In traveling the spiritual path these past many years I’ve noticed that my favorite teachers consistently place compassion at the top of the pyramid of human behaviors. Everything they teach seems to culminate with showing compassion for others.
Over many years of practice, we quiet our minds, let go of our egoic baggage/attachments and inner peace builds. But, according to all the teachers I’ve studied, that’s not where it ends. It ends with what we DO with that peace.
Who are these teachers?
The Dalai Lama
Probably the most influential spiritual leader in the world for the past fifty years, the Dalai Lama places compassion at the center of his teachings. He has famously said:
“If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”
“The topic of compassion is not at all religious business; it is important to know it is human business, it is a question of human survival.”
How does he describe compassion? He says it is “love, affection, kindness, gentleness, generosity of spirit and warm-heartedness.”
People with these traits don’t go into a personal encounter seeking something for themselves. They go in with the intention of serving that person in some way, especially if that person is suffering.
The other teacher who made a lasting mark since the 1960s was the late Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh. Here again, in the many interviews and talks I’ve heard him give, Thich Nhat Hanh consistently mentions the importance of compassion over everything else. Here are my two favorites:
“I vow to live fully in each moment and to look at all beings with eyes of compassion.”
“Look at flowers, butterflies, trees, and children with the eyes of compassion. Compassion will change your life and make it wonderful.”
While Eckhart doesn’t often use the word compassion, his central teachings are synonymous with it. He teaches that we are not our thoughts but the consciousness that can only be present in the absence of thinking.
He states that only when we are conscious like this can we be there for and with another human. In other words, the purpose of presence is to exhibit compassion toward others.
The highest human being I’ve come across in my years studying this spiritual stuff, Neem Karoli Baba was Ram Dass’s guru. In fact, he’s the one who gave the former Harvard professor and psychedelic revolutionary Richard Alpert the new name of Ram Dass.
As I wrote in this article (link here), Baba taught his devotees only this: Love everyone, serve everyone and remember God. Underlying that teaching is compassion. It’s all the same.
Mickey also doesn’t use the word compassion very much, but he too teaches concepts that describe the same thing. He teaches that we all have a beautiful, loving energy inside us that is blocked by the emotional scars (samskaras) we’ve trapped inside ourselves. Remove those scars and the energy will flow. He describes that energy as pure love for others, i.e., compassion.
While I’m not a practicing Christian, I do subscribe to the core teaching of Christ: Treat others the way you’d like to be treated, especially the less fortunate. You don’t need to be the Pope, the Archbishop of Canterbury or the president of the Southern Baptist Convention to conclude that compassion for others towers over Christ’s other teachings.
Great. So the central teaching of these master spiritual beings was for we humans to show compassion toward one another. What can we take from that?
The endpoint isn’t bliss
That the endpoint of the spiritual path is not our own self-realization or some blissful state of nirvana. Yes, that happens to the realized human.
But the endpoint is what we do with that self-realized bliss. And the answer is, we use it to shower compassion on others.
Personally, the best I feel in life isn’t when I’ve won an athletic contest or achieved some professional advancement. Those things give me a rush of upward energy, but it all derived from ego and, by definition, no authentically good feeling comes from that.
Compassion produces the highest feelings
The best feelings I’ve ever experienced have always come from offering compassion to another. Like helping an elderly woman stow her bag in the overhead bin on an airplane. Or talking a friend down from the ledge. Or calming my six-year-old daughter when she’s in the middle of a meltdown.
Those things actually make me feel good. And I don’t think I’m alone. I think it’s universal that people feel their best when they’ve shown compassion to another.
Why is this so? Is it some Darwinian, evolutionary dynamic where we have some inner, genetic impulse to help each other because that will perpetuate the human species?
I don’t know. And I don’t think it matters.
What does matter? In this time of political insanity, wars in the Gaza Strip and Ukraine and global warming wreaking havoc across the globe, it behooves all of us to remember the aforementioned great masters who all taught the same thing:
Compassion is the answer.