The Practice of Compassion

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Approaches to enhancing compassion

What mental factors that you have already studied in this course could contribute to the cultivation of compassion, even great compassion?

In order to cultivate this powerful great compassion, we need to train our mind separately in two factors. One is to cultivate a sense of empathy with or closeness to all sentient beings, for whose sake we wish to work so that they become free from suffering. The other factor is to cultivate a deeper insight into the nature of the suffering from which we wish others to be relieved.

Empathy as a source of compassion

In Module I you learned of the importance of empathy, the ability to appreciate another's suffering. When you see someone or something suffering, is empathy a part of your emotional response? Is your compassion not based simply on your awareness that this being also has feelings, can experience pain, and has a right not to experience such pain?

How can accessing your empathy affect your compassion?

As we have said before, learning is the first step to inner transformation. The Dalai Lama suggests that we can strengthen compassion by imagining situations where there is a sentient being suffering.

When someone treats you with compassion and affection, does it make you feel happy? When someone does not treat you with love and compassion, how does that make you feel? On the basis of this observation, can you reflect on how others also feel good when they are shown warmth and compassion. And that your warmth and compassion, therefore, can make them feel happiness or suffering?

You start by recognizing that you do not want suffering and that you have a right to have happiness. This can be verified or validated by your own experience. You then recognize that other people, just like yourself, also do not want to suffer and that they have a right to have happiness.

This kind of investigation leads us to a deep appreciation of the value of compassion, and this awareness gives rise to feelings of conviction and determination. Then, you can employ methods to enhance empathy, such as using your imagination, your creativity, to visualize yourself in another's situation. Such exercises or practices can serve to strengthen your compassion.

Consider some examples the Dalai Lama offers:

Imagine an animal suffering painfully. If you find yourself moved by its suffering, ask yourself: is this feeling based on a special connection with that particular fish, a feeling of  "Oh, that animal is my friend."?

If you don't feel strongly about the suffering of animals, select a person, perhaps someone close to you like a family member or friend, and imagine they are suffering or going through a painful situation. Then try to image how that person is reacting to their situation and what they are experiencing and feeling.

While one can attempt to increase compassion by trying to empathize with another's feeling or experience, don't lose sight of the fact that the converse is true as well, that we inhibit our compassion by closing our eyes to the suffering all around.