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Idiot Compassion and the Power of Sorrow

By  Susan Piver

To be a spiritual warrior, one must have a broken heart; without a broken heart and the sense of tenderness and vulnerability that is in one's self and all others, your warriorship is untrustworthy. -- Chögyam Trungpa

Chogyam Trungpa, the Tibetan meditation master who introduced the Shambhala teachings in the West, famously coined the phrase "idiot compassion," which is an interesting thing for a Buddhist teacher to come up with. One of the central tenets of Buddhism is compassion in all its forms, relative and absolute. In many ways, the entire point of all the practice and study that we do is in order to become more compassionate. This compassion is meant for all beings: the people you love, the people you like, the people you don't know, and the people you hate. All of them are worthy of your compassion and in each case, we are to find a way to express it.

If it is always appropriate to express compassion, what then could "idiot compassion" be?

When you think of the word "compassion," what comes to mind? Maybe you get an image of Mother Teresa or a parent holding an infant. Maybe you think of a room full of people who are upset while the compassionate person calms everyone down or someone who stops at the site of a roadside accident to see if there is anything he can do to help.

You probably don't think of someone who is yelling or walking away or coldly observing the scene around herself -- however these too can be gestures of compassion.

Compassion is an inner stance, not an external pose. We can only know the difference through an ongoing connection to our own heart. When we allow ourselves to feel, it is possible to detect what is most compassionate in any situation. When we are afraid to feel, it is not. So one could say that when we lean into our heart of hearts, we discover the fount of kindness. When we clamp down on our inner experience or avoid emotions, the path to kindness is also obscured. Kindness toward others is actually synonymous with kindness toward self.

This may seem counter intuitive. Many definitions of compassion include putting others before self. This is great, a perfectly sound definition. However, if we think of others instead of ourselves, we lose the heart connection that gives rise to compassion altogether. (Pema Chodron says idiot compassion is "what's called enabling.")

So the formula for compassion could look something like this:

  1. Encounter event: child crying, fender bender, stupid political warfare (redundant, I know).
  2. Notice what you feel and, beyond noticing it, feel it. Become curious. Would you call it fear, anger, sadness? Find it in your body. Does it feel hot or cold, does it make your shoulders tense or your stomach clench?
  3. Relax. (Here, relax means "allow" rather than "tune out.")
  4. Let your heart soften to what you feel and allow yourself to fill with it.
  5. Re-encounter event and let your heart soften to those involved, even if only for a moment, and trust whatever instinct arises about what is most helpful. Perhaps it is a hug. Or a phone call for help. Or an angry confrontation with the forces of wrong.

Unless you feel your own heart, you won't know which gesture is kindest. Idiot compassion skips this step.

The source of true compassion is your own heart and the guiding question is, "What is needed in this exact moment?" The source of idiot compassion is concept and the guiding question is, "What do I need to do to feel good about myself?"

I'm not saying this is easy. Compassion has two components that arise simultaneously. One of them is frightening. It is called "pain." The world is riddled with pain. It is everywhere we look. When we open to the pain in our own hearts, the pain of others also enters and this can feel quite daunting. However it is necessary.

The second component is called "love" and refers to the response that naturally arises when we do so. This is just how we are built. On the heels of pain comes the counter balance that restores to us the only lasting source of joy: the ability, no, the longing to care.

Someone once said to me that compassion is the ability to hold pain and love in your heart simultaneously and I have never heard a better, more intimate definition.

Thus compassion takes tremendous courage. It is an act of fearlessness and power. You can totally do it. All you have to do is allow your heart to break to the sorrow and beauty of this world.


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