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Is It Wise Compassion or Idiot Compassion?

Is It Wise Compassion or Idiot Compassion?

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 loving kindness and compassion.

However, developing loving kindness 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 choose 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 that does not take into account the whole situation and so, although it looks 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 we forget why we are giving or what is actually needed.

Skillful compassion also means dealing with our own aggression, seeing the violence within ourselves, the anger, irritation, or moments of closed-heartedness, fear and insecurity. We can bring mercy and tenderness to those places, to the wounded parts, so 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 loving kindness, 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 whoever needs it, including ourselves. Just a few breaths can bring armfuls of compassion into any situation.

Have you ever found yourself caught in idiot compassion? Do comment below.

Related:
Why Do We Lie to Make Our Friends Feel Good?
What You Can Do When Someone Hurts You
We Need a Revolution in Kindness

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Ed and Deb Shapiro

You can learn more in our book, Be The Change: How Meditation Can Transform You and the World, forewords by the Dalai Lama and Robert Thurman, with contributors Marianne Williamson, Jane Fonda, Ram Dass, Byron Katie and others. Our 3 meditation CD’s: Metta—Loving kindness and Forgiveness; Samadhi–Breath Awareness and Insight; and Yoga Nidra–Inner Conscious Relaxation, are available at: EdandDebShapiro.com

63 comments

+ add your own
4:09PM PST on Nov 20, 2012

You have empathy and sympathy but you do not get caught up in their drama!

5:08PM PST on Nov 15, 2012

In my younger days I was the go-to person for those who needed short time help with housing.
I thought nothing of putting up a crib in my living room, moving my kids into a single room, etc. I have an almost 100% record of causing more harm (including to my children) than I helped with what I thought were selfless gestures.
The truth was I didn't want to work on my own problems, preferring to put my energy into 'helping others.' with no great success. Besides eventually noticing my procrastination scheme, my children's distress and the eventual bad endings that came when I had to ask people to find other arrangements, I got my extreme urges to save the world under control.

If someone needed a place to stay today I would probably agree with an absolute time limit.

7:52AM PDT on May 26, 2012

good clarifications of distinctions

12:02PM PDT on Jul 17, 2011

Thank you very much for your article. I is very interesting.And i hope, that more people will read it.

6:10AM PDT on May 1, 2011

from being in other parts of this site, it seems true compassion is only when animals are concerned.

a true compassionate person will never kill a chicken to feed to a hawk. they won't even kill bedbugs if their house got infested.
and they don't think eliminating an invasive speices is kind.
real compassion is letting foxes eat all the native animals off of an island.

so now I go here to see what compassion for humans is.

is it only a good person thing to do, is be kind to kind people? why would someone be nice or care for horrible people right?

if you look at the animal welfair sections on this site, there are people who want the sealers to be killed like the seals they hunt. people who hate a country for the critters they eat.
people who are happy for what happend to Japan "because of the dolphins they eat"

but these people call me heartless for wanting to do taxidermy, and the likes.

is it possible to have both? or would the "I care to much to kill a _____ for________" be the idiot compassion?
is it really that horrible to have a pet cat and feed it animal flesh? or is true compassion working day and night for a "carnivore cure" and feed it a vegan diet

6:09AM PDT on Apr 11, 2011

Interesting article.
We can only point it out, that we are of a divine oneness! Just a word can spread like ripples in the water and help more, than we imagine!
An idiotic compassion can also be to visit a holistic healer instead of using your money on your house-bill, lol!
Part of growing up is to go from "spiritual seeker" to "spiritual founder"!

1:38AM PDT on Apr 3, 2011

The hardest thing is when someone with an addiction abuses your kindness and for years makes huge demands on your time and energy, completely ignoring the fact that they're regularly keeping you on the phone during the wee small hours, knowing you have to get up early for work and get your kids ready for school, yet not wanting to make any changes to help themselves; and using you as a free, 24/7 untrained psychologist. That's when you have no choice but to cut the umbilical cord. No one should lean so heavily on their friends like that. You don't mind being there for your friends but when they refuse to seek professional help when they need it, yet repeatedly expect it from you, you have to draw the line in the sand for your own sanity.

5:28AM PDT on Apr 2, 2011

thanks for sharing

4:59AM PDT on Apr 2, 2011

I sometimes get angry with friends who have the same inadequacies that I have...talk about idiocy! Instead of commenting on THEIR problem I need to work on my own version of the same problem! I'm trying to change, but at 60, change comes slowly, at least for me...

7:18AM PDT on Apr 1, 2011

Thanks, it's something we probably can all work at.

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