Taking the Path of Ethical Compassion

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Start where you are

If you agree that universal responsibility is fundamental to both personal happiness and the creation of a better world, it is essential to begin to employ compassion in your everyday life, to put principles into practice. But how? Where to begin? How much is enough?  

The Dalai Lama is not suggesting that one radically change one's life situation. We are not being called upon to adopt an entirely new way of life — to live like Gandhi or to become a doctor, teacher or monk.  Each of us can begin with our current life situation and begin to bring more compassion into our every day living.  

With motivation and humility

The Dalai Lama notes that this requires doing our work with the intention to benefit others. Remember the importance of motivation.

The Dalai Lama suggests:

So long as we carry out our work with good motivation, thinking, "My work is for others," it will be of benefit to the wider community.

If you find this difficult, it can be helpful to reflect on all the benefits you accrue in your life from others working for you. You needn't think of the Gandhis and Martin Luther Kings (and Dalai Lamas). Each day we are graced by innumerable acts that benefit us. Because we take these for granted, reflecting on just one day's experience can be eye-opening.

It can also be helpful to remember the value of humility. We can to live our principles in small ways, such as turning off a dripping faucet or helping someone who needs assistance getting on the subway.  Or, we can live our principles in large ways;  if we realize that our work can cause harm to others then we may choose to change our work out of a sense of responsibility. In living our life, have the courage to be the responsible, honest politician, the businessman who considers the waste produced by their production facilities, the lawyer who fights for justice, the plumber who installs low-flow toilets, the Muslim who respects Jews (and vice versa!)

With determination

As much as you can, of your own volition

Whatever we do for others, whatever sacrifices we make, should be voluntary and with a conscious understanding of the benefit of such action. The Dalai Lama strongly encourages those with wealth to view their resources as a tremendous opportunity to help others; sharing their wealth to alleviate suffering.  At the same time, everyone cannot and should not divest themselves of all their belongings or live the life of a monk; rather we should move from where we are with moderation. 

He notes that he owns several expensive time pieces that he could sell and build dwellings for the poor, but he has not yet chosen to do this.  In sharing this story from his own life, the Dalai Lama shows how we can each start from our current life situation and make the changes we are able to in the moment, and how we can have compassion for ourselves as we recognize where our principles and actions are not yet aligned.

We don't need to try to become infinitely compassionate in one day or one week or one year; we take the steps we can, moving forward in moderation.

Some people from the West, where technology is so good, think that everything is automatic. You should not expect this spiritual transformation to take place within a short period; that is impossible. Keep it in your mind and make a constant effort, then after 1 year, 5 years, 10 years, 15 years, you will eventually find some change. I still sometimes find it very difficult to  practice these things. However, I really do believe that these practices are extremely useful.    

Making a commitment

Why, then, if the path to happiness is so clear, do we find it so hard? Alas, we shrink from facing our negative thoughts and emotions, thus allowing them to control our lives.

We waste so much of our time on meaningless activity and feel deep regret over trivial matters.  We use our abilities too often to deceive our neighbors, take advantage of them and better ourselves at their expense.  We take our pleasures where we can and shrink from considering others' well being on the grounds we are too busy.  Inevitably, by being inattentive to the needs of others, we end up harming them.  When things don't work out, full of self-righteousness, we blame others for our difficulties.