To the rescue!

While working on an article filled with your ideas on how Buddhists can (and need to) help in the current world turmoil, someone sent me this:

In a recent retreat, after teaching on emptiness and how the appearances in this life are like dreams, Gen Losang went on to say that a compassionate way to help people is to skilfully reduce the importance of what is appearing to them, rather than increasing it. He meant skilfully, not shutting them down with, “Oh, it’s all emptiness.” 


What do you think about this? It reminded me of this analogy (below) for helping people on different levels and in accordance with their needs that I hope you might also find helpful.

To help anyone, we need compassion. And true compassion, or deep compassion, arises from renunciation – we develop renunciation for ourselves and for everyone else.

Renunciation is when we stop buying into samsara, hoping that things in samsara will one day work themselves out – they will not. We cannot make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, as they say. For as long as our minds are impure, our worlds will be impure.

“Reducing the importance of what is appearing to them, rather than increasing it” depends on the degree of suffering and crazy appearances the person is experiencing.

If we are helping someone who has a little space in their lives, and who is suffering, for example, from a relationship problem – yes, this advice can really help.

For someone whose home and country have just been washed away or burned to the ground, maybe not so much. (Unless they already have experience of this deep spiritual truth and just want reminding.)

The swamp

Imagine living beings are trying to navigate a huge, deep swamp that happens to be full of alligators and other monsters with very big teeth and hungry bellies. It is dusky — hard to see clearly or far. There are stepping stones, but it’s challenging to see how to tread safely. Here and there are small patches of dry land where people can catch a bit of a breather, and some of those patches even seem relatively pretty or interesting.

alligator in swampImagine that we are also in that swamp, but that we know, at least intellectually, something profound – this swamp is false, merely an appearance to mind, like a dream or a movie.

The need for renunciation

In that scenario, we need renunciation ourselves, wishing to get out of this swamp of samsara entirely and forever rather than remaining intrigued by it. We need to know that for as long as we have delusions, we’re going to keep projecting monsters wherever we look.


Speaking for myself, I know that the times I feel anxious, overwhelmed, heavy, or graspy is when I have forgotten my renunciation, which is a light, joyful, and confident wish for liberation. My compassion then is far less effective. I have thoughts like, “There are so many people, including animals, needing help! So many people demanding the attention that I’m not giving them – it’s coming from all sides. How am I going to save them all from the alligators?! Especially when I’m feeling trapped or overwhelmed myself?” I feel like going back to bed and pulling the covers over my head. Or distracting myself with Netflix. It also doesn’t help if we are bound to our own selfish attachments needing things or people to go our way.

If we don’t have the non-attachment of renunciation, we have only momentary relief when a plan pans out – but it is short lived, whereas the disappointments can seem to pile up effortlessly. This is because of attachment. It leads to the suffering of change, not to deep satisfaction or solutions.

The need for wisdom

We also need some wisdom understanding the illusory nature of the swamp or we will soon be joining in the collective panic, “Aarggh, I’m freaking out over here! We’re going to be swallowed whole.” We will be part of the problem, swept up in the drama, overwhelmed by appearances or the 24/7 news cycle.

Without wisdom, compassion fatigue sets in because it is exhausting to try and solve “real” problems — it is like wading through treacle with no end in sight. It can also make us feel guilty as we can never do enough.

With the compassion born of renunciation and wisdom, we won’t get discouraged. The context is different – we have set it up differently. We therefore can “try and not worry”, as Geshe Kelsang says. We are “only trying to help people”, he also says, “so why worry?”

Back to the analogy … Let’s say we are lucky enough to have a flashlight. The flashlight is the teachings illuminating the path — we don’t know how long we have this flashlight, but it is very effective. How strong it is depends on the strength of our experience. Perhaps we understand the dream-like nature of reality and — even though for now things may also still seem real to us — we know we have to get ourselves and others to the firm ground of wisdom.

Tread here!

swampWhat we need to do, if we care about the people around us, is to stop them being eaten by swamp monsters. The first thing we need to do is encourage them to get to the patches of dry land … tread here, avoid those jaws, hold my hand, look at the light. You’ll be ok, let me help.” Although there are no real dangers there, they are not necessarily ready to hear us say so: “Stop being an idiot! There are no swamp monsters! This is just a dream! It’s all empty!” We understand how it is all appearing to them as real, and so we give them the relevant advice for their situation. We empathize with their hopes and fears. We give them material help, “Here, have some water.” They need water.

Once they reach dry land, and have had a chance to rest up, we can then tell them:

“Believe it or not, this is all just a bad dream. You are in no real danger. And now let me explain how.”

We can explain how it is possible for them to stay on firm ground forever, and help get everyone else out as well.


We may not be able to do this with everyone straightaway, of course — for example all I can do with these foster kittens is give them food, shelter, love, temporary safety, and entertainment. But we never give up trying until everyone is permanently safe and free. That is a Bodhisattva‘s mentality.

