How to Practice Compassion—the Buddhist Way

How to Practice Compassion—the Buddhist Way


Buddhism offers deep wisdom to help us practice compassion every day, both towards ourselves and others. Try these five tools to develop greater compassion.

What do Florence Nightingale, Gandhi, Mother Teresa, the Dalai Lama, Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, and St. Francis of Assisi have in common?

They changed the world through acts of compassion. Each one of them is a powerful reminder that simply thinking and feeling compassionate isn’t enough. What’s necessary is the effort that transforms thoughts of love and kindness into daily application. That’s why Christopher Titmuss, a meditation teacher and former Buddhist monk, says, “Compassion is not a feeling, but is direct, skillful action.” Here are some Buddhist ways of putting compassion into action.

Remember That Small Actions Can Have Large Effects

It’s easy, and perhaps natural, to underestimate our acts of kindness and be left wondering whether they actually make any difference. The Buddha recognized we humans think this way, so he cautioned: “Do not overlook tiny good actions, thinking they are of no benefit; even tiny drops of water in the end will fill a huge vessel. Do not overlook negative actions merely because they are small; however small a spark may be, it can burn down a haystack as big as a mountain.”

That wisdom from the Buddha comes alive in this contemporary circumstance: During the COVID-19 pandemic, 99-year-old Captain Tom Moore, a decorated veteran of World War II, wanted to help the British National Health Service frontline workers. Though he had recently broken his hip and had to use a walker, he began walking 100 laps around an 82-foot loop in his backyard. Captain Moore invited neighbors and friends to make a donation for every lap.

Initially, his goal was to raise $1,200, which he planned to donate locally. However, photos of him smiling and pushing the walker while wearing his medals for combat bravery were posted and went viral. Donations poured in from 1.5 million viewers, and Captain Moore eventually raised nearly $40 million for the NHS. On July 17, 2021, Queen Elizabeth II knighted Moore and promoted him to Colonel. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Moore provided the United Kingdom with "a beacon of light through the fog of coronavirus."

Motivate Yourself Toward Compassion Through the Insights of Others

Motivational quotes are extremely valuable because they can deliver a burst of emotional energy and spiritual wisdom when our normal motivation has weakened. Consider these five:

“It’s not enough just to talk about compassion; we have to do the work of compassion.”—Thich Nhat Hanh

“Compassion is not pity and goes beyond empathy. Compassion is the intention and action to relieve the suffering of another being or oneself.”—Robertson Work

“Compassion is not expressed by ‘feeling the pain of others,’ but rather by acting wisely to reduce their suffering.”—Tashi Nyima

“When compassion arises, the next step is actively expressing it. This is what brings compassion fully to life.”—Tara Brach

“It is not enough for us simply to believe that compassion is important and to think about how nice it is! We need to make a concerted effort to develop it; we must use all the events of our daily life to transform our thoughts and behavior.”—the Dalai Lama

Extend Compassion to Insects and Animals

Patrul Rinpoche (1808-1887), the highly regarded Tibetan Buddhist monk, advised, “Since all animals, right down to the smallest insect, have feelings of pleasure and pain, develop love and compassion towards them.”

An example of extending compassion to insects is offered by Sarah C. Beasley, an author, artist, and Buddhist teacher. She tells of a woman who found a bee on her property. The insect had only one wing and was clearly in distress, possibly hungry or thirsty. She carefully collected the bee, placing it into a safe enclosure. Several times a day she brought the bee flowers and fresh water. The bee lived for nearly a month, during which time the woman became emotionally connected with the small insect.

Beasley offers this additional insight from the experience of the woman and her bee: “As I see it, a large part of our purpose as human beings is to care for others, no matter what their species or their condition. One of my Buddhist lamas says that there is no greater offering, besides our meditation and our prayers that all beings attain enlightenment and are free from suffering. The next greatest offering is of home and shelter to others. However temporary or permanent, she used to ask, ‘How many homes have you offered?’ For many of us, we may not be able to offer elaborate homes to other human beings. But to animal beings, there are a multitude of opportunities to offer home, shelter, care, food, or warmth. And this is something important for us to do. In these ways, we fulfill what it means to be fully human, embodying care and compassion for all beings.”

Be a Compassionate Customer

Apply your compassion to those who serve you, especially to workers such as baristas, restaurant staff, flight attendants, call center workers, and those in retail. Women and men in the service industry are increasingly subject to emotional abuse from consumers.

Alicia Grandey, a professor of psychology at Penn State, has been studying the mistreatment of frontline service workers for more than two decades, explaining that incivility is on the rise and why it’s happening: “With strangers, there’s less accountability: Customers don’t feel like they have to play by the rules because there aren’t any negative repercussions for them. Add to that the global axiom that the customer is always right, and many customers have the sense that they’re entitled to act however they want to. Together, these factors set up the same power differential that an employee experiences with their boss, but without the ongoing relationship that can discourage bad behavior.”

Show workers how much you value them by consistently being courteous, respectful, and kind. Follow the lead of singer Tina Turner. In her book, Happiness Becomes Your: A Guide To Changing Your Life For Good, Turner, who practiced Buddhist meditation for decades, writes: “I do my best to treat everyone with kindness and respect, especially the hardworking people in the healthcare, retail, hospitality, maintenance, and service industries. I know from fans who work in these jobs that they are often treated unkindly. Maybe this is because they are less inclined or able to speak up for themselves, or because people who benefit from their labor think they can get away with being disrespectful.”

Apply Compassion to Yourself

There will be times in life when we all need to forgive ourselves. Doing so will produce a variety of benefits, such as lower levels of anxiety, stress, and depression. Self-compassion means recognizing when we are suffering and offering ourselves the same kindness we would extend to a friend who is struggling.

That’s something Surya Anna Bromley learned to do. When she was a 21-year-old university student in Washington, DC, she experienced an issue in her right ear: “It felt clogged and I couldn’t hear anything out of it.” Thinking this issue would resolve itself, she waited. After a month, she saw a specialist and was diagnosed with sensorineural hearing loss (SNHL), a form of sudden deafness. “My right ear is deaf for all intents and purposes. There is no identified cause nor cure for this ailment,” she explains. Suddenly, at 21 years of age, Bromley found herself shopping for a hearing aid.

She says: “At the many doctors’ offices, I was always decades younger than the other patients. I felt cheated by my body. I was facing issues that I had not expected to confront for many years, despite taking care to exercise, feed, and love my body. I had thought that those ingredients would be enough for it to thrive in the way I wanted and expected. Coming to terms with my fragility continues to be a difficult journey.”

It was learning to practice self-compassion that helped Bromley deal with a body which she felt had betrayed her, explaining this action “allows me to give myself forgiveness and care, and reminds me of all the people in my life who have supported me throughout this challenging time.” Bromley suggests that anyone experiencing a physical disability cultivate self-compassion in order to “take a break from that pain and give our body and mind the space to relax and to feel the presence of compassion within us.”

Compassion is a skill that takes practice to perfect. So, consider making compassion a daily practice in your life by smiling at everyone you encounter, being patient, speaking gently and kindly, encouraging people, expressing appreciation, apologizing when you’re wrong, and forgiving people when they make mistakes.

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How to Practice Compassion the Buddhist Way

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