Thupten Jinpa: “Exercising our compassion helps us become truly human. »

- through Fabrice Groult

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Altruism, empathy and compassion are, in the eyes of Thupten Jinpa, the keystone of a stronger and fairer society. Putting compassion back at the center of our lives also means finding the courage to resist withdrawal into oneself and fear of the other, argues this former interpreter of the Dalai Lama – who is also the chairman of the board of directors of the Mind & Life Institute -, in a major book, Let's not be afraid anymore. Daring to be compassionate can transform our lives, published three years ago by Belfond and which has since spread to both East and West.

How did you come to make compassion the focus of your book? Let's not be afraid anymore. Daring to be compassionate can transform our lives ?

I worked for more than thirty years with His Holiness the Dalai Lama as a translator. I observed that he was keen to deliver several key messages to the general public. The first is that happiness authentic is above all a state of mind. We all have inner resources that we can rely on to live a happier life. This presupposes first understanding how the mind works. To understand the relationships that are established between our perceptions, our attitudes and our emotions, and how these affect our behavior and influence the way we interact with the world. We can change the way we see the world by changing our perceptions, our view of things.

The other key message that His Holiness has developed on the world stage is that of compassion. The Dalai Lama took up this notion of compassion by taking it out of its moral, spiritual and religious dimension. He argues that compassion is the foundation of our intuitions and moral feelings. The ethical teachings of the great religions and the whole humanistic tradition are rooted in this fundamental principle of compassion. The Dalai Lama highlighted that by developing our compassion, making it more conscious and intentional within our lives, we become happier and more communicative. These are the elements that inspired me and prompted me to write this book. In addition, I wanted to establish this research by confronting it with science and contemporary psychology. It is a question of developing, today, with the notion of compassion, the equivalent of what the professor of medicine Jon Kabat-Zinn initiated with his mindfulness-based stress reduction program.

What is Compassion?

It is a natural and fundamentally human response to a concern that one feels when confronted with a person who is suffering or who is in need. We feel touched by his situation and we want to try to find a solution.

You write in your book that compassion and empathy are very natural phenomena to human beings and that they are deeply rooted in our psyche....

Absolutely. We relied on research on animal empathy, in chimpanzees in particular. When two chimpanzees fight and the youngest loses, the latter is immediately consoled by one of his congeners. This means that the chimpanzee understands the pain felt by the one who lost the fight and tries to comfort him. Another study was conducted in the field of child development psychology. It shows that, from the age of 14 months, young children show spontaneous behaviors of empathy and mutual aid. These studies also show that empathy and compassion are not learned behaviors, but rather innate. They undermine the Darwinian theory that human beings are incapable of feeling compassion and empathy for their fellow human beings and that they are driven more by their personal interests. I repeat, the social sciences are proving today that empathy and compassion are innate. We are first and foremost social beings. Our well-being largely depends on the relationships we form with our peers.

What is this training in compassion training that you developed at Stanford University?

I was associated with the Institute of Neuroscience at Stanford University in 2007 as a visiting professor to be part of a project on compassion. The aim was to introduce the study of compassion into scientific research. This project led to the creation of the CCARE center (Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education). As part of this work for CCARE, I developed an intervention protocol called CCT (Compassion Cultivation Training) which gave birth to a program that takes place over a period of eight weeks. This program includes clinical applications and tests. We wanted, by combining Buddhist meditation and Western therapeutic and clinical techniques, to give it a universal scope. Since 2017, this program has been coordinated by a non-profit organization called the Compassion Institute. It is intended primarily for specific audiences, those in medical and hospital centres, but also for police and education personnel.

“Studies show that empathy and compassion are not learned behaviors, but rather innate. They undermine the Darwinian theory that human beings are incapable of feeling compassion and empathy for their fellow human beings and that they are driven more by their personal interests. »

Are these programs inspired by Buddhist principles and exercises?

Buddhist compassion training techniques are among our main tools. But the program is also based on a solid base of knowledge from neuroscience and contemporary psychology. It is based on a body of knowledge and a set of practices adapted from the Buddhist exercises for training the mind and compassion, and other specific exercises that we have put in place. We use active listening and communication a lot, active sharing by confronting two people placed in a protected space.

Would compassion combined with mindfulness lead, you write, to real personal transformations?

More and more people are using mindfulness around the world. We now need to introduce compassion into mindfulness practices. Make compassion a goal in our personal lives, in our work environment and in our relationships with others. By practicing mindfulness and performing specific meditation exercises based on compassion, we exercise a muscle related to empathy and compassion. When you are confronted with other people, then you spontaneously develop an attitude of understanding and compassion. This combination is very powerful. It allows people to live in full consciousness with deeply rooted ethical values.

Why is showing self-compassion so important?

Many of the challenges we face in the West stem from people's failure to develop enough self-compassion. When people find themselves confronted with a difficulty, with a professional failure for example, they tend to shut themselves up in an attitude of self-pity which is a source of suffering. When you neglect your own needs for compassion and show little kindness to yourself, it is difficult to be attentive and available to others. Self-compassion is necessary to express compassion for others.

You also argue that opening one's heart to the suffering of others would make one happier...

Compassion has been one of the key values ​​common to all great traditions since time immemorial. Buddhism, thus distinguishing itself from other religions, has implemented multiple techniques based on mental training and meditation, which have demonstrated their effectiveness. In particular, it offers a technique aimed at experiencing what it really means to take care of someone. If you exercise your compassion regularly, you will be led to benefit other people – especially strangers and so-called difficult people – towards whom you do not usually adopt such an attitude. Compassion training techniques aim to make compassion become more intentional and active. Let it become a guiding principle of our daily life. By exercising our compassion, we ourselves become, indeed, happier. These techniques are very powerful, they help us to become truly human.

photo of author

Fabrice Groult

Fabrice Groult is an adventurer, photographer and Buddhist who has traveled the world since a young age. After studying Buddhism in India, he embarked on an eighteen-month journey through Asia that took him to the Himalayas, where he discovered his passion for photography. Since then, he has traveled the world capturing images of Buddhist beauty and wisdom. He was a guide for ten years, and is now a journalist with Buddhist News.

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