Compassion 101

Often when we talk about compassion we ask, “How I can increase my compassion?” And the Buddhist teachings do say that we need to expand our compassion. But practically speaking, we need to increase our resilience and our heedfulness.

We need to increase our ability to recollect, to remember, which we usually call mindfulness. We need to strengthen our resolve to enjoy our mind, our emotions, and our neurosis. Isn’t that nice? Having a one-pointed resolve to enjoy our anger and fear” Of course, by “enjoy” I don’t mean indulge them.

The way we usually try to expand compassion and kindness is by trying to improve ourselves. And this very sense of becoming a “better person” is rooted in our usual mind state of poverty mentality. It comes from a heart of dissatisfaction, from our usual confusion, rooted in attachment to the comfort of our habitual façade.

When we think about expanding compassion, we imagine something very beautiful and comfortable––a warm-hearted sense of joy, a very cozy feeling—almost like you’re lying in a meadow of bouncy teddy bears. Or like you’re swimming around in the clouds where it’s soft and gently compassionate. “Oh wow,” we think, “Compassion is so beautiful.” That’s a little misleading, however. Thinking about compassion this way is mixed with our confusion. This confused thought comes from our attachment to comfort, from the kind of religious cultural idea that says you have to be nice and pure and perfect. So this confusion about compassion comes directly from the mix of habitual tendencies we get stuck in.

What is it like to practice compassion?

So what does the practice of compassion actually consist of? Probably 90% of the time it consists of working with compassion’s opposites––aggression and egocentricity. If we are willing to work with these opposites as they come up for us day to day, this in itself is an expression of compassion. Working with these difficult mental and emotional states is expanding our heart, it is having a direct positive effect on yourself as well as on others.

On the other hand, going around with this idea that compassion is a mere feeling, like being on Cloud 9, is not effective. Cultivating this notion doesn’t positively affect you or those around you. In fact, clinging to such an idea actually causes your mind to get more irritated. Because you will soon realize that this romantic type of compassion doesn’t exist. It’s like looking for the perfect partner––you can’t find such a person. There is no such thing as a perfect partner.

Did you read the Sufi story about the guy who went looking for the perfect wife? He decided on certain qualifications. She had to be beautiful, kind, and intelligent. She had to be a great cook and on and on. He compiled an extensive list of qualities and then set out in search of this perfect partner. He found one person he thought was beautiful but who did not meet his other criteria of being intelligent, kind, and having excellent cooking skills. He kept looking and found another person who was very intelligent but who, in his opinion, was not so beautiful.

In the story this guy goes all around the world until finally he finds the perfect person, the ideal wife he has been searching for all this time. But in the end he doesn’t get married. Why? Because she didn’t think he was the perfect partner for her! Looking for the perfect partner leads us nowhere.

In the same way, we may be looking for perfect compassion. We may want to attain our romanticized or idealistic idea of compassion, but it does not exist. Really, there’s no such thing. If we go looking with the idea that we will acquire some sort of cozy romantic feeling, we will only find it in New Age magazines. You can look there and see a photoshopped compassion in a very serene environment. You can even play a nice, relaxing mp3 to go along with that. You can burn some beautiful sandalwood incense and have a relaxing aromatherapy experience there. You can see if this aroma of compassion ignites your inner universal love. This idealized or “perfect compassion” may exist in these forms, but they are expensive and only last for an hour. After the hour is over, you’re not sure if compassion was really there or not.

Keeping compassion real

True compassion is rugged. It can certainly be beautiful sometimes, but it is not going to be comfortable all the time.

Once my sister had a flat tire on a New York throughway, so she was looking for someone to help. When I heard her story, as a brother I said, “What? You don’t know how to change a tire?” So simple, right? Changing a tire. I grew up in India where you have to change a tire almost hourly. The roads are so nice with all kinds of stuff on them. So changing a tire in India is part of everyday life; it’s like making toast. So when I heard my sister telling this story, I felt it was as though she had flagged someone down to help her make toast.

Some kind person stopped. He came out and changed the tire. My sister tried to offer him some gift but he said, “No, no, I didn’t do this for any reward, I just wanted to help. But here’s how you can repay me. The next time you see someone who needs help, please stop and help them.”

After she told me that story, I was happy she hadn’t known how to change a tire. Because she met a truly kind person. That person could be your state trooper, you never know.

So that is what compassion is: just ordinary beings doing ordinary things out of kindness, love, and care, with basic respect toward one another, human being to human being. That’s where compassion begins and that’s how we can practice to expand our compassion. Just like this guy who stopped for some weird Tibetan woman on a New York throughway––a total stranger stopping to offer help. We have such opportunities every day on the streets where we live.

Whether or not we know someone personally or not, it doesn’t matter. We can open our heart and simply recognize another human being in need. As a human being, each of us definitely has the obligation to relate to and help others, especially those who are clearly in need of our help.

In a situation like this, therefore, there is a natural impulse to give our help. The important thing is, when the opportunity arises, that we remember to work with our reactive mental and emotional patterns so that we do not allow our natural kindness to be stopped. This is our chance to practice real compassion on the ground

Rugged Compassion: A Contemplative Exercise

Here is a way to begin working with compassion’s opposites, and to experience compassion as it really is.

1. Think of a recent situation where you were out somewhere in public and began to get uncomfortable or even angry. What was happening? Who was there? Where did you feel that discomfort, physically?

2. How did you respond to that feeling of discomfort or irritation? What thoughts were going through your mind?

3. Did you take any action toward the situation? Did you complain to someone? Or did you try to ignore it? How did it feel to take this action? What were you thinking about it?

4. Now imagine revisiting that situation, as though watching the characters in a play. Notice everyone in the scene including yourself.

5. Imagine switching places with each person in the scene and playing their role. Imagine you are doing all of the things they’re doing. Imagine you are feeling what they are feeling. Imagine thinking the thoughts they are thinking. Imagine that you need what they need in that moment. Don’t get blocked thinking you can’t know these things. Remember it’s just an exercise. You’re imagining.

6. See yourself bringing something positive to the situation: taking some helpful action, or simply having a positive thought or wish for others’ happiness and well being.

7. If you find yourself in a similar situation in the future, how might you take it as an opportunity to work with compassion’s opposites?

You can do this contemplation with any situation that could have benefited from your compassionate response.

By imagining others’ possible feelings, needs, and points of view, we are practicing real compassion. As we cultivate a greater awareness of others from day to day, we naturally begin looking around to see what we can do to help. Wherever we go, there are opportunities: make someone smile, or just to have a genuine thought for another’s well being. This is how compassion grows: little by little, as we work with our rugged mind.


The teachings on compassion practice that appear in this article were given by Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche at a retreat in Toronto, Ontario, Canada in 2017.