I’ve often heard the Dalai Lama say that having compassion for oneself is the basis for developing compassion for others.

Chögyam Trungpa also taught this when he spoke about how to genuinely help others—how to work for the benefit of others without the interference of our own agendas. He presented this as a three-step process. Step one is maitri, a Sanskrit word meaning lovingkindness toward all beings. Here, however, as Chögyam Trungpa used the term, it means unlimited friendliness toward ourselves, with the clear implication that this leads naturally to unlimited friendliness toward others. Maitri also has the meaning of trusting oneself—trusting that we have what it takes to know ourselves thoroughly and completely without feeling hopeless, without turning against ourselves because of what we see.

Step two in the journey toward genuinely helping others is communication from the heart. To the degree that we trust ourselves, we have no need to close down on others. They can evoke strong emotions in us, but still we don’t withdraw. Based on this ability to stay open, we arrive at step three, the difficult-to-come-by fruition: the ability to put others before ourselves and help them without expecting anything in return.

When we build a house, we start by creating a stable foundation. Just so, when we wish to benefit others, we start by developing warmth or friendship for ourselves. It’s common, however, for people to have a distorted view of this friendliness and warmth. We’ll say, for instance, that we need to take care of ourselves, but how many of us really know how to do this? When clinging to security and comfort, and warding off pain, become the focus of our lives, we don’t end up feeling cared for and we certainly don’t feel motivated to extend ourselves to others. We end up feeling more threatened or irritable, more unable to relax.

I’ve known many people who have spent years exercising daily, getting massages, doing yoga, faithfully following one food or vitamin regimen after another, pursuing spiritual teachers and different styles of meditation, all in the name of taking care of themselves. Then something bad happens to them, and all those years don’t seem to have added up to the inner strength and kindness for themselves that they need in order to relate with what’s happening. And they don’t add up to being able to help other people or the environment. When taking care of ourselves is all about me, it never gets at the unshakable tenderness and confidence that we’ll need when everything falls apart. When we start to develop maitri for ourselves—unconditional acceptance of ourselves—then we’re really taking care of ourselves in a way that pays off. We feel more at home with our own bodies and minds and more at home in the world. As our kindness for ourselves grows, so does our kindness for other people.

When clinging to security and comfort, and warding off pain, become the focus of our lives, we don’t end up feeling cared for and we certainly don’t feel motivated to extend ourselves to others.

The peace that we are looking for is not peace that crumbles as soon as there is difficulty or chaos. Whether we’re seeking inner peace or global peace or a combination of the two, the way to experience it is to build on the foundation of unconditional openness to all that arises. Peace isn’t an experience free of challenges, free of rough and smooth—it’s an experience that’s expansive enough to include all that arises without feeling threatened.

“Cut”; acrylic paint, resin, watercolor, and ink on canvas; 84 × 108 inches ©Lowell Boyers

I sometimes wonder how I would respond in an emergency. I hear stories about people’s bravery emerging in crises, but I’ve also heard some painful stories from people who weren’t able to reach out to others in need because they were so afraid for themselves. We never really know which way it will go. So I ponder what would happen, for instance, if I were in a situation where there was no food but I had a bit of bread. Would I share it with the others who were starving? Would I keep it for myself? If I contemplate this question when I’m feeling the discomfort of even mild hunger, it makes the process more honest. The reality gets through to me that if I give away all my food, then the hunger I’m feeling won’t be going away. Maybe another person will feel better, but for sure physically I will feel worse.

Sometimes the Dalai Lama suggests not eating one day a week, or skipping a meal, to briefly put ourselves in the shoes of those who are starving all over the world. In practicing this kind of solidarity myself, I have found that it can bring up panic and self-protectiveness. So the question is, what do we do with our distress? Does it open our heart or close it? When we’re hungry, does our discomfort increase our empathy for hungry people and animals, or does it increase our fear of hunger and intensify our selfishness?

With contemplations like this, we can be completely truthful about where we are but also aware of where we’d like to be next year or in five years, or where we’d like to be by the time we die. Maybe today I panic and can’t give away even a crumb of my bread, but I don’t have to sink into despair. We have the opportunity to lead our lives in such a way that year by year we’ll be less afraid, less threatened, and more able to spontaneously help others without asking ourselves, “What’s in this for me?”

