Religion’s Roots: Self-Transform To Increase Compassion

Compassion development used to be the primary goal of major religions.

1). Lose the ego.

According to the foundational goal of all major world religions and philosophies, self-transformation is an ongoing expectation as a member of the religion (Armstrong, 2006; Ivanhoe, 2017; Rohr, 2015). What is supposed to change in a person who practices a religion? Here are two aspects that are interrelated:

The ego is a manufactured self, a protective mechanism against feelings of insecurity. Whatever defines one’s identity and one’s power is a form of ego. The ego perceives itself to be superior, to be in control, with a rigid self-image of goodness, stability, and status. According to the major religions of the world, the ego is the source of cruelty, pettiness, and destruction. It judges and sorts others in potentially dangerous ways. The ego is a false self. Its form differs by culture and era but it is a form of narcissism.

Losing self-importance is hard. Anything that undermines the ego’s view of superiority and status is rejected. Although it may serve as a useful defensive mechanism for the first part of life, the ego becomes a millstone around the individual’s psyche in the second half of life, when a person’s shadow makes itself more apparent. The shadow side includes the parts of ourselves that were not acceptable or nourished, the parts we suppressed. The ego’s strength prevents self-awareness and connection to others; we can get stuck grasping the ego to avoid the pain of growth which requires letting go of one’s ego.

Losing the ego means letting go of judgments, attachments to particular self-images, to outcomes, and to clutching things tightly. It’s like cleaning out your house after hoarding for years. Even though you don’t use the stuff, somehow all the clutter and distraction are reassuring.

The Axial sages (in the Middle East, China, India) emphasized the need to let go of the ego in order that life’s energy (qi in Chinese thought) could flow freely in us and in our relationships. Going with the flow of life energy is a process of being, rather than doing or thinking, a process of letting one’s true self emerge. Instead of dogma or logical formulations, conclusions, or ideas, life is an interpersonal dance moment by moment of self-in-relation.

The ego resists its death, rising up over and over. Axial sages were aware of its stubborn presence and advocated various forms of ego dissolution. Each tradition invented one or more techniques for shifting away from egoic mindsets. Still today, Eastern religious and philosophical traditions continue to emphasize one’s responsibility to develop virtue as a lifelong endeavor.

2). Grow compassion.

Ego dissolution is the “negative” goal. Compassion is the positive goal. Across mainstream religions, compassion is a shared tenet, an ideal mode of living and being. Many major religions have established practices both to dissolve the ego and to grow in compassion.

Sample Self-Development Techniques

1). Boat passengers. One of the common practices in contemplative science is to consider one’s feelings, thoughts, and reactions as passengers on boats going by. Learning to watch them come and go, part of moral wisdom, enables the separation of true self from the false self that is the ego. When we jump onto a boat—fuel a particular feeling or thought—we enable its power over us.  At the neurobiological level, we feed it energy, activate associations, and it becomes enlivened and much harder to extinguish.

2). Mindfulness. Focus on “presence in the moment.” Focusing on the present, rather than on the past or future, leads to greater happiness (Langer, 1999). “Mindfulness” can be practiced alone or with others and involves deep breathing and attention to sensory and perceptual input. It means pulling oneself out of automatic responses to familiar contexts and paying attention to the newness in the situation (Langer, 1989), which triggers the holistic processing of the right brain.

3). Positive Emotions. Increase positive emotions and attitudes towards others, especially those who are different from you. Positive social emotions such as gratitude, sympathy, and compassion provide fertile ground for mindful (inclusive) morality. Compassion-building exercises like loving-kindness exercises (Salzburg, 1995), alleviate stress, re-balance the body, and increase empathy and positive action towards others (Fredrickson & Losada, 2006). The individual imagines gently sending the feeling of love or appreciation to self and others.

4). Rituals performed mindfully in the family. It’s not enough to get your own self in order, virtue is about fostering flourishing in others. In fact, Confucius believed that individuals need other people to elicit a person’s full humanity (Armstrong, 2006). Self-cultivation of virtue occurred in relationship is a reciprocal process. Confucius emphasized rituals performed in a spirit of yielding, of humility (not egoic pride or self-aggrandizement). Those who have the opportunity to care for needy others, like children or ailing elderly, have the benefit of being able to practice this form of compassion.

According to Confucius, family life is the theater of enlightenment, a place where one learned to live for others—enlarging them. Everyone has the potential to be a good person or true gentleman (junzi; the focus was on males). The way to learn to be good was through rituals of respect. “The lessons he had learned by caring for his parents, spouse, and siblings made his heart larger so that he felt empathy with more and more people: first with his immediate community, then with the state in which he lived, and finally with the entire world.” (Armstrong, 2006, p. 207) (Of course, we must point out that babies and children must be respected first, through meeting their basic needs. This will foster a healthy child who is ready to yield to others because his basic needs were first yielded to.)

5). Compassionate Lifestyle. Build a compassionate moral habitat for yourself. Instead of watching shows or participating in activities that make you feel angry, afraid, superior, or inferior, find activities that build compassion for others. Expand your perspective on and empathy for the lives of others by reading good books (e.g., Celestial Bodies) or watching appropriate films (e.g., A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood). Make friends with people from different backgrounds. Find people who are working on compassion, too, and develop your own group rituals or practices, like serving at a soup kitchen, taking action to establish more compassionate social policies.

We can grow out of ego and into compassion by choosing our moral habitats.

Related Posts

Self-Transformation, Step 1: Building the Ego

Self-Transformation 2: Ego-Dissolution

Is Religion About Belief or Behavior?


Armstrong, K. (2007). The great transformation. New York: Anchor Books.

Fredrickson, B.L., & Losada, M.F. (2005). Positive affect and the complex dynamics of human flourishing. American Psychologist, 60, 678-686.

Ivanhoe, P.J. (2017). Oneness: East Asian conceptions of virtue, happiness, and how we are all connected. New York: Oxford University Press.

Langer, E. (1989). Mindfulness. Reading, MA: Addison Wesley.

Rohr, R. (2015). What the mystics know: Seven pathways to your deeper self. New York: Crossroads.

Salzberg, S. (1995). Loving-Kindness: The Revolutionary art of happiness. Boston: Shambhala.

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