“Do you love your creator? Love your fellow-beings first”—Muhammed

“A generous heart, kind speech, and a life of service and compassion are the things which renew humanity.”—Buddha

“Love thy neighbor as thyself.”—Jesus

Spiritual leaders for centuries have taught the idea of putting someone else’s needs before one’s own. What is it about this common thread—the act of giving of one’s self—that is so valuable?

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How to Practice Loving Kindness

There does seem to be this common thread amongst spiritual traditions—a shared experience that comes from practicing loving kindness. I don’t know how other traditions would explain its tremendous value in spirituality. But in the Buddhist tradition the practice of putting others ahead of oneself is strongly emphasized and explained in a specific way.

The Dalai Lama often teaches on a famous Buddhist verse that says: “All the happiness the world has to offer comes from desiring well being for others. And all the suffering the world has to offer comes from desiring happiness solely for oneself.”

This simple verse reflects a natural equation: That selfishness causes pain, and caring for others causes happiness. It suggests that if happiness is truly what we seek, we need to engage the cause of happiness by turning our attention toward the well-being of others.

“Selfishness causes pain, and caring for others causes happiness.”

Curiously, we have some strong misguided instincts that fool us into thinking that we can find happiness solely through cherishing and protecting ourselves. Our thoughts and activities most often focus on our own welfare. We spend much of each day struggling with what we want, what we don’t want, and all of our hopes and fears.

The practice of extending love and kindness to others does not require we get rid of our own desire for happiness. It only requires we include others in this wish—a wish we usually reserve only for ourselves, our family, or our friends. We have to expand our sense of “me” and “mine” in order to include others in the realm of our care. And as we do this we move away from a contracted, self-focused, and isolated state toward a way of being that has limitless connection to life around us.

When we begin to pay attention to life around us we start to see opportunities to practice loving kindness everywhere. We might give a blanket to a homeless person on the street, lend an ear to someone in pain, feed a stray animal, or simply acknowledge the presence of a stranger. These small gestures make such a big difference to others and they awaken in us the best of our humanity. When we see a need and respond to it, the joy we experience can sustain us for the entire day.

“The practice of giving is not simply a crusade to do good. It serves as a means of awakening the best of who we are as human beings.”

The wish for others’ happiness can be the focus of our lives whether we are in a position to give or simply driving alone in our car. Once I bought a lottery ticket on my way from Colorado to Santa Fe. The whole way I imagined what I could do with $170 million… “I could build a hospice and retirement home in my community where everyone could have free health care…I could contribute to homeless shelters in every state in the country and beyond…I could open clinics in India to treat all the mangy, homeless dogs that wander the streets…” Whatever came to mind I offered. When I arrived in Santa Fe I was full of energy and felt open, clear, and vibrant. And the reason for this, I realized, was that for 3 ½ hours (without even intending to) I had thought only of the welfare of others, never once thinking of what I could get for myself.

The practice of giving is not simply a crusade to do good. It serves as a means of awakening the best of who we are as human beings. Whether we are actively engaged in giving or simply including others in our wish for happiness, we could never find a more meaningful or intelligent way to live out our lives than this. Given its power, it’s no wonder that the great spiritual leaders throughout history so highly valued the transformative nature of loving kindness and the act of serving others.

Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel is the author of the book, The Power of an Open Question