I attended the most recent Action for Happiness event at Conway Hall to hear Thupten Jinpa, thought leader and advisor to the Dalai Lama, speak about his new book A Fearless Heart, How The Courage To Be Compassionate Can Transform Our Lives.  He also works at Stanford University at The Center For Compassion where he has developed Compassion Cultivation Training.

Thupten Jinpa spoke about the connection between compassion and happiness; that compassion is thinking about alleviating suffering and pain and that our fundamental aspiration as human beings is to seek happiness, but that in contemporary society we have disconnected compassion and happiness.

In Tibetan tradition compassion is seen as the highest spiritual value.  Working with Stanford University, Jinpa is now bridging the gap between his traditional philosophies and science; thinking about where the place for compassion is from an evolutionary point of view; neuro-economics, which uses economics methods to try and understand human behaviour, for example what motivates people to enter into a cooperative transaction; and the ‘helpers high’, the positive feeling you get from helping someone.

He spoke about how helping other people with their suffering makes you more resilient in dealing with your own problems and that stress comes from an agenda or motivation that is self-centred.

‘We can learn to forget ourselves when we are helping other people… Self prevents us from experiencing true joy… Being able to let go of grasping on to ourselves opens the door of true joy… When you are compassionate the focus is on the other, not yourself, the context of larger humanity.’

He argued that the most compelling case for compassion is the sense of purpose it brings you, that you feel useful and can make a difference.  He went on to say that the actual specific nature of that purpose doesn’t matter, it is just important that you have a sense of purpose; by acting compassionately it allows us to do something for others and by serving others our lives will have meaning beyond our own existence.

‘At the heart of compassion is the feeling of connection that you have with someone.’

Commenting on the common Western world values of independence and autonomy, Jinpa cites these as reasons that have led to most of us not fully appreciating the need for us, as social creatures, to be connected with others. This has the alarming outcome that acute loneliness is worse, over time, for a person’s health than smoking and obesity.

‘The more compassionate you are, the more you benefit from other people’s compassion.’

The reassuring thing is that we don’t have to learn to be compassionate, it is an instinctive and natural response that lies in all of us.  However, if this were the case for everyone, perhaps our societies would be happier places.  So what is it that stops us from acting compassionately?  Jinpa believes that it is because as human beings we have many motivations from fear and anger to a sense of justice; that we are complex creatures with complex behaviours; and that we may often bring resistance to a situation such as the fear that if we are too compassionate people might take advantage of us.

Jinpa’s advice is that we make compassion part of our conscious intention – motivation and intention being different things – therefore, compassion is a choice.  Whilst some of us might be trying to cultivate our empathy skills, Jinpa distinguished empathy from compassion by describing empathy as the emotional connection and route to compassion; the feeling, but compassion as moving from focusing on the pain to what can be done; the acting.

‘Each of us has to discover our specific sense of purpose.  Modern society sets the tone of our existence to serving our self and family, we can do more and enrich our lives by serving others.’

Buy A Fearless Heart, How The Courage To Be Compassionate Can Transform Our Lives from Amazon for £12.99

Author: Jessica Ball of Yours Sustainably