The Practice of Compassion

7 of 9

It's an effort

The Dalai Lama acknowledges that the effort to move from our habitual self-centered focus to responding to the suffering of others is a major effort and entails what might seem at first to be discomfort. But, he says:

Underlying the uncomfortable feeling is a very high level of alertness and determination because you are voluntarily and deliberately accepting another's suffering for a higher purpose. There is a feeling of connectedness and commitment, a willingness to reach out to others, a feeling of freshness rather than dullness.

The Dalai Lama compares generating compassion to a rigorous training program. An athlete in training tolerates a lot of pain and exhaustion but does not experience it as suffering. Rather than suffering, the athlete is likely to feel elation and pride and identify the experience as a positive one. But the same person experiencing pain and exhaustion outside of their training program might bemoan their ordeal.

Have you ever been involved in athletics, training vigorously? Can you relate to this observation? If not athletics, think of an endeavor that you were so engaged with that you gladly tolerated experiences that otherwise might have caused suffering. From this experience would you agree with the Dalai Lama that mental attitude makes a significant difference?

The best defense against despair is sincere effort. Again we return to the importance of motivation.

At least I've done my best!

The degree to which they will actually be able to cultivate compassion depends on so many variables, who can tell? But if they make their best efforts to be kinder, to cultivate compassion and make the world a better place, then at the end of the day they can say, "At least I've done my best!"

Even if the rope breaks nine times, we must splice it together a tenth time

The Dalai Lama cautions against despair.

Despair is never a solution. It is, rather, the ultimate failure. As the Tibetan expression teaches, if we do persevere and do not despair, even if ultimately we do fail, at least there will be no feelings of regret. And when we combine this insight with a clear appreciation of our potential to benefit others, we find that we can begin to restore our hope and confidence.

Are you worried that entering into the suffering of others will bring suffering on yourself? If so, can you distinguish between experiencing your own suffering and sharing the suffering of others?

One of the qualities of our own suffering that is difficult for us is its involuntary nature; things happen and we rarely can foresee the things that cause us pain. Engaging with someone else's suffering, on the other hand, is something we do freely. Because such a choice reflects our inner strength, we are less likely to be paralyzed by the suffering of others than by our own. Recognizing our aspiration and our active role in this process, we are more able to continually splice the rope together when it breaks.

It's worthwhile returning again and again to one's doubt or uncertainty. Can you believe in your heart that the more you truly desire to benefit others, the greater the strength and confidence you develop and the greater the peace and happiness you experience? If this still seems unlikely, it is worth asking yourself: how else are you to do so? With violence and aggression? With wealth and material pleasures?

Reflect: Is it truly so that by sharing in others' suffering, by recognizing yourself clearly in all others, by helping them to be happy you bring contentment to yourself?