“Compassion is not religious business, it is human business; it is not luxury, it is essential for our own peace and mental stability; it is essential for human survival.” ~The 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso

Through the human heart, all of our energy flows; our Being originates; our very life source takes form.

Naturally, the stronger our hearts, the stronger our energy, Being, and spirit. It’s from this originating source that we channel much of our mental-emotional strength, determination to achieve, and drive to live better lives.

On an external level, healthy eating, wholesome living, regular weightlifting, and cardiovascular exercise physically condition our hearts to be strong and to function well. But unlike other muscles, we can’t simply pick up weights and take to the treadmill to strengthen the spiritual capacity of our hearts. Becoming a strongheart takes a dedicated investment of time and experience: living life, loving, and enduring suffering. Another such practice is harvesting compassion from the faces of strangers.


Last week, I was out for a drive through the city of Boston when I noticed that at every stop in traffic, I was deeply investing attention in the detail of faces of strangers walking on the street. Our minds work in many subtle and subconscious ways that we often take for granted. So, when I noticed my mind working in this quiet way, I took to exploring the cause and the specific nature of these quiet observations with strangers on the street.

What was I looking for?

Faces can tell a thousand stories. And my darting eyes were betwixt and between millions of unread chapters and verses. There was no possible way for me to read each story, let alone each word. Instead, I was surveying each person’s face for brief moments as if skimming the cover art of books upon the shelves at a store.


You can’t judge a book by its cover, but, for right or wrong, the nature of humans as visual creatures is to make instinctive “snap” judgments, to have subconscious thoughts and make decisions largely based upon what we see. Of course, this nature developed tens of thousands of years ago for the sake of our species’ self-preservation and survival — and over human history, we see the violent and disheartening repercussions of things like ignorance, racism, slavery, and war that have ensued from a largely outdated self-defense mechanism.

How do we overcome this natural tendency to make ignorant false judgments?

First, with understanding and education that our minds work in such ways. Second, with recognition and acceptance that we are each naturally prone to the likes of being prejudiced, unfairly judgmental, and even racist. And third, with simple practice: we can harness and utilize the instinct like a tool at our disposal — a shield that evolution intended for humans to use for protection can be used instead as a platter to offer food to the hungry, the sick and those in need.

Back to my story about scanning the faces of strangers while I was driving through the city. What was I looking for? With concerted practice, I’ve slowly developed the habit to scan the faces of strangers to generate compassion within. Don’t get me wrong: I still make unfair judgments, have prejudices and biased thoughts — I’m only human. However, with effort and over time, anyone can develop this simple practice to strengthen the spiritual capacity of our hearts.


Harvesting compassion in the faces of strangers is a humbling and humanizing exercise: a quiet practice through which we challenge our hearts and minds to generate sincere interest in the lives and well-being of others by simply looking deeply into the faces of other human beings. Through our eyes alone — revealing gateways to the human soul — we attempt to connect with strangers who we are likely to never even see again on a deep and spiritual level.

Look deeply into the faces of strangers on the street. What do you see? Read the stories that are etched in their faces with revealing detail. Every frown, every wrinkle, every crease, tells a story. Although the specific details of their lives — all the nuances of their character and perseverance and suffering — are, of course, not always visible by our sight alone, the faces of strangers can resemble a reflection of the toil and turmoil that people have endured.

If there are but two constants in this world, one is love, one is suffering. The two are less “opposites” than they are the same: the more we are exposed to and experience suffering, the greater our natural human capacity for love grows. So, delve deeply into the faces of strangers. Explore their eyes, feel their hearts, and harvest compassion from their stories — if only for a passing moment. What do you see?

Flickr photo credit: Sukanto Debnath