Calm the waters

I’ll finish by sharing what my friend wrote about Gen Losang’s advice:

The key for me here is genuine compassion. I say that because if we try to practice this without genuine compassion as a motivation then we just end up unskillfully minimising people’s feelings. It can be very hurtful to be feeling pain and have someone tell you, “It’s all emptiness.” Unless you have high realisations, that pain exists for you, just as a child’s fears exist even if the nightmare doesn’t.

Within that, I try not to draw attention to the awful things that are happening. Also, when people are sharing their worries with me, I try to reduce the drama rather than adding to it, whilst still being sympathetic. I point out possible alternative explanations for the actions they have witnessed, or suggest a better possible outcome. In a way I try to steer their dream in a more positive direction. If a mother comforts a child after a nightmare, she doesn’t do this by agreeing the monsters were just horrific and are probably still there …IMG_2085

If we are not careful, we can just spread the hype (and there is also no shortage of “fake news” out there). We can end up pointing out the monsters in their nightmares that they missed the first time, instead of shining the flashlight under the bed and saying, “Look, there is no one there!”

A parent comforts their children when they have been terrified or upset by a dream by sympathising with their pain but skilfully reducing the sense that what they experienced was the truth. Then, once they are comforted to some extent, they can move their attention to something that will soothe or comfort them, rather than harping on about their own horrific nightmares or asking them for more details. 

What I am working on now is responding in the way Losang suggested, calming the waters, not swirling them around. 

As always, your comments are welcome below.

Related articles


Change your future by changing your mind

How to help on different levels

Developing confidence


Author: Luna Kadampa

Based on 40 years' experience, I write about applying meditation and modern Buddhism to improve and transform our everyday lives and societies. I try to make it accessible to everyone anywhere who wants more inner peace and profound tools to help our world, not just Buddhists. Do make comments any time and I'll write you back!

25 thoughts on “To the rescue!”

  1. Thank you for your illuminating article. I have been wondering lately if “compassion fatigue” is a valid feeling or if we simply cave into it because our culture says we can and gives this feeling credence by naming it and collectively recognising it as an actual phenomenon… I wonder too, if there is a distinction between “compassion” and “empathy”; compassion could be said to incorporate this wisdom and renunciation and empathy could be said to be when we feel the pain of another so much that it is almost a bodily experience (literally a feeling like ” tugging at the heart strings”). I wonder if what we understand by “compassion fatigue” is actually more like “empathy fatigue”?

  2. Thank you so much. This is beautiful and just want was needed as I have been trying to bring my mind back from the extreme of ‘nothingness’ when considering emptiness. Although the ‘nothingness’ phase zaps your faith, compassion and energy to practice, experiencing it and this article remind me that we need to be so skillful when helping others. I am not there yet woth wisdom but it is wonderful that I have a spiritual guide who is and who is helping us so one day we will be truely skillful in helping others.

  3. Thank you for the sweet article. It more than suitable to my present Life than anything. May you experience true happiness in this life or reach enlightement soon!!

  4. My work puts me in some pretty awful situations, and it makes me very appreciative of Gen Losang’s heartfelt comment “It can be very hurtful to be feeling pain and to have someone tell you, “It’s all emptiness.” Unless you have high realisations, that pain exists for you, just as a child’s fears exist even if the nightmare doesn’t.”
    It reminds me of the things I hear people say to families I work with, like the parents of a young college graduate who overdosed that ‘he’s in a better place now’ or the mother of child who was shot in the abdomen by a stray bullet that ‘there’s a reason for everything.’ Time and time again I believe that one of the most powerful things I can do in such situations is to remain in refuge and remain present with another’s pain, without faltering or running away: no matter how chaotic or emotive it may become. Such steadfastness can help another person to feel a little less alone, a little more grounded, and hopefully, even a little loved. For me this is an expression of my belief in their potential, and this wish for their freedom is key for me in my efforts to develop compassion for others, rather than stagnant empathy.

  5. not to get distracted, but as you commented re: science and emptiness, there’s a conversation here apparently between N.Bohrs with Einstein …. indicating no objective truths – you’ll find it. How i feel so fortunate with the explanations of ult. truth in Kadam Dharma.

  6. i appreciate the inclusion of Gen Losang’s teaching; the part near the end ” but skilfully reducing the sense that what they experienced was the truth.” is skilful advice; and for myself in daily life too! thanks.)

  7. Thank you. Very well said. I actually wrote to our larger sangha something similar on how to be with people going through a natural disaster.

    Living so near the wildfires here in Northern California, just 15 miles away heartbreak is everywhere. People hearts breaking by losing family, friends, pets and things. Who are we to judge heartbreak. As students of Buddha,
    Je Tsongkhapa and Geshe Gyatso Rinpoche isn’t it most beneficial to meet them where they are?

