All of us are born with the potential to be compassionate, where we wish for others to be free of suffering and its causes. We can develop that capacity to bring incredible benefit to ourselves and others.
The best way to start developing compassion is to limit our scope to the people we encounter in real life and online, and maybe some animals. Slowly, we train to extend our compassion to include everyone: those we like, strangers, and even people we really don’t like at all. We continue until our compassion includes the entire world – yes, even cockroaches!
Compassion has both an emotional and rational component. Emotionally, we need to appreciate the interdependence of all life on this planet. The global economy and everything we enjoy – food, clothing, gadgets, homes, vehicles and so on – comes about through the hard work of others. Without others, we’d have no roads, electricity, fuel, water or food. This alone naturally makes us grateful, a happy state of mind that leads to what we call “heart-warming love.” The more we reflect on this sense of gratitude, the stronger we’ll cherish others, like a mother who’d feel terrible if something awful happened to her only child. We feel sad at other’s misfortune, but we don’t pity or feel sorry for them. We empathize, as if their problems were our own.
The rational basis for extending our compassion equally to everyone is so obvious, yet it’s something that many people don’t even consider: everyone is equal in wanting to be happy, and everyone is also equal in wanting to be free of unhappiness and suffering. These two facts remain true regardless of whether someone is close or distant from us, and regardless of what they might do. Even if someone causes a great deal of harm, they’re doing it out of ignorance, confusion and delusion, thinking mistakenly that it will benefit them or society. It’s not because they’re inherently bad; no one is inherently “bad.” Therefore, it’s reasonable and appropriate to have compassion for them, because just as we don’t want to suffer, neither do they.
The training for developing compassion generates it in stages of intensity. We focus first on the sufferings of those we like, then those who are neutral, and then those we dislike. Ultimately we focus on the suffering of everyone, everywhere, equally.
At each stage we generate three feelings:
- How wonderful it would be if they were free of their suffering and its causes.
- May they be free; I wish that they were free.
- May I be able to help free them.
Thus, compassion contains the willingness to help others become free of their problems and get over their unhappiness. It is confident that problems can be solved by following realistic methods, meaning that no situation is hopeless. Compassion in Buddhism, then, is an active state of mind that is ready, at any moment, to spring into action to benefit others.