How simple acts of goodness can lead to a better life
Following the publication of his new book, A Fearless Heart: Why Compassion Is The Key To Greater Wellbeing, former Tibetan monk Thupten Jinpa tells Abi Jackson why he believes kindness is so important.
Q: Why have you used the word 'fearless' in the title of your book?
A: We tend to look at compassion in a very soft way - compassion means just giving in, just letting things be - whereas a non-compassionate response is the tough way.
But being compassionate requires a kind of courage, because often in the West we bring a lot of cultural resistance to compassion, because we subconsciously have bought into this narrative that somehow the ultimate human motivation behind almost everything we do is the pursuit of self-interest.
We worry that if we are too kind and compassionate, people will take advantage of us; we'll be seen as a pushover and think, 'I won't be able to control my life, I won't be tough enough to compete in this world, I won't be able to be successful'. To grow fearlessness, but also compassion, leads to fearlessness. A lot of the time when we respond to situations, we are motivated by fear, afraid of how we are being judged; anxiety becomes the primary driving force - whereas, if you allow the compassionate part of your nature to express itself, there's an element of fearlessness that comes in.
Q: In the book, you talk about our need as a society to take compassion more seriously and give it more weight when deciding how things are done. How can we encourage that change?
A: One of the most important arguments is going to be the self-interest argument. Everybody cares about their wellbeing; there is so much consciousness right now about the importance of diet, exercise, keeping an eye on one's weight. All of this is a result of a change of consciousness, and I point out in the book that His Holiness (the Dalai Lama) has also envisioned a time when people take their mental health similarly seriously.
Anyone who is able to bring compassion to their lives tends to gain, whether it has to do with a more enriched sense of life, or a deeper sense of purpose, or less danger of suffering loneliness, which is increasingly a major problem in society.
That argument really needs to be made more widespread.
Q: How can we overcome barriers stopping us being kind in a day-to-day sense, for example, jealousy?
A: This is where someone who has healthy self-compassion will have a much greater sense of ease in their interactions - and people enjoy interacting with that person; this is how it manifests. Whereas, if you are struggling with your own self-to-self relation, where there is kind of a self-harshness, excessive self-negativity, even though your intention may be to be kind, your lack of self-compassion manifests in that interaction. Many acts of kindness need not be intentional; it's the way you would interact naturally.
Q: What are some everyday examples of compassion that you see?
A: In the old days, these were referred to as 'decent behaviour'. A lot of these are actually instances of kind acts; just being aware of someone who has more need (than you). Giving your seat to a pregnant woman or an elderly person on the train - those are very simple acts. The more you do it, the more you become aware of the need, and then you do it effortlessly.
Q: What is the greatest act of compassion you've experienced?
A: In the book, I tell the story of this German woman who came to my monastery. I had rudimentary English, and she really took it upon herself to help me with my English.
Looking back, that was a really amazing act of kindness. She saw in me a real opportunity to help someone, and look at me now - without my English, all the things I've been able to do wouldn't have been possible.
Kindness is not just a one-off thing. When it's done on a sustained basis, it's really quite powerful.
Q: Do you think teaching things like kindness should be a priority in education?
A: Absolutely. It makes no sense not to teach those. In the old days, families were much bigger; children could interact with family members from different generations. We don't have that luxury now, so school is one area where we could bring these in.
- A Fearless Heart: Why Compassion Is The Key To Greater Wellbeing by Thupten Jinpa is published by Piatkus, £13.99