    Hearing some Sangha members not very skillfully say to those affected by the fire ” it’s just karma” or “it’s all empty” my heart broke for this is not being of help to others and potential more harmful especially if wearing robes.

    Karma and emptiness if actually understood one would not have to talk about it. The mere kind and compassionate actions of the person would be the teaching and refuge needed in the first moments A thousand thanks

  8. Thanks for sharing this, Luna! It is very helpful. We certainly do not help others when we minimize their feelings by going to emptiness before they are ready. Another angle on this is that sometimes Dharma practitioners can go to extremes with their renunciation, so that they are unable to accept practical help and support from the “ordinary” world around them, because they have rejected it as impure. It’s so important to keep our wishes practical – I need help – and Buddhas will emanate as ordinary-looking beings to support me in practical ways. I am surrounded by the kindness of others – not a bunch of faulty, impure beings!

  9. I do much agree with the comments about being skilful. If somebody is suffering (even a Buddhist) and is told “it’s all emptiness” it can create just more negativity and delusion in their mind, and give the impression of uncaring.

  10. “Also, when people are sharing their worries with me, I try to reduce the drama rather than adding to it, whilst still being sympathetic.” Is it okay to agree with them first and THEN steer it to a more positive direction (even though you don’t agree with them in your heart)? I have noticed that generally my family/friends mostly want someone to just listen and see their point of view. Is it okay to agree with them and THEN present alternatives? They are sometimes also looking for someone to make decisions for them which I learnt very quickly not to do!

    I am also very curious why Geshla advised that when someone asks you how you are, you can tell them ‘oh I have this problem and that problem’ even if you are joyful. I have had a colleague tell me ‘you seem to be generally very happy, its really nice but its sometimes annoying’. I have had another teacher suggest that we need to be having a great time and be happy as that is how we inspire others. Could you clarify how we should appear to others?

    1. In answer to your question, I think that approach can work well — depending on what we are agreeing with. I don’t agree when people tell me about fishing, for example. But if they are talking about how someone hurt them, maybe. Depends on the context.

      I think we shouldn’t overthink how we appear to others, we should just be ourselves.

  11. Thank you Luna, that was very very practical and helpful advice.

    Kadam Olivier said that when we identify with other’s potential, we are blessing them as then they themselves get to connect with their own potential better. When we identify with other’s limitation, its like we are cursing them. This is completely coherent with what you mentioned that we meet them where they are at and help them there, instead of meeting them where we would like them to be which may just discourage them. It is so true that without heartfelt compassion, the ordinary self equipped with intellectual understanding of dharma calls the shots and I have been oh so guilty of that!

    You said: We therefore can “try and not worry”, as Geshe Kelsang says. We are “only trying to help people”, he also says, “so why worry?”. Regarding this advice, I do tend to worry even though I am very optimistic that eventually all beings will attain enlightenment. My optimism comes from emptiness and countless Buddhas working for us constantly but my worry comes from the fact that I don’t know if my mother and father won’t end up in a hell realm. I try my best to get them interested in dharma without pushing but they are so caught up in their lives. They enjoy dharma when they come to a festival but do not seem to have any deep wish to practice. The only thing in my power is to pray and do my own practice both of which I do. I want to have more power in influencing their interests and in routing their karma, in motivating them to understand clarity of mind and emptiness but that is beyond my control. I think I worry because of their limited interest in dharma and the unknowing of their karma. How do I transform that? Do I need to practice patience without attachment to any outcome, that in due time, perhaps in a future life, they will develop an interest in dharma and liberation and enlightenment, and practice and get liberated and be content with that? I understand (at least intellectually) that they exist as mere name in my mind but it doesn’t mean that they are not experiencing suffering.

    1. I don’t think Geshe-la’s comment is referring to that so much as we don’t need to worry for ourselves if we are trying to help others.

      We all have people we want to hurry up and practice Dharma! One thing you can try is to spread it so that you feel the same urgency for everyone, not just your own parents. That takes away the self-cherishing and attachment, and the mental pain associated with those, and makes us more inspired to get enlightened.

      Also helpful is to remember Ven Geshe-la’s comment one year that our mother may well be an emanation of Tara (and our father an emanation of Avalokiteshvara).

      1. Ok, thank you Luna. I will keep this in mind that its okay to worry for others and its not really a negative mind but when the worrying is just for MY parents, there is some self cherishing and attachment there. It could be a universal worry/concern for all living beings equally which can be the same nature as universal love and compassion and hence, not really a self-cherishing worry. Only the latter can cause pain it seems.

        Thank you again.

          1. Just wanted to give an update. I have been teaching my entire family (siblings included!) every week over skype/whatsapp since last October. A year after I was so frustrated that no one seemed interested in dharma, they are going quite deep quite fast! Miracles do happen! 🙂

Leave a Reply