On Compassion

Buddhism teaches that all life is interrelated. Through the concept of “dependent origination,” it holds that nothing exists in isolation, independent of anything else. One of the positive consequences of interconnectedness is the ability we have to show compassion for others. Compassion is what arises in us when we encounter suffering – for ourselves and for others. No one in their right mind wants to see others suffer.

When we meet someone new, we immediately and almost without conscious thought form opinions based on a number of factors such as race, sex, and clothing. When we’re introduced, the first thing we often ask, especially in the Washington, DC area where I live, is “what do you do for a living?” Depending on the answer, we may decide whether or not it’s worth our time to get to know the person.  All you know about this person is that he or she works with computers, practices law, or teaches meditation, but you use that minuscule knowledge to build up a whole series of beliefs about the person and, having classified them, move on to someone else.

Unfortunately, we apply this practice all too often to friends and family as well. It’s all too easy to write off a friend or a relative for whatever reason, often because we fear that if we show interest or compassion, we’ll be stuck with taking care of him, or get wrapped up in a situation we really can’t do anything about. Even in close relationships, spending time with someone you care about, even if you’re helping others or doing good deeds, if your attention is on what YOU are feeling, or what you’re getting out of it, then you see these relationships as transactions. When we feel compassion, the vulnerability of another person becomes part of us, for better or for worse.

If any of this describes you – that is to say, if you’re willing to admit it – you may find it useful to ask yourself “how can I be more kind?” when encountering someone. 99 times out of 100, you won’t end up having to do anything other than to acknowledge their existence and remember that they are suffering just like everyone else. As Mother Teresa of Calcutta taught, “we can do no great things – only small things with great love.” Good things come in small packages, and lots of small packages can add up to a couple big ones.


Psychologist Kristin Neff said, “Compassion towards others is really a gift to ourselves, because it nourishes us with benevolent feelings and allows us to feel more secure by recognizing our interconnectedness.”