Always Well Within

Calm Your Mind, Ease Your Heart, Embrace Your Inner Wisdom

Go Beyond Empathy: Cultivating Genuine Compassion, Part 3

Loving Spoonbills

Almost all of us feel a sense of empathy when we see someone in the throes of suffering.  This natural sense of empathy is the basis for genuine compassion.  But, genuine compassion is more than a transitory feeling.

“What is compassion? It is not simply a sense of sympathy or caring for the person suffering, not simply a warmth of heart toward the person before you, or a sharp clarity of recognition of their needs and pain, it is also a sustained and practical determination to do whatever is possible and necessary to help alleviate their suffering.” – The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche.

This is the third article in a once-a-month series on the Four Boundless Attitudes, which together form genuine compassion: Love, Compassion, Joy and Impartiality. You can read the first two articles here:

Now that we have established, in the first two articles, that all beings are equally deserving of our love, compassion, and joy – the essence of impartiality – and have defined love as the wish for others to have happiness, and the causes of happiness, we’ll move on to exploring the third boundless attitude:  compassion.

Cultivating An Enduring Compassion

Compassion is based on the realization that we are all the same:  we all want happiness and none of us wish to suffer.   Mingyur Rinpoche defines compassion in this way:

“It’s basic meaning is ‘feeling with,’ a recognition that what you feel, I feel.  Anything that hurts you hurts me.  Anything that helps you, helps me.  Compassion…is a complete identification with others and an active readiness to help them in any way. – The Joy of Living, Unlocking the Secret and Science of Happiness.”

Genuine compassion is the wish for all beings to be free not just from suffering, but also from the causes of suffering – negative emotions and negative actions.

You might wonder why compassion is so important.  As long as our thoughts, words, and actions are motivated by self-cherishing and self-grasping, only suffering will follow for us.  Compassion is actually the best medicine for eradicating our attachment to self.

Compassion isn’t just a strategy though, it’s a deep-felt identification with others rooted in a profound understanding of the truth of how things really are, and the basis for actualizing our full potential on the spiritual path.

To overcome our self-obsession, and transform empathy from a passing feeling into an enduring state of compassion, it’s necessary to actually meditate on the suffering of others.  The following steps constitute a basic meditation on compassion.

  • Begin by imagining someone who is suffering.  It could be a close friend with a debilitating illness, someone who is impoverished, or an animal being brought to slaughter.  Now, imagine that you are undergoing this very same suffering.  Envision in vivid detail exactly how terrible this suffering would be, and how powerless and hopeless you might feel.
  • Then, consider how all this suffering is the effect of harmful actions from the past.  That doesn’t mean anyone deserves to suffer.  Negative actions usually come about as a confused way of  seeking happiness and trying to avoid suffering.
  • Next, reflect on the fact that all beings who are engaging in harmful actions now are creating the causes of suffering for themselves in the future. It’s an endless cycle of suffering.
  • Wouldn’t it be wonderful if all beings were freed from their negative tendencies, and actualized their full potential of compassion and wisdom instead of being stuck in this circle of suffering?  With all your heart, wish for all beings to be free from the causes and effects of suffering.

When you first begin meditating on compassion, focus on one suffering individual or being at a time.  Then, slowly expand your circle of compassion so that it includes not only those you love, but also those you feel neutral toward, and eventually even those you consider enemies.  In the end, extend your love and compassion to all beings, everywhere. If you begin to feel downcast while meditating on compassion, intersperse it with meditating on love or sympathetic joy, which we will discuss next month.

It takes time to reverse our tendency to cherish and protect the self, and to widen our circle of compassion.  Go slowly.  By gradually stretching your comfort zone just a bit eventually you will be able to feel compassion for everyone without overwhelming or burning yourself out in the process.

In addition to meditating on compassion, there are countless ways you can express your compassionate heart during daily life like listening to someone in need, visiting the infirm, donating to charity, or caring for the environment.

The Dalai Lama reminds us,

“Love is the absence of judgment. Any love or compassion which entails looking down on the other is not genuine compassion. Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive. “

Growing your compassionate heart will transform your being, and will be like a drop of nectar soothing the suffering of this world.

In this monthly series, I write about one of Four Boundless Attitudes on the first Sunday of every month.  Then, if you wish, you’ll have a whole month to practice it before we move to the next one.  Next up at the beginning of September is boundless sympathetic joy, the ability to rejoice in the good fortune of others.

