As you well know, we are sorely in need of more widespread and global empathy, compassion and altruism. Now more than ever, we are at risk of continuing on a path toward greater suffering and self-destruction. Unfortunately, this is a path that is distressingly evident around the world.
The Dalai Lama has done more to raise awareness of the healing power of compassion than any other world figure. While the practice of Buddhism is by no means the only path toward compassion, it is the fundamental underpinning of almost all Buddhist teachings.
I see Buddhist teachings less as a religion and more as a tool a wiser, kinder way of living. A way that holds out the promise of a more civilized and humanized world overall. The practices I’ve learned over the years, as well as the teachings I’ve imparted on my students, are primarily about learning how to cultivate what Buddhists call the skillful means of becoming a decent person; thereby, imparting that onto those around me, both locally and globally.
So, what is more important? To send aid to countries who are struggling or to teach compassion? What do we do under the guise of “helping.”
Does it really have anything to do with helping to right a wrong and doing good deeds for others?
No, it actually has more to do with what Buddhists call “foolish” or “sentimental” compassion. It has to do with a fantasy of “being a good person.”
These are mostly our good intentions, not grounded in a real understanding or wisdom about the root causes of suffering. What is lacking is the wise compassion that really transforms suffering at its root.
In His Holiness’ the Dalai Lama’s book, Ethics for a New Millennium, he suggests we embrace all of humanity with an evenly applied universal concern. The capacity for universal compassion and altruism is built into every human brain. He also reminds us that our personal happiness is linked to the happiness of others. In other words, my happiness is really not about me.
Interdependence lays the foundation of our universal responsibility to model the common happiness of all life on earth. In other words, we are all interdependent upon one another. Instead of thinking that we live in our own worlds distanced by the misperception of separation, we actually are not here in a vacuum. I am you and you are me.
We can make no greater contribution to the world than by training our minds in the meditative practice of compassion. But, in order to do that, we must first find self-compassion. We cannot give away what we do not have.
To train in compassion, we already understand that we have a basic capacity for mindful self-awareness. But first, genuine or wise compassion does not confuse our suffering with that of others. In order to keep ourselves from doing that, we must train our minds and brains to respond to suffering in proactive ways that cultivate positive emotions of empathy, compassion and altruism.
When we have empathy and compassion, it sensitizes us to human suffering. Imagine walking past a homeless family sleeping on a city sidewalk without giving it a second thought, without being touched with compassion for their plight. As a society, we cannot allow ourselves to become desensitized to the suffering of another. If we do, we only become desensitized to our own suffering as well.
Neuroscientific connection with emotions shows us there is a social contagion of human emotion. Typically, our first reaction when we see someone suffering is that it often triggers our own emotional memories that match the distress we see. This explains why being compassionate is so often confused with being caught up in someone else’s suffering.
So what is the distinction between genuine or wise compassion and sentimental or false compassion?
Genuine or wise compassion involves a higher awareness and insight that doesn’t confuse our own suffering with that of others.
Sentimental or false compassion in contrast, refers to the kind of unconscious, confused perception of others suffering through the lens of our own suffering.
Compassion training helps us to shift the neuropsychological process of suffering from the reactive mode of sympathy to the practice of empathy and wise compassion.
We do have the power to train our minds and brain to respond to suffering in proactive ways through cultivating the positive emotions of empathy, compassion and altruism.
Listen to Maggie’s episode entitled “Cultivating Compassion” on the Life Illuminated Podcast for more insight and teachings about compassion.
Or feel free to join us sometime at Satsang House Spiritual and Meditation Center for community meditation and more spiritual discussions like this one. Visit www.satsanghouse.net for more details and information.