Candid Talks on Compassion, Meditation, and Outrage with the Translator for the Dalai Lama

“Fear, anger, or dislike of someone can motivate you, but if you need a sustained motivation, then joy has to be part of it.”

Thupten Jinpa Langri has been the principal English translator for the Dalai Lama since 1985, translating and editing over ten books in that time. Born in Tibet, he received early training as a monk, and currently is the Visiting Research Scholar at the Stanford Institute for Neuro-Innovation and Translational Neurosciences. His most recent book, A Fearless Heart, was released in 2015. Thupten Jinpa recently joined Leah Weiss for a Heleo Conversation on the place of compassion in 2017. Leah, a scholar, writer, and educator, is Principal Teacher and Trainer for Stanford’s Compassion Cultivation Program. Her book, Heart at Work, is forthcoming in 2018.

This conversation has been edited and condensed. To view the full conversation, click the video below. 

Leah: Why is compassion a priority now?

Thupten Jinpa: More than ever, people are feeling anxious and uncertain, particularly in the United States. The US is going through a very complicated time, where people’s political opinions are so polarized and there is a level of rhetoric which is quite confrontational from both sides. In this climate, fear and differentiation of your standpoint and identity tend to become the dominant perspective from which you relate and interpret what is happening.

In this situation, compassion is central, because one of the things that taking compassion seriously demands is the willingness to look at the humanity of the other side. Even in the midst of the most serious confrontation and disagreement, if the two parties are able to [remember] that the other side, too, is human, then there’s a chance for reconciliation.

Leah: The challenge is how to balance participation in activist campaigns when much of the activist rhetoric is not rhetoric that one would use in compassionate practices?

Thupten Jinpa: Compassion is a value that has been historically identified with religious morality and religious teachings, which generally tend to ask quite a lot—to turn the other cheek. Or, from the Buddhist point of view, viewing your enemy as your spiritual teacher. To expect that from an ordinary person is a tall order.

“Being compassionate doesn’t mean you have to be completely passive. In fact, a sense of outrage can be a powerful vehicle to express your compassionate concern.”

Sometimes, when people hear advocates of compassion in this context, people think that what is being asked is to just give in, bow down your head, and accept what is the reality. In other words, simple pacifism. That is not what compassion is asking. Look at the great compassionate leaders: Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, the Dalai Lama. These are deeply compassionate individuals and leaders. But they are also individuals whose sense of outrage at the historical injustice that their people are facing motivates them to rise up and oppose the existing structure.

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Being compassionate doesn’t mean you have to be completely passive. In fact, a sense of outrage can be a powerful vehicle to express your compassionate concern. Irish statesman Edmund Burke said, “All that tyranny needs is for the people of good conscience to remain quiet.” There might be times when, if you are truly compassionate, you need to express it in strong opposition to an unjust system. The rhetoric may not seem kind and gentle, but the motivation is ultimately compassionate.

Leah: [From] your context of having grown up as a refugee and lived outside your home country, what advice can you offer for creating a day-to-day life that is manageable, but not disconnected from the bigger picture that you want to advocate for?

Thupten Jinpa: I was not even one year old when my parents left Tibet in the wake of Chinese occupation. I have very fond early memories of refugee childhood, because my parents’ generation really took the brunt of all that hardship. Being a kid, my ignorance was a shield from feeling any trauma of that refugee experience. On the other hand, I did learn as a stateless Tibetan growing up in India not to believe too much in stability and predictability.

Everybody craves security. Expecting security, stability, and predictability is very natural. At the same time one of the wisest things that people can learn is not to over-expect and over-rely on predictability and stability. The more you are able to learn to cope with some degree of unpredictability in your life, the more that makes you resilient.

Leah: What are some of the most helpful practices for people making the transition to work with the unknown?

Thupten Jinpa: It is very difficult, because there’s a built-in need to feel secure. The external means—a good job, facilities—these are crucial. If you don’t have food to eat, if you don’t have a shelter over your head, if you are living in a war zone, no amount of mental skills are going to be able to fulfill that role.

