The Emotional Roots of Ethics

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Empathy, the Dalai Lama has said, is an essential means of developing compassion. We can transform empathy into love and compassion itself.

What does compassion mean for you? Think of acts you consider compassionate. Is compassion a feeling? A quality? An attitude? An emotion?

Compassion can be roughly defined in terms of a state of mind that is nonviolent, nonharming, and nonaggressive. It is a mental attitude based on the wish for others to be free of their suffering and is associated with a sense of commitment, responsibility, and respect towards the other.

While the Tibetan word nying je is simply translated as "compassion, the Dalai Lama uses it because the term has a wealth of meaning:

The ideas it contains are universally understood. It connotes love, affection, kindness, gentleness, generosity of spirit and warm-heartedness. It is also used as a term of both sympathy and of endearment. But most importantly, nying je denotes a feeling of connection with others, reflecting its origins in empathy.

Did your reflection of compassion include pity? How is compassion different than pity?

Compassion does not, the Dalai Lama teaches, imply condescension or pity.

On the contrary, (nying je) denotes a feeling of connection with others, reflecting its origins in empathy.

A developed emotion

Do you think of compassion as an emotion?

Compassion is what the Dalai Lama calls a more developed cognitive emotion.

What emotion(s) that you experience might upi categorize as instinctual? What emotion(s) develop with the contribution of reason? Consider the fear we tend t feel at the sight of blood or the emotion you feel when you think you might be lost. Now consider the fear of losing your home or becoming poor.

We can thus understand nying je in terms of a combination of empathy and reason. We can think of empathy as the characteristic of a very honest person; reason as that of someone who is very practical. When the two are put together, the combination is highly effective. As such, nying je is quite different from those random feelings, like anger and lust, which, far from bringing us happiness, only trouble us and destroy our peace of mind.

To me, this suggests that by means of sustained reflection on, and familiarization with, compassion, through rehearsal and practice we can develop our innate ability to connect with others, a fact which is of supreme importance given the approach to ethics I have described. The more we develop compassion, the more genuinely ethical our conduct will be.

Compassion — a path to happiness

How does compassion lead to happiness?

Ultimately, the reason why love and compassion bring the greatest happiness is simply that our nature cherishes them above all else. The need for love lies at the very foundation of human existence. It results from the profound interdependence we all share with one another. However capable and skillful an individual may be, left alone, he or she will not survive. However vigorous and independent one may feel during the most prosperous periods of life, when one is sick or very young or very old, one must depend on the support of others.

In Lesson 10 you will look more closely at compassion.