A fifty-year-old woman told me her story. She had been in an airplane crash at the age of twenty-five. She was in such a panic rushing to get out of the plane before it exploded that she didn’t stop to help anyone else, including, most painfully, a little boy who was tangled in his seat belt and couldn’t move. She had been a practicing Buddhist for about five years when the accident happened; it was shattering to her to see how she had reacted. She was deeply ashamed of herself, and after the crash she sank into three hard years of depression. But ultimately, instead of her remorse and regret causing her to self-destruct, these very feelings opened her heart to other people. Not only did she become committed to her spiritual path in order to grow in her ability to help others, but she also became engaged in working with people in crisis. Her seeming failure is making her a far more courageous and compassionate woman.

Right before the Buddha attained enlightenment under the Bodhi tree, he was tempted in every conceivable way. He was assaulted by objects of lust, objects of craving, objects of aggression, of fear, of all the variety of things that usually hook us and cause us to lose our balance. Part of his extraordinary accomplishment was that he stayed present, on the dot, without being seduced by anything that appeared. In traditional versions of the story, it’s said that no matter what appeared, whether it was demons or soldiers with weapons or alluring women, he had no reaction to it at all. I’ve always thought, however, that perhaps the Buddha did experience emotions during that long night, but recognized them as simply dynamic energy moving through. The feelings and sensations came up and passed away, came up and passed away. They didn’t set off a chain reaction. This process is often depicted in paintings as weapons transforming into flowers—warriors shooting thousands of flaming arrows at the Buddha as he sits under the Bodhi tree but the arrows becoming blossoms. That which can cause our destruction becomes a blessing in disguise when we let the energies arise and pass through us over and over again, without acting out.

A question that has intrigued me for years is this: How can we start exactly where we are, with all our entanglements, and still develop unconditional acceptance of ourselves instead of guilt and depression? One of the most helpful methods I’ve found is the practice of compassionate abiding. This is a way of bringing warmth to unwanted feelings. It is a direct method for embracing our experience rather than rejecting it. So the next time you realize that you’re hooked—that you’re stuck, finding yourself tightening, spiraling into blaming, acting out, obsessing—you could experiment with this approach.

“Origin”; acrylic paint, resin, watercolor, and ink on canvas; 38 × 76 inches ©Lowell Boyers

Contacting the experience of being hooked, you breathe in, allowing the feeling completely and opening to it. The in-breath can be deep and relaxed—anything that helps you to let the feeling be there, anything that helps you not push it away. Then, still abiding with the urge and edginess of feelings such as craving or aggression, as you breathe out you relax and give the feeling space. The outbreath is not a way of sending the discomfort away but a way of ventilating it, of loosening the tension around it, of becoming aware of the space in which the discomfort is occurring.

This practice helps us to develop maitri because we willingly touch parts of ourselves that we’re not proud of. We touch feelings that we think we shouldn’t be having—feelings of failure, of shame, of murderous rage; all those politically incorrect feelings like racial prejudice, disdain for people we consider ugly or inferior, sexual addiction, and phobias. We contact whatever we’re experiencing and go beyond liking or disliking by breathing in and opening. Then we breathe out and relax. We continue that for a few moments or for as long as we wish, synchronizing it with the breath. This process has a leaning-in quality. Breathing in and leaning in are very much the same. We touch the experience, feeling it in the body if that helps, and we breathe it in.

In the process of doing this, we are transmuting hard, reactive, rejecting energy into basic warmth and openness. It sounds dramatic, but really it’s very simple and direct. All we are doing is breathing in and experiencing what’s happening, then breathing out as we continue to experience what’s happening. It’s a way of working with our negativity that appreciates that the negative energy per se is not the problem. Confusion only begins when we can’t abide with the intensity of the energy and therefore spin off. Staying present with our own energy allows it to keep flowing and move on. Abiding with our own energy is the ultimate nonaggression, the ultimate maitri.

Compassionate abiding is a stand-alone practice, but it can also serve as a preliminary for doing the practice of tonglen, the practice of taking in and sending out. Tonglen is an ancient practice designed to short-circuit “all about me.” Just as with compassionate abiding, the logic of the practice is that we start by breathing in and opening to feelings that threaten the survival of our self-importance. We breathe in feelings that generally we want to get rid of. On the out-breath of tonglen, we send out all that we find pleasurable and comfortable, meaningful and desirable. We send out all the feelings we usually grasp after and cling to for dear life.

