Genuine compassion is based not on our own projections and expectations but rather on the rights of the other; irrespective of whether another person is a close friend or an enemy; as long as that person wishes for peace and happiness and wishes to overcome suffering, then on that basis we develop a genuine concern for his or her problems. If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.
— His Holiness the Dali Lama

Two Levels Of Compassion

Excerpt from The Wisdom of Compassion by HH the Dalai Lama and Victor Chan


“There are two levels of compassion. One level has more to do with biological factors. This compassion needs no training. No need to get help from wisdom. It is spontaneous. Like compassion from mother to their children, or compassion between relatives - at least those relatives that show you a positive attitude. These are biological factors, and very much dependent on others' attitudes."

For the Dali Lama, compassion or a feeling of closeness at this level could quickly turn into resentment and hatred because it is tinged with attachment and desire. Romantic love, for instance, is often associated with self-centered emotional needs. When the going is good, we tend to exaggerate and over-emphasize our partner's good qualities. But when feelings or circumstances change, disappointment and a sense of betrayal are often the result. This kind of love is motivated more by personal need than genuine concern for the other.

The Dali Lama cautions that our negative emotions are often impulsive, rather than based on an accurate reading of the situation. Our overly emotional responses hinder our ability to behave rationally and constructively. Positive emotions, however, are grounded in a realistic way of seeing and are conditioned by wisdom. True compassion, therefore, is not coloured by emotions. It is a firm commitment that remains rock-solid even when we are confronted with hostile behaviour.

The Dali Lama shared an example of his own prejudices when he was a small child. Whenever he came across two dogs fighting, his heart invariably went out to the one getting clobbered. He had to work hard to suppress his instinct to kick out at the stronger one. When he got older, he realized that his behaviour showed a clear bias, a clear discrimination, in his practice of compassion.

"Now, second level of compassion is beyond that, it is based on understanding and respect. It's not dependent on the others' attitude. We disregard, pay less attention to how others treat us. We are mindful they are human beings, and they, like us, have feelings. I want happiness. I do not want suffering. Because of that, I have the right to work on eliminating suffering. But the other seven billion human beings have the same right. In today's interconnected reality, my future depends on others. So I have to take their interest ultimately as my own interest."

"When others are passing through difficulties, we must respond because we have a sense of concern for them. So this is genuine compassion, second-level compassion. It is stable and unbiased. It is oriented to the person, to someone who, like us, feels pain acutely."

As the Dalai Lama has said, it does not matter whether people are beautiful and friendly or unattractive and hard to get along with. The bottom line is that they are human beings, just like us. And like us, they crave happiness and do not want to suffer. Moreover, their right to overcome suffering and be happy is not less than ours. If we can internalize this universal truth, we should automatically feel empathy for them. It is through habituating our minds to this all-encompassing altruism that we develop a sense of responsibility for others. We ingrain within us the wish to help others overcome their difficulties. For the Dali Lama, this aspiration is uniformly applied to all, without discrimination.

"Genuine compassion means we treat everyone same," continued the Dali Lama. "We develop understanding and warm-heartedness even to our enemies. This is true compassion."

Benefits Of Practicing Compassion

Scientific research and spiritual teachings have both explored the benefits of practicing compassion on the physical, emotional, mental and spiritual dimensions of our selves.

Here are just a few:

  • Being able to give language to what you’re feeling and learning to express emotions

  • Having a toolkit available to solve problems

  • Being able to use compassion and empathy to see the other’s point of view

  • Learning to practice self-compassion

  • Connecting with yourself and others from your true self

  • Not being afraid to ask to have your needs met

  • Not being afraid to ask for clarification when you don’t understand something

  • Becoming a more resilient person

  • Experiencing the gift of truly listening to each other

What Is It Like Being You?

If you haven't already listened to this talk, or aren't familiar with Tara Brach, take some time to check it out. I really appreciate her teachings, which make complex concepts easier to understand. You can find all of her talks on her podcast. This one is pretty brilliant in its exploration of compassion.