movement toward dialogue among civilizations instead of clashing conflict.4

In the meanwhile, as happened with us, anytime you need a quick compassion boost, try a listen to Vijay’s recording of “Compassion.”

Dr Moffic is an award-winning psychiatrist who specialized in the cultural and ethical aspects of psychiatry and is now in retirement and retirement as a private pro bono community psychiatrist. A prolific writer and speaker, he has done a weekday column titled “Psychiatric Views on the Daily News” and a weekly video, “Psychiatry & Society,” since the COVID-19 pandemic emerged. He was chosen to receive the 2024 Abraham Halpern Humanitarian Award from the American Association for Social Psychiatry. Previously, he received the Administrative Award in 2016 from the American Psychiatric Association, the one-time designation of being a Hero of Public Psychiatry from the Speaker of the Assembly of the APA in 2002, and the Exemplary Psychiatrist Award from the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill in 1991. He is an advocate and activist for mental health issues related to climate instability, physician burnout, and xenophobia. He is now editing the final book in a 4-volume series on religions and psychiatry for Springer: Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, Christianity, and now The Eastern Religions, and Spirituality. He serves on the Editorial Board of Psychiatric Times.


1. Huntington S. The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. Simon & Schuster; 2011.

2. McIntosh D. Where is the compassion in psychiatric care? Psychology Today. October 30, 2019. Accessed April 15, 2024.

3. Gilbert P. Compassion: from its evolution to a psychotherapy. Front Psychol. 2020:11:586161.

4. Ahmed A, First B, eds. After Terror: Promoting Dialogue Among Civilizations. Polity; 2005.

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