The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Dalai Lama’s translator explains why being kind to yourself is good for the world

Author and scholar Thupten Jinpa is English-language translator for the Dalai Lama, shown here. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Adrian Wyld)

Most people want to be more compassionate, thoughtful and kind to others. But what if in order to treat others better, we need to start by being kinder to ourselves?

In his book, “A Fearless Heart: How the Courage to Be Compassionate Can Transform Our Lives,”  Thupten Jinpa, the Dalai Lama’s English-language translator and a visiting scholar at Stanford University, lays the foundation for a more compassionate world by teaching readers how to first cultivate kindness towards themselves.

“Compassion is a sense of concern that arises when we are confronted with another’s suffering, and feel motivated to see that suffering relieved,” Jinpa writes in his book. But if we’re not operating within a mindset of fundamental compassion for our own struggles, he says, “then we don’t develop adequate resources within ourselves to be able to give more to others.”

Self-compassion is not self-pity, self-absorption or self-indulgence. “The more compassionate thing we can do for ourselves may be to not eat the whole bag of Fritos” he writes. (Darn.) Instead, Jinpa explains, self-compassion is the “instinctive ability to be kind and considerate to yourself” he shares in an interview, –the whole, ‘put your oxygen mask first before helping others’ approach to self care– which makes a big difference when you are dealing with the demands of raising children, dealing with a difficult boss or facing a relationship crisis.

[Related: The Patriots’ Tom Brady could have avoided ‘Deflategate,’ if only he had practiced mindfulness]

Artfully drawing from his training in a Tibetan Buddhist monastery as well as his time at Oxford and work developing compassion curriculum at Stanford, Jinpa’s book blends science, spirituality and social science in a practical way designed to help readers imagine a kinder world and begin creating it. But first, Jinpa explains, you’ve gotta be good to you.

Want to start working your self-compassion muscles? “The first place to start is to question yourself,” Jinpa says in an interview. Here’s a roadmap to greater self-compassion:

Listen to your inner voice. (But don’t always do what it says.) Is that voice constantly negative, stressed or judgmental?

Jinpa’s work suggests that first becoming more aware of the thoughts that run through our minds all day will allow us to understand and redirect them.

“Try to be aware of any negative, self-critical thoughts and self-talk,” writes Jinpa. Recognizing this can create a sense of distance as you “see that these are just thoughts, constructs and interpretations.” You can then “explore ways in which you can re-frame negative judgments with more compassionate ones.”

Make time to incorporate a quiet intention-setting practice in the morning, which need only take one or two minutes. Quietly affirm to yourself, he encourages, “This day, I will make my day meaningful. I will as much as possible try to bring conscious intention into my interaction with others. I will as much as possible when the opportunity arises, be kind to others and at least refrain from harming others.  I’ll be more mindful. I’ll be caring and concerned for other people in my life. In this way, I’ll make my day meaningful.” By regularly setting daily intentions, Jinpa says, you’ll be able to act more intentionally and feel more in control and less viscerally responsive to negative events.

[Related: You’re missing out on your experiences. A meditation expert explains how to live in the moment]

Practice some self-compassion exercises, shared in great detail in his book. One involves taking several deep breaths, and pausing in silence, he writes, to ‘bring to mind an image of compassion that represents for you love, caring, wisdom and strength,” he writes. Starting with the self, you’ll move in “ever expanding circles of attention,” wishing others “joy, happiness and peace.”

Imagine yourself as a small child, “free yet vulnerable, running around and often knocking things over along the way” the book invites you to imagine. Jinpa then asks readers to invoke a sense of wonder and affection for that child within. “Wouldn’t you feel instinctively protective toward this child? Instead of negative judgment, criticism and reprimand, would you feel tender and caring?” he writes. Thinking of this image of yourself as a child, “lets these feelings of tenderness and caring toward your child-self permeate your heart.” He then suggests wishing that hapless child —you–well, by then silently repeating the phrases:

May you be free from pain and suffering. . . .

May you be free from fear and anxiety. . .

May you experience peace and joy. . .

May you be free from pain and suffering. . . .

May you be free from fear and anxiety. . .

May you experience peace and joy. .

Be aware of the narratives we tell ourselves, and how they shape our thoughts, and behaviors. Jinpa takes issue with a Darwinian worldview that says that humans are motivated solely by self-interest, saying that in turn, society, he writes, “suffers from a self-fulfilling prophecy of selfishness.” While he accepts general scientific knowledge on evolution, Jinpa adds that biological and social science also points to a kindness instinct: “We know that caring and compassionate instincts are powerful and motivate us to do things,” he explains in an interview. By seeing our fellow man as fundamentally compassionate, Jinpa argues, we can start to see ourselves as kind, too.

Remember that self-compassion is just the starting point for wider application, Jinpa explains. Compassion towards those in need,  “makes us feel good. It’s kind of a paradox that the highest level of joy that we can experience as human beings are the joys where we actually forget ourselves. If we look back in our memory, we will know that those moments when we were happiest there was the least degree of self-consciousness. I think that says something very profound about who we are as species, and of the power of that caring instinct that’s within us.”

If you like this in Inspired Life, you might also like:

A famous poet explains how great verse can help change the world –and reads you a poem

A giant blackboard on a city street is encouraging strangers to share their secrets

Meet the outsider who accidentally solved chronic homelessness

Why the U.S. rating on the World Happiness Report is lower than it should be– and how we can change it

Sign up for the Inspired Life Saturday newsletter here