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12 ways to apply compassion

12 ways to apply compassion

Bleeding heart flowers in the Sravasti Abbey garden.

Compassion is an inner attitude; it exists in our hearts and minds. We are beings who also have bodies and verbally communicate with others. How can we reflect our compassion in our physical and verbal actions and how can we apply compassion to other areas of our lives?

Since caring for the poor and ill instantly come to mind and are familiar to us, we won’t go into those here. We can discuss some other applications of compassion that we may not have considered before. While some of the areas mentioned below have become politicized, compassion doesn’t dictate having certain political opinions or advocating particular policies. Rather, we suggest that all of us consider how to apply compassion to these areas of common concern. This is a brief list; please consider other areas in which compassion could be applied. The key is to find ways to get our internal wheels of compassion turning.

1. The environment

Wanting all living beings to be happy, we must care for the environments in which they live. One way to do this is by using only our fair share of the world’s resources. This may mean reducing our consumption. When we care about others that we share this planet with now and those who will live on it in the future, we are willing to bear whatever “inconvenience” it may entail to reduce, reuse, and recycle.

2. Vegetarianism

Eating meat is eating the bodies of others. I don’t think any of us would happily offer our bodies for someone else’s lunch, so why should we expect them to do so for us? It is possible to remain healthy on a vegetarian diet, or if you consume meat, then make sure that the animals are treated well while they are alive.

3. Capital punishment

Research has shown that capital punishment does not reduce crime rates. In the heat of the moment, people rarely think, “This action could result in someone’s death and put me on death row.” People who are incarcerated are human beings like the rest of us and can make useful contributions to society when they receive a good education and learn the life skills necessary to support themselves and manage their anger. In fact, older and wiser inmates are often the ones who can best teach the young reckless ones how to calm down and consider the effects of their actions. Having done prison work for about fifteen years, I have seen many people who have made grave mistakes change their lives. All of us appreciate the opportunity to make amends and to change our lives.

4. Family harmony and education

With compassion, we can work together to reduce poverty, increase parenting skills, and give children a good education. Doing so will lead to happier citizens, fewer unwanted pregnancies, less substance abuse, and less need for prisons.

5. Suicide

While in the midst of emotional turmoil, ending your life may seem the best way to stop your suffering, it’s not a good option. Some people may feel that they will be happier after death, but who can see into the future and know that? Suicide ignores the fact that many people care about you and will suffer if you take your life. With compassion for yourself and others, it is best to stay alive and put effort into discovering and actualizing your inner human beauty and to focus on the good things that do exist in your life. Everything is impermanent, including pain, and you can consult with a variety of people—therapists, suicide survivors, spiritual advisors, friends, family—hearing their suggestions on how to alleviate or transform pain. According to the Buddhist perspective, the fundamental nature of your mind is pure and untainted, and that pure nature can never be destroyed. Learn how to tap into it. Each human being is valuable. Each of us has the potential to be of great benefit to others, and we can learn how to do this. Connecting with others by reaching out to help them gives meaning to our lives and is fulfilling.

6. Distribution of wealth

While it may not be practically possible for everyone to have equal wealth no matter what economic system we follow, more equal distribution of wealth will lessen the causes for social unrest within each nation and war between nations. With a compassionate attitude that knows our happiness depends on the happiness of the people with whom we share our community, city, state, country, and planet, we do what we can to support more equal distribution of wealth, educational possibilities, job opportunities, and so on.

7. National and international dialogue

In recent years, national dialogue in the U. S. has deteriorated, with people ranging from politicians to talk show hosts encouraging anger, disrespect, harsh speech, and exaggerated accusations that only stir people up. It seems that rudeness, blame, and demonizing others is passed off as entertainment in the effort to gather votes. This extends to international politics as well, with aggressive posturing and even terrorist acts being utilized in the pursuit of political goals. This lack of basic human manners, petty squabbling, and in some cases outright aggression interferes with finding solutions to very real national and international problems. Compassion helps us be more respectful and considerate so that we work together for the benefit of everyone.

