The Courage to be Compassionate

Blog 4: Courage

Many people have difficulty with compassion because they think that to be compassionate you have to be powerless and become a “doormat.”  This is far from the truth although for me it is the most difficult aspect of compassion.  As I previously mentioned, Steve Gilligan described compassion as tender, fierce, and mischievous, and when I studied fierce compassion, I found that for me a better descriptor was courage.

In an effort to not practice “idiot compassion” (please see Blog 3: Wisdom), one needs to be able to be fierce like a mother protecting her child.  We often see this in the wild, where tiger and lion moms will sacrifice and fight to the death to protect their cubs.  Human moms express their fierceness somewhat differently but we can still observe a mother’s reaction to anything that potentially threatens her child.

There are other examples when courage is necessary to compassion.  When we see wrongdoing in the world, and take action to create change, this requires the courage of compassion.  You have perhaps encountered someone who is quite strident in their social justice words and it has the effect of discounting their efforts.  We don’t need to be aggressive and mean to change the world, such as using forms of violence to create peace and justice. We do need to seek, from our Core Self/Christ Consciousness, what Love is calling us to do in the situation.  It is only when we pause and seek to see from Christ’s eyes that we can select the best path of action.  Even personally, it will require setting ego boundaries to find the capacity to pause and awaken to Christ consciousness because we automatically respond with retribution rather than restorative justice.  This is the “fight or flight” response of our basic brain structure.

Pema Chodron recounts in her audio series “Noble Heart”[1]  a story that a student shared with her.  The short version is that this person had a roommate who was addicted to drugs.  Out of tender compassion, although he did not support his behavior, he did not interfere and accepted him as he was. One day he came home to find his roommate nearly dead on the floor and he became so angry at the roommate he screamed at him to stop doing this to himself and take care of himself. He then left the apartment. He expected upon his return that his roommate would be very angry with him and/or moved out. Instead he found a roommate who was grateful that he had cared enough about him to get angry and the roommate stopped using drugs.

Paul Gilbert, Ph.D. wrote in 2015, “When people hear the word compassion, they tend to think of kindness. But scientific study has found the core of compassion to be courage.”[2] He continues, “The point is that kind people don’t always have the courage to behave compassionately.”  For some people, it takes courage just to acknowledge suffering, let alone act to alleviate it.  Compassion requires something out of us and it takes courage to open ourselves to suffering and use the three facets of compassion, tenderness, courage, and wisdom, to act from our Core Self.

 

 

 

[1] Chdron, P. (1998) “Noble Heart.” Boulder, CO.: Sounds True.

[2] Gilbert, P. (2015) “Compassion Universally Misunderstood” in Huffington Post-UK. Aug. 25, 2015, retrieved on June 12, 2018.

What is wisdom in the context of contemplative compassion?

As I wrote in a previous post, I describe compassion as tender, courageous, and wise.  Tender compassion seems so commonly understood that I will save it for a later post.  What is most often misunderstood about compassion is the necessity for wisdom.  Yet it is not a wisdom born from egocentricity but from awareness of reality.  Wisdom allows us to see beyond the surface appearance of things and grasp what is most helpful.

Many people think of compassion as just being nice all the time.  This is why one cannot be compassionate without wisdom.  We need to move beyond niceness to what is really important and helpful to another person. The core self one with God can see the most effective response which is both wise and loving.  It’s not “idiot compassion” [1]  which is defined as avoiding conflict, letting people walk all over you, taking action in order to “look good,” or fear of taking action because of what others might think.

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….What most people mean by ‘compassion’ is please be nice to my ego.”[2]

Many great spiritual teachers have used the wisdom of compassion when asked questions from well-meaning students or the self-righteous. Often their response is paradoxical or metaphorical. This can stop the “brain freeze” of suffering in that it breaks habitual thought patterns and assumptions. This can be seen in Jesus’ telling Nicodemus that he must be born again.  This compassionate response confused Nicodemus and in the ensuing dialogue Jesus moved him from confusion to spiritual wisdom.  The Buddhist practice of koan study evokes wisdom such as the cow passing through the latticed window and all but the tail passes through.  Why doesn’t the tail pass through?

When compassionate thinking is fused with compassionate feeling we move towards the position of wisdom.  Wisdom emerges because we have deep insight into the nature of things.”[3]

“Compassion without wisdom can be misdirected and misguided. Wisdom allows us to see what the world is and how it works; compassion allows us to act appropriately on that knowledge.”[4]

Wisdom as a facet of compassion is an extensive topic and this is only meant to be an introduction to the concept.  It is a key aspect and necessary to understanding contemplative compassion.

 

[1] Idiot Compassion is a term coined by Chogyam Trungpa Rimpoche.

[2] Wilber, K. (1999). One taste: The journals of Ken Wilber. Boston, Massachusetts: Shambhala Publications, Inc., page 93.

[3] Gilbert, P. (2007) “Using Compassion to Change our MindsAppendix 7 in Psychotherapy and Counselling for Depression. London: Sage Publications.

[4] Miller, J.P. (2016) Julian and the Buddha, Common points along the way.  Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers, page 172.