My latest obsession is inspired by reading the Book of Joy, by the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu with Douglas Abrams. In the book, these two great spiritual leaders dig into the experience of joy, how to create more of it, and in particular how to live joyfully in a world that contains so much suffering.
The Dalai Lama speaks to a Buddhist principle called universal compassion. Universal compassion, he offers, is a path to lasting happiness, the kind of happiness that is not dependent on external circumstances or pleasures, but is instead built upon a well-spring of goodwill toward others, thus fostering deep and meaningful connections.
Most of us find it easy to be compassionate towards certain people, but not others. It’s easy to feel compassion for a child who is sad, a puppy who needs a home or a parent whose just been diagnosed with a terminal illness. It’s not so easy to feel compassion for the parents of the bully who just picked on your kid, the guy who cut you off in traffic or the lonely heiress who divides her time between the salon, the gym and the plastic surgeon. And yet there is a common humanity that binds us all together, if we can just take the time to look past the mask and see, truly see, the human before us. This is universal compassion: extending compassion towards all humans and moreover, to all sentient beings.
It means having compassion towards those that vex us and make us want to pull our hair out with frustration. And let me be clear—this is WAY MORE to me than some pie-in-the-sky moral argument for how to make the world a better place. This is truly a way for you and me to be WAY HAPPIER. And yes, to make a lasting positive impact in the lives of others.
I’ve been trying out universal compassion and this is how it works: it short-circuits our neurotic, fear brain that is only thinking about how to avoid getting hurt or worse and returns us to an awareness of our well-being. When I can’t fall asleep at night because I’m going over some tiny moment in my day where I wish I had stood up for myself more, I’m being neurotic. The truth is, I’m safe in my comfy bed. No danger here. When you’re driving down the road and having an imaginary argument in your head with your spouse or your boss, you’re being neurotic. We’re all neurotic because we all have a fear-brain whose sole purpose is to prepare us for the worst. As soon as our fear-brain gets the attention of our analytical cortex, we’re off to the races on a road to nowhere. We’re worrying obsessively or trying to control the behavior of our spouse or our kids and we’re totally disconnected from what’s really going on in our own emotional being and in the emotional beings right in front of us.
Compassion is a very gentle way out of this dead-end. Compassion simply says, “I see you, I see your suffering and I care for you. Because I care for you, I wish for you to be alleviated of your suffering.” Note that it doesn’t say, “I see your suffering and it makes me so upset that I need to fix it right this minute.” Nor does it say, “I see your suffering and it makes me so upset that I’m going to go down into this well of suffering with you.” Compassion arises out of the ability to empathize with another AND to allow them the dignity of their own experience. Their suffering is not ours to monopolize or dramatize. It is theirs. It is their experience and our place of compassion is to see them as they truly are in this moment, with an understanding that this moment will not last forever, that nothing in life is permanent and that all of our suffering is lessened through that connected experience of being seen.
When I can’t fall asleep at night because I’m rehashing my day or rehearsing for tomorrow, I take a breath and seek to see the suffering. If I can see that someone in my life has been unkind to me because they are suffering, I can then extend my wish to them that their suffering be alleviated. It’s a felt experience of extending my caring, my good will. If I feel a wound in my own heart, then I extend that caring to myself. My heart softens, my muscles release and I drift to sleep.
Universal compassion works. It just feels better. And well-beyond a remedy for insomnia or distracted driving, it can inspire us to courageous acts of connection.
Our own salvation is in our compassion for one another. The larger we extend the circle of our compassion, the greater the reward we will reap in the lightening of our own hearts.
Here’s where to start: at the beginning, with compassion for your own self and then, in small but significant moments where you extend your compassion to someone against whom you once hardened your heart. Embrace the lightness of your being.
With compassion for all that weighs on your heart,