Engaging with Others’ Suffering

Even when detached, there is a variety of ways one might respond to the suffering of others. We have listed some below, ordered from those that require the least action to those that require the most. Consider how great a difference there is between Non-Attachment alone and Non-Attachment that has grown into Compassionate Action. Remember that there is no universal “best” response to the suffering of others; the key is to know which response you have chosen and to take responsibility for it.

Non-Attachment I disconnect from your suffering “Meh; that’s their responsibility.”
Pity / Sympathy I feel the discomfort of your suffering “Oh no! Such a shame that happened. See ya.”
Compassion I care about your suffering (feel for) “I see and understand your experience; I’m sorry to hear about it.”
Empathy I feel your suffering (feeling with) “I really feel what you’re going through; it’s so confusing/maddening/exhausting/etc.”
Compassionate Action I want to relieve your suffering “I see and understand your experience; I feel moved to help you!”


In learning of attachment and its role in suffering, it’s common to seek to detach from attachment. To avoid suffering by removing ourselves from our connections to the world. To be dispassionate. Instead, we offer that the wisdom of nonattachment is not in the possibility of non-suffering, but in the possibility of transforming our suffering into compassion for all things, and then taking compassionate action to contribute to others.

Examples of Engaging with Others’ Suffering

How do you engage with the suffering of those around you? When could you choose to take more compassionate action? Where is your response to suffering coming from a place of integrity, and when is it not?

Stopped at a red light, you see a homeless person, disheveled holding a sign. You feel pity for them and think of what life must be like. You feel uncomfortable.

You look the other way and see a parent with a baby and two kids, looking a bit overwhelmed. Your heart goes out to the fullness of parenting; you feel compassion/sympathy.

At the office, a co-worker is venting about their relationship. You’ve taken time to empathize and listen multiple times before. Now, you think ‘they aren’t taking action to get out of the cycle of suffering’. You detach from the issue and head to your desk.

You open an email from an old friend. You learn that their partner has been diagnosed with cancer, and they’re really struggling. They reached out because they remember your mom’s cancer diagnosis from years before, and are looking for advice. It hits you hard. You empathically feel the pain, grief, fear, anxiety that you felt when you first heard of your mom – that they must feel now.

You take a breath and think of what would have been helpful for you at that time. In the spirit of compassionate action, you decide to call them after work today and intend to also write them a card with a delivery food certificate and flowers to show your support, care, and connection.

When we are attached to a strategy or outcome, our capacity for curiosity and compassion often dips, especially in a triggered state of the reactive brain. Rather than serving our relationships, attachment separates us from those we care about. The video above speaks to a sense of loving detachment; detachment not as an end goal, but as a starting place for a life of compassionate action.

The Four Immeasurables

a.k.a. ‘The Sublime Attitudes’

The Buddhist tradition offers us specific terms for the ways that Loving Non-Attachment might be present in our lives:

  • Loving Kindness – ‘maitrī’ – active goodwill towards all – to create love for both yourself and the other
  • Compassion – ‘karuṇā’ – identifying the suffering of others as one’s own, and desiring to act to alleviate the suffering of all.
  • Empathetic Joy – ‘muditā’ – joy in other’s joy, even if one did not contribute to it. “If love does not generate joy, it is not love. If love makes you suffer every day, that’s not true love.” –Thich Nhat Hanh
  • Equanimity / Inclusiveness – ‘upekṣā’ – even-mindedness and serenity, treating everyone impartially. Nondiscriminatory love.

“The practice of developing or cultivating equanimity involves a form of detachment, but it is important to understand what detachment means. Sometimes when people hear about the Buddhist practice of detachment, they think that Buddhism is advocating indifference toward all things, but that is not the case. First, cultivating detachment, one could say, takes the sting out of discriminatory emotions toward others that are based on considerations of distance or closeness. You lay the groundwork on which you can cultivate genuine compassion extending to all other sentient beings. The Buddhist teaching on detachment does not imply developing an attitude of disengagement from or indifference to the world or life.”

– Dalai Lama

In Practice:
Love and Attachment

Think of 3 relationships you consider loving relationships. How do Love and Attachment appear in those relationships?

My love appears as:
My attachment shows up as:

Family Member
My love appears as:
My attachment shows up as:

My love appears as:
My attachment shows up as:


“Love embraces all things, in all ways, at all times” – Anonymous

“Love is an action in which we aim to compassionately contribute to another’s life.” – M. Malecha

“True love is something that helps you to suffer less, and helps the other person to suffer less.” – Thich Nhat Hanh

“The problem is always that we mistake the idea of love for attachment. We imagine that the grasping and clinging that we have in our relationships shows that we love, whereas actually it is just attachment, which causes pain; the more we grasp the more we are afraid to lose. Then if we do lose, then of course we are going to suffer. Attachment love says “I love you therefore I want you to make me happy.” Genuine love says ‘I love you therefore I want you to be happy.’ If that includes me, great, if it doesn’t then I just want your happiness.” – Tenzin Palmo Jetsunma, author/teacher of Buddhism

“Try not to confuse attachment with love. Attachment is about fear and dependency and has more to do with love of self than love of another. Love without attachment is the purest love because it isn’t about what others can give you because you’re empty. It is about what you can give others because you’re already full.” – Yasmin Mogahed, female Muslim scholar

“We all face loss, and perhaps can accept it as a gift, albeit for most us, a terrible one. Maybe we can let loss work us. To deny grief is to rob ourselves of the heavy stones that will eventually be the ballast for the two great accumulations of wisdom and compassion.” – Roshi Joan Halifax

“For example, we experience a sense of closeness toward people who are dear to us. We feel a sense of compassion and empathy for them. We also have strong love for these people, but often this love or compassion is grounded in self referential considerations: “So-and-so is my friend,” “my spouse,” “my child,” and so on. What happens with this kind of love or compassion, which may be strong, is that it is tinged with attachment because it involves self-referential considerations. Once there is attachment there is also the potential for anger and hatred to arise. Attachment goes hand in hand with anger and hatred. For example, if one’s compassion toward someone is tinged with attachment, it can easily turn into its emotional opposite due to the slightest incident. Then instead of wishing that person to be happy, you might wish that person to be miserable.” – Dalai Lama