But most of us in the West are above the level of poverty. Compared to a third world country, many people living in North America are economically fairly secure. In these situations, recognize that happiness does not entirely depend upon external conditions. My happiness is also a function of my own state of mind. Being able to change that mindset, and also being able to tap into the richness that exists in intimate relationships with your family, your spouse, your friends—increasingly, the research is showing one key to a happy life is healthy relationships.

Most people don’t really think about it. When you ask people, “What would it take for you to be happy?” Most probably list more money. The reality is, up to a point there’s a correlation between money and happiness. If you can’t support yourself, if you can’t support your family, you’re in a big mess. But, after a certain point there’s hardly any correlation. Then, other things kick in. How rich is your relationship? How much you are able to tap into your own inner resources? How resilient is your mind when you’re confronted with adversity? The more people are able to appreciate the resources within our own mind, the more they will be able to create a life where they see greater meaning and happiness.

“The whole reason for making more money is to have a happier life. But why would you deliberately choose a place just because it’s paying you more when you know perfectly well that you’re going to be less happy there?”

Leah: One of the things that often comes up when we talk about compassion is the relationship between compassion and empathy. Can you speak to concern with being overwhelmed by another person’s suffering?

Thupten Jinpa: Until recently, people were using terms like “empathy,” “compassion,” and “sympathy” quite loosely. For many people, there isn’t much of a difference. But neuroscientific research is beginning to show that even at the brain level, we can see a difference between empathetic zone and compassionate state. The distinction is that empathy is more of an emotional state. Empathy is generally triggered by a sight of suffering, pain in front of you. You can feel the other person’s pain—if the person is feeling sad, you feel sad.

The difference between empathy and compassion is that when you move to compassion, you are no longer just in the state of feeling. There is a motivational element that comes in. There’s a wish to see the elevation of that situation. Compassion is the more empowered state, because when you are in empathy, your focus is on the problem, the suffering, the pain. When you move to compassion, now you’re focused on the solution. Being able to distinguish between the two has very important implications in health care professions.

Leah: That makes sense, in how professional caregivers are trained. They have the capacity to have their patients feel connected and heard. But I certainly don’t want my doctor crying with me about my health problem. Especially for repeated interactions when people are doing this work professionally.

Thupten Jinpa: Yes, it has huge implications, because people at the front line of acute care, constantly confronted with the sight of extreme pain, often either burn out or they switch off. It’s understandable, because you have to protect yourself. But neither approach is ultimately constructive. If you switch off, then you hide behind professionalism and acting cool, and you become almost clinical. This is a suppressive mechanism. You can’t help feeling. You’re a human being, not a robot, and this suppressive approach in the long term is actually very bad for your health.

On the other hand, if you can’t handle it, you’re crying, that’s even worse, because then the patient is going to worry, “Am I in the right person’s hands? This guy is an emotional wreck.” There seems to be promise in compassion training. If we could develop a program which helps health care professionals develop skills so that they can compassionately engage without getting stuck in empathy, this is quite exciting.

Health care professionals themselves gain from this, because I don’t think we humans are designed to be constantly in empathetic zone. Empathy is an emotional state, and there’s a reason why evolution has designed emotions to be fleeting.

Emotion is supposed to indicate something important is happening around you in your life. Pay attention. But we’re not meant to be stuck in that state for a long time. We’re supposed to recognize whatever the important thing is and then respond to that situation.

Leah: What are some domains you would recommend for people to think about if their work life isn’t bring out that sense of passion?

Thupten Jinpa: Finding a workplace where you can have meaningful relationships with your colleagues is important. Unfortunately, when people choose a workplace, they generally tend to choose where they get paid most. There was an interesting survey done by Google a couple of years ago, when they wanted to motivate their top engineers to stay. They asked: what would make you stay? Increasing your pay, more food courts, better child care facilities, wellness activities?

