East West Wisdoms

Interweaving Spirituality and Therapeutic Healing

East West Wisdoms

The Dalai Lama on Compassion

Posted on Thursday, August 6th, 2009 at 1:12 pm

I am just about to to go off for three days to teach on the contrasting human expressions of compassion and narcissism to a group of people interested in Buddhist psychotherapy. So my thoughts have been directed to considering these two aspects of our experience. They appear to be on opposing ends of a continuum, with compassion representing an open heart wishing to relieve the suffering of others, whether they be seen as friend or enemy or unknown to us directly.

Narcissism: a closed system!

Narcissism, in its extreme form, is on the other end of the compassion continuum. We all demonstrate some degree of narcissism, based on our habitual tendencies to perceive ourselves as separate, finite entities and to accordingly view the world through self-referencing filters that often ignore or give only fleeting attention to the interests of others.  The pathological, or extreme, quality of narcissism represents a more complete turning away from the world and interests of others and the defensive placing of ourselves and our interests as the central and only existing world. The interests of others are, often unconsciously, ignored or quickly over-written with our own interests. The invisible but controlling assumption is that I am the best, or the worst, and I know how it is. The usual result for those who find themselves in an intimate relationship with a very narcissistic person is to feel themselves excluded, as though their feelings, beliefs and needs don't really exist.

Unfortunately, these narcissistic self-referencing tendencies are not confined to the individual. They are also demonstrated at the exclusive group and national levels of human behaviour. Perhaps the most obvious example of nationalistic narcissism is during times of war when the enemy is deliberately dehumanised and transformed from thinking, feeling, loving and hurting beings into objectified, unscrupulous and dangerous 'bad people'.

The openness of compassion!

On the other hand, we have the inspiring example of the Dalai Lama, who has been holding high the torch of compassion as he travels almost continuously around the world, opening his heart to others and inspiring them to open their hearts to each other. The Dalai Lama is the great example of embodied compassion and so I would like to share with you an excerpt from the Prologue of his latest book, The Middle Way, Faith Ground in Reason,  in which he writes about the power of compassion.


The Power of Compassion - by the Dalai Lama

... When the Chinese invaded [Tibet] and I had to flee my native land, I had only some limited knowledge of buddhist teachings, and I had little experience of dealing with problems. A great burden and responsibility was thrust upon me suddenly, and what training I had was put to the test. During those years, my most reliable friend was my own inner quality of compassion.

Compassion brings inner strength, and compassion also brings truth. With truth, you have nothing to hide and you are not dependent on the opinions of others. That brings a self-confidence with which you can deal with any problem without losing hope or determination. Based on my experiences, I can say that when life becomes difficult and you are confronting a host of problems, if you maintain your determination and keep making an effort, then obstacles or problems become really very helpful, for they broaden and deepen your experience. Thus I think compassion is the most precious thing.

What is compassion? Compassion involves a feeling of closeness to others, a respect and affection that is not based on others' attitude toward us. We tend to feel affection for people who are important to us. That kind of close feeling does not extend to our enemies - those people who think ill of us. Genuine compassion on the other hand, sees that others, just like us, want a happy and successful life and do not want to suffer. That kind of feeling and concern can be extended to friend and enemy alike, regardless of their feelings toward us. That's genuine compassion.

Ordinary love is biased and mixed with attachment. Like other afflicted emotions, attachment is based not on reality but on mental projection. It exaggerates reality. In reality there may be some good there, but attachment views it as one hundred percent beautiful or good. Compassion gets much closer to reality. There is a vast difference.

The big question is whether we can cultivate such compassion. Based on my own experience, the answer is yes. It is possible because we all possess the seed of compassion as the very nature of our human existence. Likewise, our very survival as human beings, especially in our first few years of life, is heavily dependent on the affection and compassion of others. We have survived up to now only because at the beginning of our lives, our mother - or someone else, of course - cared. Had she been negligent even one or two days, we would have died. As human beings, using our intelligence, we can extend this sense of caring throughout our whole lives.

To be continued next week when I return from teaching ...

In the meantime, it would be great if you would like to add your own thoughts on compassion and narcissism in the comments box below.

Warm wishes,


4 responses to “The Dalai Lama on Compassion”

  1. Stephen Gondella says:

    I believe I have this disorder. It is starting to ruin my life

    • Jacqui says:

      Hello Stephen,
      If you feel your life is suffering from narcissism you could be helped by seeing a therapist. The key point to focus on is to check regularly "how might 'this' (what you are doing or saying) be felt by the other person?" The problem with narcissistic behaviour is that one projects one's own feelings/views, etc on to the other person and does not wonder how it is for them.
      Warm wishes,

  2. Karen says:

    How do you handle a Narcissist/Sociopath/Psychopath single mother who extorts what she can from who she can? Who neglects to give her teens boundaries, who robs them of their childhood so she can relive hers? Who married a party-boy to extort children from and then leave him?
    I hear your word on compassion, but I think it is is truly a compassionate empathetic mature person who reacts negatively to such neglect.... it is the apathetic people condoning this with such peace... that enables it to worsen.
    What are your thoughts on this? I know they read your words and use it to enable them to neglect those who need a parent who cares enough to do what is right by them. I follow Dr. Laura who advocates for children and highly doubt being kind to these self-centered mothers would be advised.

    • Jacqui says:

      That's a big question you ask and I am not sure how you got the impression that compassion towards a narcissistic person whose actions and inactions have hurt others means that you in some way condone their narcissistic behaviours. Compassion does not equate with being 'nice' or accepting of every kind of behaviour. A compassionate response to harmful behaviours may sometimes need to be wrathful and fierce. But although compassion may manifest as wrathful (like Jesus whipping the moneylenders in the temple), whatever action is deemed necessary should be carried out with an attitude of caring for the welfare of all parties. It should not include the desire to harm the person perceived to be at fault but should instead be the most skilful way of either bringing to their attention how destructive and harmful their narcissistic behaviour is or, better still, stopping them behaving in this way. I agree with you, just smiling sweetly and wishing them peace would not be much help to either the narcissistic person or those who are suffering from their narcissism. Although, if in your heart you genuinely wished them to find peace - so that they could stop hurting themselves and those around them - that would be a good attitude to accompany some more stringent and skillfull actions to help the children that, in your example, are suffering from the mother's narcissism.

      I hope this clarifies what I mean by a compassionate response to harmful behaviours.
      Warm wishes,

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