The Great and Curious Truth: Cultivating Compassion, The Contemplative Approach

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Patrick Gaffney

Patrick Gaffney is one of the leading authorities on the contemplation and practice of compassion in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition and I was lucky enough to hear him speak at the Empathy and Compassion in Society conference in London in 2012. Patrick has kindly allowed us to reproduce the text of his talk here and you can also find the video of his talk below.

Patrick regularly teaches in Europe and the USA and will be leading a five-day retreat on Cultivating Compassion in Lerab Ling, near Montpellier, France, on 5-9 March 2013.

If you are interested in finding out more, please visit:

A talk given by Patrick Gaffney at the Empathy and Compassion in Society Conference in London on 23 November 2012.

It’s no secret that when it comes to thinking about and meditating on compassion, a lot of ideas come from the Buddhist tradition, especially that of Tibet. But these methods are now being used by people of any or no religion, all over the planet. They are based on the reality that we can train the mind, just like the body. And that we can change.

Not so long ago in the United States, a teacher who was speaking at a high school graduation shocked and outraged everyone when he told the students, “You are not special.” Everyone froze and listened in horror as he went on: “Even if you were one in a million, there would still be 7,000 just like you… You’ve been pampered, cosseted, doted upon, bubble-wrapped, feted and fawned over, and called sweetie pie. You are not exceptional…”

He seems to have put his finger on something, because it looks like we have created a world where we are fixated on ourselves. Tons of time and money go into worshipping our self-image. There’s the beauty industry, the anti-aging industry, X-factor, American Idol, buying more and more stuff, or just feeding ourselves until we burst. Self-centredness and self-cherishing are actually encouraged, and held to be the key to success. Psychologists talk about the ‘epidemic of narcissism’. There we have it: in the myth, Narcissus actually dies, out of sheer infatuation with himself.

This is where compassion comes in, because fundamentally compassion is about a profound shift, from focusing entirely on our self towards focusing on others—a fundamental change of attitude. It undoes our fixation on self, and there is a wonderful twist here, because developing a genuine concern for others actually does a much better job of looking after our own welfare than making ourselves number one the whole time.