Negative energy per se is not the problem.

Tonglen can begin very much like compassionate abiding. We breathe in anything we find painful and we send out relief, synchronizing this with the breath. Yet the emphasis with tonglen is always on relieving the suffering of others. As we breathe in discomfort, we might think, “May I feel this completely so that I and all other beings may be free of pain.” As we breathe out relief, we might think, “May I send out this contentment completely so that all beings may feel relaxed and at home with themselves and with the world.” In other words, tonglen goes beyond compassionate abiding because it is a practice that includes the suffering of other beings and the longing that this suffering could be removed.

Tonglen develops further as your courage to experience your own unwanted feelings grows. For instance, when you realize you’re hooked, you breathe in with the understanding, even if it’s only conceptual at first, that this experience is shared by every being and that you aspire to alleviate their suffering. As you breathe out, you send relief to everyone. Still, your direct experience—the experience you’re tasting right now—is the basis for having any idea at all about what other beings go through. In this way tonglen is a heart practice, a gut-level practice, not a head practice or intellectual exercise.

It’s common for parents of young children to spontaneously put their children first. When little ones are ill, mothers and fathers often have no problem at all wishing they could take away the child’s suffering; they would gladly breathe it in and take it away if they could, and they would gladly breathe out relief.

It’s suggested to start tonglen with situations like that, where it’s fairly easy. The practice becomes more challenging when you start to do it for people you don’t know, and almost impossible when you try to do it for people you don’t like. You breathe in the suffering of a panhandler on the street and aren’t sure you want to. And how willing are you to do more advanced tonglen, where you breathe in the pain of someone you despise and send them relief? From our current vantage point, this can seem too much to ask, too overwhelming or too absurd.

The reason why tonglen practice can be so difficult is that we can’t bear to feel the feelings that the street person or our nemesis bring up in us. This, of course, brings us back to compassionate abiding and making friends with ourselves. It has been precisely this process of doing tonglen, trying to stretch further and open my mind to a wider and wider range of people, that has helped me to see that without maitri I will always close down on other people when certain feelings are provoked.

The next time you have a chance, go outside and try to do tonglen for the first person you meet, breathing in their discomfort and sending out well-being and caring. If you’re in a city, just stand still for a while and pay attention to anyone who catches your eye and do tonglen for them. You can begin by contacting any aversion or attraction or even a neutral, uninterested feeling that they bring up in you, and breathe in, contacting that feeling much as you do with compassionate abiding but with the thought, “May both of us be able to feel feelings like this without it causing us to shut down to others.” As you breathe out, send happiness and contentment to them. If you encounter an animal or person who is clearly in distress, pause and breathe in with the wish that they be free of their distress and send out relief to them. With the most advanced tonglen, you breathe in with the wish that you could actually take on their distress so they could be free of it, and you breathe out with the wish that you could give them all your comfort and ease. In other words, you would literally be willing to stand in their shoes and have them stand in yours if it would help.

By trying this, we learn exactly where we are open and where we are closed. We learn quickly where we would do well to just practice abiding compassionately with our own confused feelings, before we try to work with other people, because right now our efforts would probably make a bigger mess. I know many people who want to be teachers, or feed the homeless, or start clinics, or try in some way to truly help others. Despite their generous intentions, they don’t always realize that if they plan to work closely with people they may be in for a lot of difficulty—a lot of feeling hooked. The people they hope to help will not always see them as saviors. In fact, they will probably criticize them and give them a hard time. Teachers and helpers of all kinds will be of limited use if they are doing their work to build up their own egos. Setting out to help others is a very quick way to pop the bubble of ego.

So we start by making friends with our experience and developing warmth for our good old selves. Slowly, very slowly, gently, very gently, we let the stakes get higher as we touch in on more troubling feelings. This leads to trusting that we have the strength and good-heartedness to live in this precious world, despite its land mines, with dignity and kindness. With this kind of confidence, connecting with others comes more easily, because what is there to fear when we have stayed with ourselves through thick and thin? Other people can provoke anything in us, and we don’t need to defend ourselves by striking out or shutting down. Selfless help—helping others without an agenda— is the result of having helped ourselves. We feel loving toward ourselves and therefore we feel loving toward others. Over time, all those we used to feel separate from become more and more melted into our heart.