The What, Why, and How of Compassion


Chapter Seven in “The Art of Happiness” by HH The Dalai Lama clarifies the foundational concept of happiness – compassion. But, as Dr. Cutler points out, we might all have a different concept of what compassion means and how it plays out in our life.

“Compassion can be roughly defined in terms of a state of mind that is nonviolent, non harming, and nonaggressive. It is a mental attitude based on the wish for others to be free of their suffering and is associated with a sense of commitment, responsibility, and respect towards the other.”

HH The Dalai Lama – “The Art of Happiness” CH. 7 – Defining Compassion

I think that most of us would say, “sure I’m compassionate”, but the question is then, to whom? We have a tendency of “confusing compassion with attachment”, so that is where the practices of yoga and meditation come in. Genuine compassion is free from attachment. But what does that mean exactly? How do we know if our compassion is clouded with attachment?

The compassion based on attachment carries with it the thought that “the person is dear to me”, ME being the attachment word. What if every person we came into contact with in our lives was essentially “dear”, not just “dear to me”? This genuine approach to compassion is “based on the other’s fundamental rights rather than your own mental projection” (The Dalai Lama).

Easier said than done as most of us engage with the world through the filter of all of our own mental projections, judgements, and opinions. If we “think” we have something, then why work on it? We might “think” we are happy, but on what level? What happens when your circumstances change? What happens when you feel threatened? What happens when expectations are not fulfilled? I think that NOW is a great example of how little compassion humans have developed within themselves, lashing out at strangers and loved ones alike. As The Dalai Lama stated in previous chapters, we have the seed of compassion within us, but it up to us to water it and nurture it so that it grows.

The growth of that compassion takes learning, knowledge and empathy that were discussed also in the previous chapters. It is beneficial to US individually as much as it has an effect the world around us. Many studies have proven that “positive states of mind can improve our physical health”. So, at the very least, when questioned by someone about “why should I bother?” with this practice of compassion, you can say it is for your own good.

The Dalai Lama ends this chapter with the practice of Tonglen, the meditation of compassion. It is a simple way to begin to develop compassion for ALL others, not just those dear to you. Can we pick any person in the world that we see suffering, take on that person’s suffering as if it was our own experience, and then realize that as we want our own suffering to diminish we wish that for the other person as well. In order to help diminish the suffering of that person we must develop and send compassion.

This can be a simple and powerful practice. If it is difficult, you may start with people you know and do hold dear, then begin to pick someone you know but maybe have an issue with, and then move out to the stranger or someone not dear to you at all.

May all beings be free of suffering. May all beings be happy.

Jennie Williford CIYT

Jennie Williford (CIYT Level 3) is a transplant to LaCrosse via Montana, Illinois, and originally Texas. Throughout her life moves and 5 trips to India, Jennie has acquired a well-rounded and multi-faceted approach to Iyengar Yoga since her start in 1998. Jennie loves the experimental and explorative nature of yoga in accessing deeper knowledge of the Self on every level. The practice of yoga can be intense and introspective, however as practitioners we can be light-hearted and open-minded in our discipline. Jennie is intrigued by the philosophy of yoga and hopes to share this depth of subject while teaching the physical and mental benefits that come from the practice of posture.