from Rebel Buddha, Chapter 10, “The Altruistic Heart” (pp. 137-8)
Sometimes we say it’s a big world and sometimes we say it’s a small world. Whichever way we think of it, we know that there are countless people on this earth, and as many kinds of suffering as there are inhabitants of the planet. Whether suffering comes from outside or from within, it often made worse by the sense of isolation and aloneness it brings with it. Suffering gives us the feeling of having no friend. When we open our hearts to others, the magnitude of the suffering we meet can be overwhelming. Our sense of love and compassion can go into a state of shock. It is helpful, then, to remember that sometimes the most powerful medicine we can offer for suffering of any kind is simply kindness. It says, “You are not alone. I see you, I hear you, I am with you.” Even if it is only for a moment or a day, that sense of genuine connection can change the trajectory of a life. To be genuine and kind is like a broad-spectrum remedy for the pain that afflicts the heart. Giving food, shelter and work are important and that should always be done, too, as much as possible. If you are in a position to give any of those, don’t withhold them. But every one of us is in a position to be genuine and kind.
To offer this kindness to others, we first have to learn to be kind toward ourselves. Then we can approach others and extend that same kindness to them. Again, wanting to help others does not mean we have the goal of saving them in the sense of setting them on the “right course” according to our view. If there is any way we can really save someone, being genuine and kind is probably the only way. You are not going to save people by pushing them toward a goal you have in mind for them.
If you are driven by such a motivation, then your actions are more like those of a religious missionary than a best friend. There is a lot of egocentricity in wanting to be a savior, and it is a theistic view as well. You may be thinking, “I just want to save Joe and Mary from themselves—I am not trying to save their souls.” In that case, you may be using a different label, but your attitude and actions are much the same.
We could instead be like a best friend to others. When you have a best friend, you know that person will always try to be there for you when you need help. Your friend is not there trying to convert or save you, only to give you support and create whatever environment you need. A relationship can go wrong when one person tries to save the other. You may be trying to rescue a friend or partner from grief, depression, or simply the misfortune of holding wrong political views, but nevertheless, you must respect the integrity of each individual and your own limitations of knowledge. On the other hand, in many cases, kindness is all you can offer and all you need to offer. A kind, good and gentle heart can melt the barriers that separate us. When you feel the quality of genuine kindness in your own heart and can extend that to another person, then although that person may be in a sad or difficult situation, it can convey a healing sense of warmth and peace.