Episode 16: Power up with compassion. "My religion is kindness." - His Holiness the Dalai Lama

Episode 16: Power up with compassion

Ryan D Thompson Ancient, Buddhism, Collaboration, Skills

Key ideas

"My religion is kindness."
~ His Holiness the Dalai Lama

  • While we have our differences, Buddhism points out that all of us share at least one thing in common: we all want to be happy and we don’t want to suffer. 
  • Unfortunately, real happiness can be elusive, but suffering can come easily. While it’s hard to see any benefit in suffering, it can help to bring us closer to other people. Recognizing our shared experiences can be a helpful step in improving our interactions with other people.
  • The Dalai Lama often says, “my religion is kindness.” The practice of extending kindness and compassion to other people can open our hearts and free our own minds from suffering.
  • The Four Immeasurables are a Buddhist practice in which you cultivate lovingkindness and compassion for all sentient beings. You begin with a loved one and gradually extend your concern outwards, towards neutral people, difficult people, and eventually all beings.


I’m going to go out on a limb here: you have probably felt some intense emotions in recent times. Fear, anger, anxiety, confusion… There is no shortage of emotional triggers in current times. Not that this is any consolation: but you’re not alone in this. If there is one thing that all humans have in common, it is the experience of suffering. This is clear with all the pains and difficulties in the age of Covid. And it was just as true before the pandemic. 

The streets today echo with the sounds of people saying, “when things get back to normal…” (fill in the blank with some activity that we perceive will make life easier or happier).” Not to be Negative Ned, but if we’re honest, there never has been and likely never will be a “normal” state in which things are smooth, easy, and perpetually joyful. We’re chasing an illusion.

However, this points to another thing that all people have in common: we all want to be happy. Of course, our methods may suck sometimes. But underlying most of our actions is this desire to be happy, to feel joy, peace, satisfaction, whatever you want to call it.

I’m not always great at choosing behaviors that lead reliably to happiness – quite the opposite. I’ve made some real humdinger bad decisions over the years and plenty of “damn, I wish I wouldn’t have done that” moments. And I’m willing to wager that you might make some decisions at times that seem like a good idea at the time, but in the end, lead more to suffering than happiness. You’re not alone in this either. We all want to be happy. We don’t want to suffer. We don’t always find happiness, but suffering seems to flow freely. It’s hard to see a benefit in suffering. But there is at least one: recognizing our shared experiences can be a helpful step in improving our interactions with other people.

This episode is the second in a series looking at perspectives and practices for dealing with people, for getting along better. In this episode, I’ll explore the Buddhist concept of “immeasurable compassion.”

The Dalai Lama often says that his “religion is kindness.” This statement conveys how fundamental the concept of compassion is to Buddhism. All other teachings, rituals, practices, and views point in the direction of lovingkindness and compassion. Compassion from the Buddhist perspective isn’t some squishy, pushover response to a harsh world. Quite the contrary: compassion arises from rock-solid inner strength, providing unshakeable courage to face life’s most painful circumstances.

I once heard a story of a Tibetan monk that had been imprisoned and tortured by the Chinese. He told the Dalai Lama that his greatest fear while in the concentration camp had nothing to do with the torture he experienced or even the threat of death. Instead, he feared that he would lose his compassion for the guards torturing him. His unwavering dedication to the practice of compassion gave him a shield against the physical and psychological abuse he experienced. 

Many of us love to watch the Olympics. We watch in admiration as these athletes perform acts of physical greatness. When I hear these kinds of stories of Buddhist monks, it makes me think they’re the Olympians of the mindCompassion is their superpower. We might not be able to attain the same levels of compassion and wisdom any more than we can break a world record in the ski jump. But we can look to them as role models for what’s possible in controlling our own minds and aspire to get better ourselves.

So how can we cultivate greater compassion? The Buddhist practice of the Four Immeasurables offers one promising approach. Through this meditation practice, we can build compassion not just for those we feel are worthy of our love. Instead, we can cultivate “immeasurable compassion” for all sentient beings everywhere – even those we don’t like!

After resting the mind, the practice begins by bringing to mind a loved one, someone you hold dear. You conjure the feeling of sincerely wishing for this person to be happy and free of suffering. And then notice the feelings that arise – the love and warmth you feel for them. Now that you’ve felt those feelings, you can then extend them outwards to others.

One next step is often to extend these feelings towards yourself — likewise wishing that you may be happy and free from suffering. Many of us overlook ourselves as recipients of compassion. You are just as worthy of compassion as anyone. When you cultivate compassion for yourself, you are, in turn, empowered to offer greater support for others.

Next, you would typically bring to mind a “neutral” person: someone that you don’t have strong feelings for, one way or the other. Maybe it’s someone you pass on the street from time to time or the woman at the supermarket checkout line. By wishing this person happiness and freedom from suffering, you practice breaking free of our tendency to wish well for only those we know and love.

Then comes the hard part, where many meditators get easily hung up. You would then wish happiness and freedom from suffering for a person you don’t likesomeone you find difficult somehow. Ideally, you will work your way from “mild” difficulties and then only gradually build up to include people that make your blood boil. And you probably know who they are already without thinking too hard about it. Even advanced meditators can easily get tripped up at this stage, as just thinking about “those” people can trigger intense emotion. At this point, you could switch to other forms of meditation, like watching the physical sensations as your blood boils or maybe just watching your breath. As hard as this part of the practice is, it’s also critical. If you can conjure feelings of compassion even for your enemy, you’re on your way to taming your own mind.

Finally, you would extend your compassion to the highest level possible: immeasurable compassion for all sentient beings in the universe. Yep, that’s also a hard one to wrap the head around, no doubt. 

How does this practice help us to get along better with others? By looking at our shared experience of desiring happiness and freedom from suffering, we can better understand “where people are coming from.” We can recognize that sometimes bad behavior arises when people aren’t very happy. Rather than quickly denouncing a behavior we don’t like or agree with, acknowledging the fear and pain driving their behavior can soften our responses. It doesn’t mean condoning negative behavior – not at all – but rather, it means responding to that behavior in a skillful way, one that makes things better, not worse. 

Extending compassion to others is what the Dalai Lama describes as “wisely selfish”: it benefits us perhaps even more than it does the object of our compassion. We gradually chip away at the hard shell we place between ourselves and the world, in turn gaining peace within our own hearts. Ultimately, we cannot change anyone in the world but ourselves. That’s hard enough as it is. But this practice of constantly and consistently generating compassion, even for those we don’t like (especially for those we don’t like), gives us the perhaps unexpected benefit of feeling more joy and calm. 

And I think the world could use some more of that. Well, that’s all for now. Join me again next week as I explore some ideas from Taoism on the unity of opposites — a critical concept for navigating divisive times! Feel free to subscribe for more episodes. And please share this with a friend if you think it will be helpful to someone. Until the next time, be well!

Podcast soundtrack credit:

Our Story Begins Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License