How to Become More Compassionate


Never criticize someone until you have walked a mile in their moccasins.
—An Old American Indian Saying

This is one of my favorite sayings. It has been life changing. It has motivated me to become a serious student of comparative religion and to appreciate the perspectives of those with different political persuasions than my own. After all, isn’t it either religious or political intolerance that create chasms and conflict between people? It doesn’t have to be that way. There is a better way. Practice empathy. Mentally put yourself in the place of others and try to see things from their perspective.

In a recent book, Toward a True Kinship of Faiths, the Dalai Lama made some profound statements. He focuses on “the centrality of compassion as a universal spiritual value.”[1] He stated that his life has been a quest to find “a balance between single-pointed commitment to one’s own faith and genuine openness to the value of other faiths.”[2] He offered this practical approach: “If you believe in God, see others as God’s children. If you are a nontheist, see all beings as your mother…Make the vow today that you may become an instrument of peace, living according to the ethical teachings of compassion in your own religion.”[3]

There is much that is similar between the great religions of the world. Typically, these similarities center on how we are to behave toward one another. They carry across the great divide between eastern and western religions. If, then, there is so much agreement on some matters, it would seem that we can be more sure about these guidelines than we might be over matters about which major religions have divergent views.

What did some of the greatest ancient wise men have to say about how to be compassionate? Writing around 950 BC, Solomon advised this: “If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat, and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink.”[4] Solomon didn’t add, “if you feel like it.” He just told us to do it, whether we feel like it or not. Once you do, feelings of compassion will arise within you. This proverb may have had its roots in these words of Moses (1300 BC): “The stranger who dwells among you shall be to you as one born among you, and you shall love him as yourself…”[5]

Over four centuries later, Buddha (525 BC) said, “Let a man overcome anger by love, let him overcome evil by good; let him overcome the greedy by liberality, the liar by truth!”[6] He also noted, “For hatred does not cease by hatred at any time: hatred ceases by love, this is an old rule.”[7]

Five and a half centuries later, Jesus (30 AD) was quoted as saying, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who mistreat you.”[8]

All this seems impossible, unless we approach it a bit at a time. How? By practicing the Golden Rule in every situation. Espoused by all religions, this rule is simply that we should treat others the way we would like to be treated. Since our thoughts precede our actions, we should greet each situation where we initially have negative thoughts about another person by asking ourselves, “If I were them, how would I like to be treated?” and then treat our neighbor or enemy that way.

Jesus carried this practice well beyond what people might think to do:

You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.[9]

Each of these wise men appreciated how greatly our words and actions affect other people. Even when we don’t feel compassion, if we will act as if we did, feelings of empathy will surface. We can influence the world to become a more compassionate place, but we must begin within.

[1] His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Toward A True Kinship of Faiths (New York: Random House, Three Rivers Press, 179).

[2] Ibid, 179.

[3] Ibid, 181.

[4] Proverbs 25:21 (NKJV).

[5] Leviticus 19:34 (NKJV).

[6] Dhammapada, 223.

[7] Ibid, 5.

[8] Luke 6: 27b-28. (NKJV).

[9] Matthew 5:38-42 (NIV).