Because the Google engineers are already paid well, for me it came as a surprise that the top item was more pay. People still believe that more pay is the secret to happiness. In reality, what is more important in a work context is finding a workplace where you feel valued, recognized, where you have a group of friends. Even though the work itself may not be something that you’re deeply passionate about, find a workplace where the relationships and the culture are compassionate. Where you are valued. People need to not just ask how much am I going to get paid.

The whole reason for making more money is to have a happier life. But why would you deliberately choose a place just because it’s paying you more when you know perfectly well that you’re going to be less happy there? It’s illogical, because the whole rationale for looking for more money is to have greater happiness, so that you can support your family without having to worry about financial stability.

Leah: Those of us who work with technology, computers, or being inundated with information—we might struggle to find centeredness, let alone compassion in that context. How do you think about compassion for working, relationships, family life, parenting? Especially for people who aren’t coming from meditation practice, what’s one thing that someone could start doing tomorrow without sitting on a cushion?

Thupten Jinpa: Even if you happen to be one of the few people who does a lot of sitting on the cushion, if that does not translate into your everyday action, how you treat others, then it doesn’t matter how many hours you do on the cushion. It has no effect, frankly. It becomes almost a self-indulgent, self-absorbed activity. There’s a reason why sometimes people call it navel-gazing.

I would argue that the theater in which compassion has a role is the real one. It’s not when you’re closing your eyes. A journalist once said [to His Holiness], “You have been monk for all these years, but every morning you get up at 3:30 and meditate for three or four hours. Why do you have to still meditate?” The Dalai Lama said, “I see my morning sitting as a way of recharging my battery. Then I use my batteries in my day-to-day interaction with other people.” That is a powerful understanding of what something like sitting on a cushion is supposed to do.

“When we talk about compassion, we generally think of feeling sorry for this poor guy. It’s very feeling-oriented. But one of the key components of compassion is an intention. You want to help someone, to allow someone into your heart.”

I don’t think everybody is inclined to do that. Some people are more contemplative, some people are action-oriented. What I would suggest that we can learn from compassion practice is the importance of intention. In plain English, when we talk about compassion, we generally think of feeling sorry for this poor guy. It’s very feeling-oriented. But one of the key components of compassion is an intention. You want to help someone, to allow someone into your heart.

For example, dealing with technology on a daily basis when you are very busy. At the same time, you have a family. How do you divide up? If you take the role of intention seriously, then you will have a way of prioritizing what is important. If you don’t pay enough attention to the intention in your life, then you go through life as if sleepwalking. It just becomes a routine. The alarm goes off, you get up, you make a cup of coffee. Time to go to work, drop your kids at school. You just go through the motions.

Whereas, if you take intention seriously, you can make an intention in the morning. “This day I will try to have my priorities better organized. I’m going to pay more attention to my spouse, be kinder to my colleagues. Be more mindful of what I say.” You don’t have to sit down on a cushion to do that. You can do that while you’re driving. You set the intention and that changes the whole tenor of your day.

Leah: How do you, as you’re moving through your day, keep your eye on that intention? Are there questions you ask yourself that help you sift through your priorities?

Thupten Jinpa: I recognize that there’s a finite amount of resources that you have in terms of time and attention. Also, there is no way one person can do everything. This humility, that you cannot solve all the world’s problems, is very important.

If you have some degree of self awareness, you begin to see where you can be most effective and helpful. One of the great insights from Buddhist psychology is that fear, anger, or dislike of someone can motivate you, but if you need a sustained motivation, then joy has to be part of it. Parents who have tried to push their children to pick up a sport know that the first few months it’s a real struggle. Sometimes they don’t want to go, you drag them. Then a day comes when they start enjoying it. After that, you don’t have to push them.

Relying on exertion of will all the time is not a skillful strategy. You can push with your will up to a point, but beyond that it gets exhausting. Individuals need to find whatever it is that makes them have a sense of purpose and find real joy in their pursuit.