Wisdom//

A Simple Exercise Based on Buddhist Wisdom Can Help You Cultivate Compassion

As the Tibetan Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön said: 'Sorrow has the exact same taste for all of us.'

Buddhist texts describe compassion as the quivering of the heart in response to the recognition of suffering. To cultivate compassion, we become aware of the suffering in ourselves and others, and we do what we can to alleviate it. It helps to start with ourselves. Responding to our own suffering with compassion not only eases our pain, but gives rise to compassion for others because, as the Tibetan Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön said: “Sorrow has the exact same taste for all of us.” And so, when we truly see our own suffering, we’re able to recognize it in others.

Treating others with compassion is a gift you can give of inestimable value. Think of some time in your life when you were suffering and someone reached out to you, showing that he or she understood your pain. Can you recall how it made you feel? I can think of a time this happened for me. A week or so after my father died, I had to return to my sixth grade classroom. I didn’t want to go. I was embarrassed to be the kid whose father had died. I wanted to blend in and be treated like everyone else but was afraid that wouldn’t happen. And I was right. My fellow students were awkward around me, being simultaneously too nice and too distant. I remember wanting to flee in misery.

My best friend, Janie Lakes (later to become Congresswoman Jane Harman), recognized my distress. She pranced right up to me, gave me a big slap on the shoulder and, using her affectionate nickname for me, said: “How ‘ya doin’ meatball?” It immediately relieved everyone’s discomfort. I suddenly felt at home in my classroom, and my classmates felt at home with me. In one bold move, Janie relieved everyone’s suffering and discomfort!

This story illustrates that compassion for others can be expressed in a variety of ways—some of them quite unconventional. So long as your intention is to ease others’ suffering, you’re on the mark.

One of the easiest ways to begin cultivating compassion is to practice it when you’re in a place with people you don’t know personally. It could be an airport or a park or a waiting room. I’ve tried it in all of these places. As I gaze at the people around me, I reflect on how some of them may have health problems and some of them may be mourning the loss of a loved one. Others may be nervous about an upcoming job interview or be worried about their children or an aging parent.

I think about how they, like me, must live as best they can with their ten thousand sorrows. Although the specific facts surrounding what has led to their individual suffering may differ from mine, we’ve all experienced sadness, worry, insecurity, and unhappiness. Having become attuned to their suffering, I evoke compassion for them, knowing that they, like me, want to be happy and at peace. To do this, I silently speak to them with phrases that express my deepest wish that they be free from suffering. Here are some of the phrases I use:

  • I hope you have people in your life who care about your suffering.
  • We share this planet and our suffering; know that I care.
  • May your suffering ease soon.
  • May you be as well as possible.

I suggest that you start your compassion practice by focusing on strangers because these are people with whom you’re unlikely to encounter conflict. When you’re ready to expand your practice to those you’re close to, I recommend that you begin by regarding them as you did those strangers—as people with whom you simply share this planet. The best way to do this is to drop the identities you’ve attached to them: mother, father, partner, child, best friend. Let them become people who, just like you, want to be happy and at peace. From this benevolent state of mind, you’ll be better able to hold them with compassion in your heart, wishing that they be free from suffering, even if your relationship with them is imperfect.

The Buddha said that whatever we repeatedly “think and ponder upon” becomes the inclination of our minds. And so, the more we cultivate compassion, the more it becomes our natural response to the world.

From How to Wake Up: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and SorrowExcerpted with permission from Wisdom Publications.

Share your comments below. Please read our commenting guidelines before posting. If you have a concern about a comment, report it here.

You might also like...

Community//

Developing Compassion for Yourself

by Diana Raab, PhD
Alex Linghorn/Getty Images
Wisdom//

Why We Should Seek Happiness Even in Hard Times

by Jill Suttie, Psy.D.
Community//

6 Ways To Live Boldly and Passionately, As If Your Life Depends On It

by Tony Fahkry

Sign up for the Thrive Global newsletter

Will be used in accordance with our privacy policy.

Thrive Global
People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills . . . There is nowhere that a person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind. . . . So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself.

- MARCUS AURELIUS

We use cookies on our site to give you the best experience possible. By continuing to browse the site, you agree to this use. For more information on how we use cookies, see our Privacy Policy.