Did you ever feel you were knocking your head against the wall when dealing with certain friends or relatives who you keep trying to help? Over and over again you suggest changes that could improve their circumstances, and they say they understand but very soon are again repeating the same agitating story.
In classical Tibetan teachings it is said that we do not really become a full human being until we open our heart to embrace others. Until then we are like selfish human animals, concerned only with ourselves and our own survival and uninterested in the survival of anyone else. But as we move further away from the ego’s self-involved version of reality, we come into a place of awareness and caring and, in particular, into a fully inclusive lovingkindness and compassion.
However, developing lovingkindness and feeling compassion toward our fellow humans is one thing, while putting it into action is another matter. Without even trying, we cause suffering: we hurt ourselves, we hurt each other, we ignore each other’s pain and create further pain. How do we stay open and loving in the midst of insult or conflict? Our caring and compassion are tested and challenged in every moment, every time we are tempted to ignore but chose to stay open instead.
For compassion to be effective, we need to discover if our actions are going to be of real help and value or if they may actually be supporting an already unhealthy situation. And we need to be aware of the ego’s need to take credit, if not be applauded, for doing good deeds. In other words, more than compassion, we also need to see with awareness and discrimination.
As philosopher Ken Wilber says, “Real compassion includes wisdom and so it makes judgments of care and concern; it says some things are good, and some things are bad, and I will choose to act only on those things that are informed by wisdom and care.”
This is known as wise compassion, action that is inherently skillful, that sees the whole situation and aims to bring release from suffering; its opposite is known as blind or idiot compassion, which does not take into account the whole situation and so, while appearing compassionate, is inherently unskillful and may actually increase suffering. For instance, idiot compassion occurs when we support or condone neurosis, such as giving a slice of cake to an obese friend. Yes, they may be begging you, but realistically you know that it will do them no good.
Another way to see idiot compassion is when we give for our own benefit, not for the recipient’s, because we can’t bear to see them suffering. Our giving has less to do with what they need, but plenty to do with trying to escape our own feelings of inadequacy. This is a more subtle point, but sometimes we can get so impelled to give that we forget why we are giving or what is actually needed.
Skillful compassion also means dealing with our own aggression, seeing the violence, anger, irritation and moments of closed-heartedness, fear and insecurity within ourselves. We can bring mercy and tenderness to those places, to the wounded parts, so that the war inside can stop. Compassion is not only our ability to be with another’s pain and suffering but also to see and accept our own pain.
There are specific meditations that develop a deeper experience of compassion, tenderness and lovingkindness, for yourself and for others. The more we focus on these qualities, the more they become an integral part of our being.
Then, every time we see or feel suffering, whether in ourselves or in another; every time we make a mistake or say something stupid and are just about to put ourselves down; every time we think of someone we are having a hard time with; every time we encounter the confusion and difficulty of being human; every time we see someone else struggling, upset or irritated; we can offer acceptance and tender-heartedness and kindness. We can offer this to whomever needs it, including ourselves. Just a few breaths can bring armfuls of compassion into any situation.
Pema: Idiot compassion is a great expression, which was actually coined by Trungpa Rinpoche. It refers to something we all do a lot of and call it compassion. In some ways, it’s whats called enabling. It’s the general tendency to give people what they want because you can’t bear to see them suffering.
Basically, you’re not giving them what they need. You’re trying to get away from your feeling of I can’t bear to see them suffering.
In other words, you’re doing it for yourself. You’re not really doing it for them.
When you get clear on this kind of thing, setting good boundaries and so forth, you know that if someone is violent, for instance, and is being violent towards you—to use that as the example—it’s not the compassionate thing to keep allowing that to happen, allowing someone to keep being able to feed their violence and their aggression. So of course, they’re going to freak out and be extremely upset. And it will be quite difficult for you to go through the process of actually leaving the situation.
But that’s the compassionate thing to do.
It’s the compassionate thing to do for yourself, because you’re part of that dynamic, and before you always stayed. So now you’re going to do something frightening, groundless, and quite different. But it’s the compassionate thing to do for yourself, rather than stay in a demeaning, destructive, abusive relationship.
And it’s the most compassionate thing you can do for them too.
They will certainly not thank you for it, and they will certainly not be glad. They’ll go through a lot. But if there’s any chance for them to wake up or start to work on their side of the problem, their abusive behavior or whatever it might be, that’s the only chance, is for you to actually draw the line and get out of there.
We all know a lot of stories of people who had to hit that kind of bottom, where the people that they loved stopped giving them the wrong kind of compassion and just walked out.
Then sometimes that wakes a person up and they start to do what they need to do.