Did you practice love last month?  How do you cultivate compassion in your life?

I’m so glad you’re here! If you liked this article, please consider subscribing for free updates by email. With love, Sandra




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  1. Compassion and kindness are what my latest post is about, Sandra. Empathy goes such a long way in making a disturbed heart feel much better. Love your idea of this series. My way of practicing compassion is by listening and sharing my extra stuff with those that need it. Poverty is a terrible thing and so is the struggle for survival. It breaks my heart to see so many street people desperately trying to manage. I try my best to always have a kind word and smile and hug.

    • That is such a moving post, Vidya! I hope a zillion people read it. I love your way of practicing active compassion and the way you make it an integral part of your life. We don’t really have to look far to be able to express our compassion as your post illustrates so clearly.

  2. jean sampson

    I love Vidya’s answer! I have always felt EVERYTHING and a lot of my life I have spent trying to NOT FEEL everything, For the past 25 years I have allowed most of my feelings to be felt because I learned that it was toxic to shut down your feelings.
    You are so right that just feeling stuff does not do any good—-we need to act compassionately. There can be several choices as to how to go about that to do the most good and to also not burn yourself out in the process. I like to be able to take time to process feelings, but that is not always possible and sometimes I have to act directly with what I am feeling. And you really do just have to give without any expectations and without any real agenda, I think. I spend a lot of time just listening to people and that seems to be tremendously helpful to folks. And, I am with Vidya on the hugs (if someone wants one).

    • Dear Jean,

      I feel everything too and I’m still learning how to be with that. This is such an important point you’ve made about how essential it is to give without expectations or agenda. That’s another whole lesson in itself. Listening is such a gift. It can be rare these days to be with someone who really listens as we are all so pulled around by our busyness and electronic gadgets. Thanks for sharing your way of compassion with us!

  3. What a great series this is Sandra…we could change the world if we cultivated just a tiny bit more compassion in our hearts.

    “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if all beings were freed from their negative tendencies, and actualized their full potential of compassion and wisdom instead of being stuck in this circle of suffering? With all your heart, wish for all beings to be free from the causes and effects of suffering.”

    This is a wonderful concept and since I live from the inside out, I like to imagine this for everyone…on a regular basis…and from there my actions will flow.

    Thank you for your wisdom…it’s a beautiful gift to the world.

    • So true, Elle! I agree fully, it all begins with living from the inside out. And, our imagination is powerful. I’m with you in heart and spirit.

  4. Your post gave me pause and I have been reflecting on it these past few days. I am new to this way of thinking, so there is much I don’t really understand. I trained as a science teacher, so I tend to look at things from a more scientific viewpoint, so please bear with me as I learn new ways of thinking. I struggle with the idea that, “all this suffering is the effect of harmful actions from the past.” I have a friend who has Lyme disease and her suffering is beyond terrible. The scientist in me says, the suffering is caused by a bacteria that is very hard to eradicate. How then can it be caused by harmful actions in the past? Could you expand on the point to help me understand better (or point me to some other reading material). Many thanks

    • Hi Sharon,

      I appreciate how deeply you have engaged with the topic. I fully understand why this might sound confusing to you and others as well. This is the belief in karma that is found in Eastern religions. Karma means action and it is the universal law of cause and effect. Every action has an effect, sometimes we can see those effects immediately and sometimes not for years (or lifetimes) to come. It’s a big leap to believe our suffering is the effect of past actions, but it’s a common belief among millions of people in the world that believe in karma and reincarnation. That doesn’t mean we’re “bad”, just confused and not understanding how to create happiness for ourselves.

      One way to look at this simply is to think of the physical effects of getting angry – it can upset your stomach, raise your blood pressure, or even cause you to fall down because you are not paying attention being so obsesses with your angry thoughts. It can cause you to hit someone and then end up in jail. That’s a very simple example of how our actions have an effect. Karma is complex though so we can’t always see directly how it all works.

      Hope this helps a bit. I don’t expect everyone to ascribe to this belief. It depends to some extent on whether Eastern thought resonates for you or not.

  5. Thank you for your explanation Sandra. It has given me more food for sure. Can you recommend a helpful book for someone starting to explore Eastern religious thought?

    • Hi Sharon, There are many different approaches to Easter thought so it would depend which tradition you would like to explore. I practice Tibetan Buddhism and two books I love are The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche and The Joy of Living: Unlocking the Secret and Science of Happiness by Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche.

  6. oops typo.. I meant to say food for thought 🙂

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