The principle of compassion lies at the heart of all religious, ethical and spiritual traditions, calling us always to treat others as we wish to be treated ourselves. Compassion impels us to work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of our fellow creatures, to dethrone ourselves from the centre of our world and put another there, and to honour the inviolable sanctity of every human being, treating everybody without exception with absolute justice, equity and respect. As the Dalai Lama says, “The true aim of the cultivation of compassion is to develop the courage to think of others and to do something for them.”
That being compassionate towards others requires being compassionate towards oneself too: serious intent, light touch. The Jain principle of anekantavada is about respecting the variety of perspectives in the world, but it has its roots in the interconnectedness of all beings. Being aware of how other people approach their joy and sorrow, the same kind that we personally go through in our own way, allows us to be more empathic and mindful of things we do and the people with whom we interact. “Compassion is an unstable emotion. It needs to be translated into action, or it withers. The question of what to do with the feelings that have been aroused, the knowledge that has been communicated,” says Susan Sontag.
Compassion without kindness is only half a loaf. Make it your task to perform one act of kindness every day, no matter how small. It can be as simple as picking up a scrap of paper in your neighbour’s yard, yielding to a car in traffic, or as complex as making a lonely person feel loved. The important thing is to make kindness a part of your daily life, so it becomes a normal response and you don’t have to strain to summon it forth from the dregs of your soul. The great inter-faith scholar Karen Armstrong argues that compassion is hardwired into our brains, yet is constantly pushed back by our more primitive instincts for selfishness and survival. Compassion moves us beyond our own wounds and back into human community. It asks the question: what sorts of people do bad things?
The answer is lonely, scared, ignorant, confused, sick, misguided, angry, — in other words, all of us. But in our materialistic and ego-centred cultures, compassion is a dying gift. When bestselling books and movies all seem to focus on self-indulgence, and encourage whining over the personal and small problems of life, how can we grow into compassionate, unselfish beings? How can those who are truly compassionate avoid being hurt, used and abused by those who only take and never give in return? The answer has as many petals as an unfolding lotus flower, and within each petal is a simple truth. Compassion is the surest way of coming closer to the divine.