Many Buddhist texts talk about compassion as the only motivation that really matters. In particular, the Mahayana tradition emphasises compassion as central to a healthy, enlightened approach to life.
But how does compassion work as a motivation for humans? And how does it compete with other forms of human motivation which we have inherited with our evolved minds and bodies?
ADVANTAGES OF COMPASSION
- CALMNESS – Compassion is an extremely calming form of motivation. Unlike selfishness, which is full of anxiety, compassion tends to be patient. When an animal wants food or safety for itself, it tends to activate quite an urgent, unkind style of behaviour, competing against others. In contrast, when a person wants food or safety for other people, they remain more calm, rational and uncompetitive, more mentally healthy.
- STABILITY – Compassion has a more consistent foundation. There are many other beings, and there is a lot of society to be compassionate for. This means that , from day to day, we are less pulled around by our own moods and changes of situation. Helping others brings us stability, because other people’s needs tend to stay the same over time, for a long time.
POTENTIAL PROBLEMS WITH COMPASSION
- SELF-HARM – If we are motivated by compassion, we can become endangered by those who take advantage. For instance, if we are in a relationship with a person behaving selfishly, we may adapt ourselves too much, wanting to make them comfortable at all costs.
- SUPPRESSION OF NATURAL INSTINCTS – We evolved with many motivations, such as anger, frustration, irritation, sex drive, and physical hunger. If we can’t process these inner drives, then they will find their way into our actions in hidden ways. We will start fights, conduct secret affairs, and binge in private – and then be ‘surprised’ by our own bad behaviour! Although compassion is a great motivation, we still need to be wise in our acknowledgement and processing of our aggressive impulses, and of our sexual and physical drives.
If we are wondering what forms of motivation are most successful and healthy, compassion has tremendous advantages. In particular, it enhances personal calmness and stability.
However, we need to watch that our compassion for others does not lead to being taken advantage of. We also need to make sure that we acknowledge, and process wisely, the more aggressive and primitive physical drives that also make us human.
In short, if we think of others first, we are more likely to be mentally healthy, as long as we are also wise and realistic about the ‘shadow’ sides of human nature.