“If your compassion does not include yourself it is incomplete.”


“If your compassion does not include yourself it is incomplete.”

This one’s Jack Kornfield, from page 28 of his Buddha’s Little Instruction Book. I’m quite sure it’s not from the Buddhist scriptures because in the Buddha’s way of thinking, compassion for oneself is natural — and our task is to extend that compassion to others.

To be a bit polemical, although we Westerners like to go on about how much self-hatred we have, I see very little sign of ascetic behavior towards oneself in the west, with or without compassion towards others. On an ordinary level, we’re very self-preoccupied. Few people seem to be so caught up in buying wide-screen television sets for other people that they have to be reminded to buy one for themselves.

People act as if they love themselves, but don’t necessarily seem to like themselves or have much genuine compassion for themselves. I suspect they’re simply alienated from their own self-love; it’s there, but unnoticed. However I still don’t see much sign that people are brimming over with compassion for others and neglecting themselves. There does seem to be more general lack of compassion, however — for both self and other.

I find myself wondering whether, when we say we have compassion for others but not ourselves, we’re actually dealing with compassion at all. In the “martyr complex” there’s often the assumption that after our sacrifices, someone (Jesus?) will reward our virtue. Of course the savior generally fails to appear…

The Buddha seems to have talked about people having the impression that they didn’t like themselves, even though they acted as if they did:

“Even though they may say, ‘We aren’t dear to ourselves,’ still they are dear to themselves. Why is that? Of their own accord, they act toward themselves as a dear one would act toward a dear one; thus they are dear to themselves.”

His criterion for saying that someone acted toward themselves as if they were a dear one, however, was that they engaged in “good bodily conduct, good verbal conduct, and good mental conduct.” In other words they’re doing things that lead to their own long-term well-being.

The Buddha encouraged people to exercise empathy as a basis for compassion, as in these two verses from the Dhammapada:

129. All tremble at violence; all fear death. Putting oneself in the place of another, one should not kill nor cause another to kill.

130. All tremble at violence; life is dear to all. Putting oneself in the place of another, one should not kill nor cause another to kill.

The assumption here is that we are dear to ourselves (we want happiness, avoid suffering) and that this needs to be seen as true of others as well. When we do this, we’ll act compassionately.

The general assumption that we are dear to ourselves and need to extend that care to others can be seen very explicitly in this verse that the Buddha uttered to King Pasenadi and Queen Mallikā:

Searching all directions
with your awareness,
you find no one dearer
than yourself.
In the same way, others
are dear to themselves.
So you shouldn’t hurt others
if you love yourself.

6 thoughts on ““If your compassion does not include yourself it is incomplete.””

  1. I feel that there is not enough self reflection of our thoughts or actions or who we are as a person. Instead of time spent reflecting on this we purposely sidetrack ourselves with material consumption, television and other entertainment. Even over eating and other bad habits take the place of time spent reflecting. We are afraid to look inward. It is painful. Isn’t this part of the reason we have so many delinquent personalities in our society? I think for the most part people can’t stand themselves.

  2. I spoke about this quote- mistakenly as a Buddhist quote- at a recovery meeting. In early recovery, addicts are hard on themselves, reviewing and cataloging the ugly messes they have left in their wake. As we write out our life stories and list our ‘personal defects’ it can become difficult and depressing. This quote helped me remember that there were actually some good qualities I possessed too, and I shared this quote to remind another man that he might possess a good quality as well.

    1. Thanks for sharing your experience.

      Folks who have a serious/disabling chronic illness (me!) can also be quite hard on themselves. I often compare myself to when I was healthy even though I know that’s not reasonable.

      I should be more accepting, patient, and yes, compassionate, to myself and recognize that *of course* I am not able to do very much these days. And that’s okay, I should just try to do my best, whatever that may be.

  3. Some astrological signs are more self-criticizing than others, and on top of that are nicer to others than they are themselves. Haven’t we all seen the “door-mat” person that puts themselves last? (mom or dad for most). Have we forgiven others but not ourselves? Not to mention we don’t always let others know we are in pain because its not “becoming” or attractive so we carry it forward and act like it’s not there. Many people are putting on a face or buying new things to distract themselves from the reality that they are like you said – separated from self love.

  4. By extension, it might be worth pointing out (at least in Mahayana) that ideas like “I am a bad person” are a result of wrong perception. There is no separate self, only the perception of one. Thich Nhat Hanh calls it “interbeing.”

    Increasing awareness of this and non-judgementalness towards yourself can increase compassion for others who are confused and lost and don’t want to be hurt, just like us.

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