How to Cultivate Compassion: Develop Empathy

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Art of Happiness" by Dalai Lama. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is compassion in Buddhism? How do you cultivate compassion?

In Buddhism, compassion—the desire to free others from suffering—is one of the highest virtues you can cultivate. According to the Dalai Lama, the best way to cultivate compassion is to develop empathy—the ability to understand others’ pain as if it was your own.

Here’s what His Holiness the Dalai Lama has to say about cultivating the virtue of compassion.

Foster Compassion by Developing Empathy

The best way to cultivate compassion is to develop empathy, says the Dalai Lama: the capacity to understand another’s pain and suffering. To do this, put yourself in the shoes of that person. Think about what their pain is like. If you struggle with this, imagine the suffering of someone or something you love dearly, like a family member. Once you’ve awakened your empathy, apply it to all sentient beings. 

(Shortform note: The Dalai Lama recommends imagining someone else’s suffering to awaken your empathy. But there are other, more actionable ways to develop your empathy: Strike up conversations with new and different people to learn about their lives. Or visit new communities or institutions in your neighborhood to gain a fresh perspective. Also consider joining a new group through which you work on a shared goal with others: for instance, volunteering at a farmer’s market.)

It may take creativity to imagine what someone else’s suffering is like, warns the Dalai Lama. But if you take the time to do this, the empathy you build comes in handy in most facets of life. 

(Shortform note: As the Dalai Lama suggests, empathy is useful in many areas of life. Empathy helps you be a better manager at work and a more supportive friend and family member.)

Foster Compassion by Considering Commonalities and Background

Also cultivate compassion by searching for commonalities between yourself and others and by taking into account their backgrounds, advises the Dalai Lama. First, approach others with the conviction that you have a lot in common. Let’s say you’re going on a first date with someone who works in a different field at a different pay grade. Rather than feeling that you can’t possibly have anything in common, approach them with the conviction that you actually have a lot in common: You’re both humans with the need for affection and love. This lets you approach the date with compassion rather than enmity. 

(Shortform note: In this discussion of cultivating compassion by finding common ground, the Buddhist concept of emptiness can be helpful. As discussed in a previous comment, emptiness is the idea that no one (and nothing) has a fixed identity. Everything is constantly changing and made up of smaller pieces and caused by other conditions. You could therefore view a human not as an unchangeable, self-contained flesh-and-blood being, but as an entity shaped by upbringing and circumstances and in perpetual transition. Viewing other humans in this fluid way can help you overcome barriers to connection.)

Second, as far as possible, take into account someone’s background when interacting with them, advises the Dalai Lama. If you know someone’s struggling with a particular issue—illness, for instance—it might account for their closed-off behavior. Bring extra compassion to the interaction, and you might break through the barrier of antagonism. 

(Shortform note: While bringing extra compassion to people in difficult situations is usually a good thing, it’s possible to prioritize others’ feelings over your own in a way that’s detrimental to you. If you feel, for instance, that you think more about the needs and feelings of another than about your own, you may need to direct more of your compassion toward yourself.)

Foster Compassion by Meditating on It

The Dalai Lama’s final recommendation for cultivating compassion is through meditation. To do this, follow these steps:

Recognize that your aims in life are to be happy and to avoid suffering. Recognize that all beings everywhere also have the aim to be happy and avoid suffering. 

Now, visualize someone who’s suffering. Think about their suffering from all angles systematically. Recognize that this person has all the same needs as you do and that pain, suffering, happiness, and comfort affect them in the same ways as you. 

From that recognition, allow any natural feelings of compassion for this person to arise. Try to determine that you don’t want this person to suffer. Try to decide that you will try to help the person be free from suffering. Focus all your attention on that single desire and try to generate further feelings of compassion. 

How to Cultivate Compassion: Develop Empathy

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Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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