8. Business ethics

Children, and adults as well, need good examples of people who act with integrity and consider the effects of their actions on others. In banking, politics, pharmaceuticals, and other occupations that strongly affect many people, it is important to conduct business with compassion, honesty, and generosity, rather than to pursue profit regardless of the effect on others. This plays out in countless ways, from the ways employees are treated to decisions about how to manage pollution.

9. Interfaith harmony

Each religion teaches ethical conduct and encourages love, compassion, and forgiveness. H.H. the Dalai Lama points out that when we were born, others greeted us with kindness and compassion. They sustained our lives and educated us with kindness and compassion. These human qualities lie at the heart of our life experience—theology is something secondary that we learn later. Therefore, it’s advantageous to focus on our commonalities. As the Dalai Lama succinctly says, “My religion is kindness.”

10. Media

The media—from the news to the cinema to video games—has a tremendous influence in shaping our ideas, behavior, consumption, personal relations, and work ethic. The media’s goal of increasing sales and profits plays on the people’s insecurity, fear, and greed. Responsible media considers the effect on people of the way it reports events and the entertainment it creates.

11. Medicine

With compassion, doctors encourage their patients to make living wills so that they can have their desired type of medical care should they later become incapacitated or unable to express their wishes. It is well-documented that patients who know their doctors care for them as a human being heal better than others who are brushed aside. Recently there have been direct efforts to bring compassion into healthcare settings, both in terms of making sure that all who need it receive health care, and in the way that care is administered. We need to thoughtfully consider ways to support and provide incentives for healthcare professionals to carry out their work in compassionate ways. It would be good to remind people entering health care and public health professions that providing medical services should be seen as a compassionate profession, not a lucrative business. Since everyone equally wants happiness and to be free from suffering, let’s use our human intelligence to find ways so that all citizens have equal access to good quality health care.

12. Stopping harm

Compassion can be a strong motivator to stop harm and injustice. While anger may give us an adrenalin rush and a lot of energy, it also clouds our minds so that we cannot make wise decisions. Compassion, on the other hand, wants to stop harm in order to protect both the victim and the perpetrator. Perpetrators harm themselves by harming others: they often experience self-loathing afterwards, face imprisonment, and are shunned by their families and society in general. With compassion for everyone involved in a conflict, we try to activate our capacity to think creatively of ways to deal with situations that will bring better results for everyone in the long term.

Other areas

Many more areas in society can benefit from cultivating a compassionate perspective: civil rights, international relations, and the treatment of animals, to name a few. Whatever area we work in, whatever hobbies we enjoy, all these can be positively influenced by incorporating compassion. When we play sports with compassion, we train well and do our best in competitions, but we avoid gloating when we win or feeling despondent when we don’t. Company management that treats employees with care and consideration creates a better work environment and are rewarded with employees who will go the extra mile for the company.

A compassionate perspective recognizes that some issues are very complicated and cannot be solved by taking into account only one part of the equation. Social problems such as poverty and pollution are complex, and compassion for all parties involved will stimulate us to educate ourselves regarding the nuances of these issues and then act to facilitate solutions that address the concerns of everyone involved.

Reflection: applying compassion

Now it’s time to apply our compassionate thinking and problem solving to the world around us. Bring to mind an issue raised above or another issue that is important to you. Consider how compassion might be applied to it and to the various parties involved in it. How might the situation be approached from the perspective of a kind motivation that truly desires to address suffering, benefit all parties involved, and harm none? Consider watching the news, and choosing one of the issues discussed, and looking at it from a compassionate perspective. The more often you practice shifting into a kind, wise, compassionate perspective, the easier it becomes, and eventually you’ll notice that this way of thinking arises automatically.

Venerable Thubten Chodron

Venerable Chodron emphasizes the practical application of Buddha’s teachings in our daily lives and is especially skilled at explaining them in ways easily understood and practiced by Westerners. She is well known for her warm, humorous, and lucid teachings. She was ordained as a Buddhist nun in 1977 by Kyabje Ling Rinpoche in Dharamsala, India, and in 1986 she received bhikshuni (full) ordination in Taiwan. Read her full bio.