The benefits of compassion

In Chapter 7 of the Art of Happiness the Dalai Lama defines compassion as a “state of mind that is nonviolent, non-harming, and non-aggressive”. This feeling of compassion is broken down into two types. First is compassion associated with attachment. Using this type of compassion alone is biased and unstable, causing certain emotional attachments that are not necessarily good. The second type is genuine compassion that “is based on others’ fundamental rights rather than your own mental projection” . This type of compassion is also defined “as the feeling of unbearableness”. Accepting another’s suffering brings us a sense of connectedness and a willingness to reach out to others. Promoting the fundamental rights of others has the effect of generating love and compassion. According to the Dalai Lama the reason he separated compassion into two types was because “the feeling of genuine compassion is much stronger, much wider [and] has a profound quality”. Using genuine compassion creates a special connection that you cannot achieve with associating compassion with attachments (I suppose he means attachment to individuals for specific reasons? It isn’t totally clear. Ed.).

The Dalai Lama believes that compassion “provides the basis of human survival”. People reflect on their own experiences and this contributes to their understanding of compassion. If people feel there is no need to develop compassion then it’s because they are being blocked by “ignorance and shortsightedness”. This can be caused by not seeing the physical and emotional benefits of having a compassionate mindset. When one completely understands the importance of compassion, then it “gives you a feeling of conviction and determination”. Having this determination can bring one to have a compassionate mindset.

There have been numerous studies that support the idea that “developing compassion and altruism has a positive impact on our physical and emotional health”. James House found that “interacting with others in warm and compassionate ways, dramatically increased life expectancy, and probably overall vitality as well”. These studies have concluded that there is a direct correlation between compassion and physical and emotional health. (The Art of Happiness, Dalai Lama and Howard Cutlet. 1998, Riverhead ISBN 1-57322-111-2).

It seems the ideas of compassion, thoughtfulness, consideration for others, a desire to help the less fortunate – all these have been posited many times in history, usually by religious figures but also including Epicurus, who welcomed women, foreigners, and people of colour into his garden, included them and made them feel valued. In his time the upheavals and wars made compassion particularly important. Today we are faced with the same need as the world enters an era of upheaval and change, (by the look of it) for the worse. Compassion for the malnourished, the starving, the refugees and the displaced makes us all feel better about the world. It also has another, practical and hard-headed benefit. Compassion and practical aid helps refugees, for instance, stay in their homes, instead of migrating, with all the disfunction and social angst that causes.

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