24 April 2023

Street compassion

What do you do when you pass by the homeless in the city? Or a car window-washer at a street intersection? What do you do at the checkout in a supermarket? Or as you pass anyone in the street?

A friend has just introduced me to a beautiful term – “street compassion”. It refers to how we engage with people in the street, and it is a wonderful practice to take up consciously.

So this week, street compassion – what it is and how to practice it, but first

   Thought for the day

       When your fear touches someone’s pain 

       It becomes pity.

      When your love touches someone’s pain, 

       It becomes compassion.

            Stephen Levine

So, we are all busy and have limited resources. 

But then there are the homeless, and the person at the checkout, and the one who gets into a lift at the same time as you. What to do?
Retreat into one’s self and maintain the status quo of ignore and isolate? Or find some way to interact? And if we do chose to interact, how to do that without descending into pity, condescension, guilt or even arrogance?

My friend tells me about her own 'street compassion' practice.  How in the everyday, she connects with people in the street from her own inner wisdom essence to reach out to them and be 'there' for them just as they are in that moment.  A kind word of appreciation, a hug of acknowledgement and to bear

witness to a story of difficulty and pain.  

She says this is always spontaneous and comes from within, from her own connection to her inner 'wisdom light'. She fearlessly reaches out to engage with all sorts of people. But she says this does not come from any preconceived intent; it is spontaneous, in the moment.

For me it has been a bit more pre-meditated. 

For years I have enjoyed attempting to engage with people I meet casually. 

I was inspired by Dr Patch Adams who I brought to Australia for those wonderful Mind, Immunity and Health conferences of the ‘90s. 

Patch told me how whenever he had time, he would ring random telephone numbers – in the days when we had home lines – and try to engage people in spontaneous conversations. 

He recounted how often these chats went to remarkable depths and often went on for an hour or so.

Often people would say no one had ever listened to them in such a way. And how delightful that was – for him and for them.

So my approach has been to attempt to engage with people whenever possible. Over the years, 2 approaches seem most reliable – flattery and a simple question.

Flattery is simple. 

Find something that stands out about the person and compliment them on that aspect of their being. 

Hair colour is easy, and even though those bright streaks are becoming more common, nearly everyone responds well. 

If you have gone to that much trouble to colour your hair, to have someone acknowledge it, seems always appreciated, and often opens to more of a conversation. 

Of course, with flattery and with being PC, one really has to check the motive, be genuinely interested in engaging openly with the other person, and be coming from a good place. 

The second approach, the simple question, is maybe less fraught. 

The most effective and reliable question I have found so far is simply “How is your day going?” 

Asked this of a teller in a service station just a couple of days ago. He seemed to be deeply troubled and yet he replied “fine” in a manner we both knew meant far more. However, this simple exchange felt like it was enough at even this basic level to acknowledge whatever deep distress he was feeling; and without needing to go into detail. 

Others will open remarkably to this simple question…

And then the special case of homeless beggars...

There are 2 types of compassion – relative and absolute. Relative compassion requires an object. 

You see something or someone who arouses your compassion. 

This type of compassion has an intellectual aspect to it and fluctuates according to what provokes it. 

It is often accompanied by an inner debate.

Absolute compassion comes from the stillness of our inner essence. It is a ground state and exists independently of any particular object. It is there for everyone and everything. A bit like unconditional love or agape, this is unconditional compassion. With absolute compassion there is no inner debate; one just acts or does nothing as the circumstances dictate.

So beggars and the homerless. How conditional or unconditional are we? Do we give effortlessly, or do we enter into a frantic inner debate? Are we encouraging them by giving money? Are we feeling superior as we part with a few dollars? Are we paying for a drug habit? Are we providing refuge for the night? Is their need genuine?

I love watching my mind when approaching someone in need on the street. Definitely an advanced practice – to act spontaneously, do what is appropriate and then, whether having parted with some cash - or not, not spend the next 5 minutes in internal debate around whether it was in fact the right thing to do - or not.

By the way, Ruth is a master practitioner with this and gives naturally, freely and often :)

So here is the challenge – what form does your street compassion take?




  1. 'Inner debate'...... so true. I'll certainly work on this, thankyou.

  2. When able, I would make up small Christmas/gift bags of shampoo, toothpaste, toothbrush, flannel, soap, deodorant etc and a food treat and hand the out to the homeless around Christmas. Just a little something they might need and know that someone has thought about them.

  3. If I see a dogs that are chained unattended I try to help. Many dogs live their lives on the end of a chain and Vet associations and the Royal society for the protection for animals against cruelty have provided letters of support against the practice. Unfortunately the Australian govt ignore science and so many dogs are dying or living lives of misery on the end of chain. The become bitter and aggressive and bite usually it is the children who are the victims. Many animals are without shade and shelter as well in the climate crisis. Many dogs chained or otherwise spend their lives in a yard without adequate shade from the blistering sun. The climate crisis is wreaking havoc on our animals including cattle sheep and other farm animals. I usually make a report to the local RSPCA however little is done as the Australian govt choose to ignore science. The farm animals immune system is compromised in these extreme temperatures which have become the norm. They also suffer. Cattle seek shade at 77 Fahrenheit (25 degrees) dairy cows at 21 degrees celcuis or 69 farebeat. Australia scores a D in animal welfare and in other area and E F and G.

  4. Street compassion. What a good term. I’m with Ruth: naturally, freely and often. It brightens someone else’s day and your own.

  5. When approached by someone wanting money, sometimes I give it, sometimes not. Often I don't have cash, but have instead taken a person for a meal (even just to subway) or offered a lift. Sometimes I just want to approach a person and offer them something but in truth, fear gets in my way.

  6. What a good description: street compassion. I’m with Ruth. Giving naturally, freely and often is the right thing to do. It’s caring about your fellow traveller in life.
    Thank you for your blogs, Ian.
    Always interesting.

  7. Thank you Ian. A great reminder of how we should aspire to be. I’m still work in progress but this article has spurred me on.

    BTW congratulations on last night even though I’m a Tigers supporter. Would have been a fantastic night to be at the G.

  8. This is so valuable to hear. I always see the human face, i look at eyes of strangers and delve deep with the best words i can find. The value of strangers helps me feel whole, i really want to make someone feel their day is good. Coz when youve been ignored it makes life magic to be noticed.

  9. Much food for thought. I became aware of my own fear when reading this post. Thank you because now I will make a bigger effort to overcome that fear and behave with more compassion.