stumbling over compassion

Last night I listened to some reasonable and (what I consider) balanced Buddhist teaching.

Here’s something that I come back to again and again.

It’s the perennial question that I encountered when I was a Christian, as a secular humanist agnostic ©, and as a quasi-Buddhist.

As a Christian, this issued screwed me up a hundred times over (more, really, many, many more times).

As a humanist agnostic I made myself blessedly oblivious. It was a pleasant season in my life. I detached from any kind of thought that verged on the spiritual. I focused on science alone. It was good. It got me to a good place, mostly. I recommend it. In fact, it got me into the working world, off the farm. It got me through grad school, almost all the way.
The last year in my PhD program, I began to go back to those spiritual roots. But by nature, I tend to gravitate toward thinking about issues of the spirit.

One of my sons says, “Mom, the church got you too young. You’re always going to lean toward god or something like god.” He’s probably right. Or maybe it’s an issue of brain wiring. It could be.

I don’t concern myself particularly with a god or a goddess or a panoply of them. But I do look out into the universe and think about things like Indra’s net and think about how things unravel and come together again. I think about the wheel turning and why. I think about the weird things I’ve seen and heard in life that my science can’t explain or can’t explain yet. And I’m not apologetic about it. It’s just the way it is around here.

Photo: Indra’s Net. Copyright Doug Benner

Photo: Indra’s Net. Copyright Doug Benner


What’s the problem?


Compassion is a sticking point.

Let’s get etymological.

A handy online dictionary gives a definition for compassion, “a feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering.” Wow. That’s fraught.

And it sounds very Catholic to me. Let’s see. I’ve looked this up in an etymological dictionary. It is pretty Catholic. It came from the Old French (c. 12th century) “compassion.” Ta-da! But wait. Before that we had the Late Latin “compassio” meaning “to suffer together.” And, yep, it’s ecclesiastical language. Baggage, baggage. No wonder I have a hard time with this one.

I was raised on the idea that compassion meant something beyond empathy, something akin to Marge Simpson’s (loose paraphrase but accurate) “taking your feelings, honey, and stuffing them down, stuffing them so far down they go below your knees, down into your boots and stomping , stomping, stomping the life out of them.” There.

Marge Simpson

Marge Simpson

I just refuse to do that anymore.

I once heard someone suggest that compassion might be seen as “fellow-feeling.”

That I can maybe get all in for. I wonder if that’s closer to whatever Sanskrit/Tibetan/Chinese/Japanese words fit the Buddhist concept(s) of compassion.

Maybe and maybe not. The Buddha said, ” Compassion is that which makes the heart of the good move at the pain of others.” Granted, that’s what he said in translation. By Westerners. The word we call “compassion” is translated from the Sanskrit word karuṇā. Depending which Buddhist teacher you listen to, that comes out in different ways.

The other night I heard compassion does NOT mean:

You must be nice to someone.
You must not feel furious.
You must not hold someone accountable.
You must not be upset.
You must not be enraged about someone’s behavior.

So far so good.

Compassion does, according to what the person I was listening to said, ask us to hold our hearts in such a way that we do not think we are better than someone else.

Compassion is an acknowledgement that whatever seed exists in someone that causes them to be destructive, I contain that same seed.

Let’s get personal. I can honor any feeling I have about what got me into the situation I’m dealing with now. I can honor any feeling I have, even feelings that change and fluctuate, toward the parties involved. But. According to some views of Buddhist-style compassion, I’m not being compassionate if I say I’m different from one of them.

The idea I heard the other night is that when I look at a sociopathic individual (cutting to the chase) and say they are different, “they are not like me/us,” or “I am not like them,” then I am making the sociopathic individual less than human. And according to the short lecture, this is not a good place to go.

Frankly, looking at things that way helped me in my recovery and helped me better understand someone.

The Dalai Lama was once asked directly about the destruction left in the wake of sociopathic people. His answer was that such individuals were incompletely developed human beings. Wha?

Isn’t that categorizing people? Isn’t that making the sociopath a wee bit different than many? Isn’t that a contradiction of what I was hearing?

Well, I guess we can weasel around that with the thought that most Buddhist lamas say that we are all in different stages of “development.” Maybe it’s not even weaseling.

I like that Buddhism can be more of a philosophy than a religion, although many Buddhists are religious. I really like that the impetus behind much Buddhist teaching is to try any particular teaching or thinking out for yourself and dump it if it isn’t effective or useful. To the part of me that got mangled in the Christian tradition, that is a good way to go. It’s scientific, even. To the part of me that is a scientist, it’s empirical and very experimental. I like that. Maybe that’s why it was easy to slip from happy humanism into a sort of quasi-Buddhism.

I can dump out what doesn’t work. It’s a philosophy, after all, from my point of view.

Sociopathic individuals do see the world differently than I do. Do they want to be happy? Sure they do. Maybe we have that in common. Can I feel compassion for them? I’m not sure. I haven’t got to that yet. Stay tuned…

I suspect that the world religions all want to take advantage of people using compassion, using empathy. That’s not to say all religious leaders have a bit of the sociopath about them. I don’t think that’s true. I think there are as many religious leaders who are sociopathic as there are politicians, corporate CEOs, middle managers, rock stars, doctors, university administrators (or professors for that matter), and car salespersons who are.

There’s a meme going around the internet right now.

Depression, anxiety, and assholes.

Depression, anxiety, and assholes.

This was repeatedly misattributed to William Gibson who says the source was, in fact, Steven Winterburn. Who? He is apparently some kind of business consultant. No matter. I agree.

There was a point in my life when I had to begin categorizing people to deal with the crap that was being dumped at my door. I wish I’d been able to do this in my 20s. Or my 30s. Or my 40s. You know what I’m saying.

Back to compassion.

I really struggle with this because I’m an old mellow weenie hippie as one of my friends likes to say.

My entire life, this has been what I’ve done. Exercised compassion.

Apparently I’m wired in a way that makes this pretty easy and uncomplicated for me. On the other hand, there are people who have been in my life who will take advantage until I say “no” and they begin to understand that’s exactly what I mean.

Several years ago, I finally found something that clicked right into place and made sense to me.

” There is compassion and there is idiot compassion; there is patience and there is idiot patience; there is generosity and there is idiot generosity.”

Pema Chödrön said that.

She explains:

“The third near enemy of compassion is idiot compassion. This is when we avoid conflict and protect our good image by being kind when we should definitely say ‘no.’ Compassion doesn’t only imply trying to be good. When we find ourselves in an aggressive relationship, we need to set clear boundaries. The kindest thing we can do for everyone concerned is to know when to say ‘enough.’ Many people use Buddhist ideals to justify self-debasement. In the name of not shutting our heart we let people walk all over us. It is said that in order not to break our vow of compassion we have to learn when to stop aggression and draw the line. There are times when the only way to bring down barriers is to set boundaries.”

I used to think I was setting boundaries, when all I was doing was drawing my line in the sand a little further out than I had the day before. It sure took me a long time to get there.

This is something I need to have inscribed on the inside of my eyelids. People like me need to be constantly reminded that it’s not only okay to set boundaries, it’s necessary.

About rainshadowfarm

I teach anthropology, am an archaeologist, a drylands agroecologist, community educator, and a single mother of eight grown kids. I currently own and operate an educational and research farm in the southern Mojave Desert, Rainshadow Farm. I'm 100% West Virginia hillbilly. Not necessarily in that order.
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4 Responses to stumbling over compassion

  1. This post — like so many of your posts — resonates with me, and I will read and re-read over the next few days. You write so beautifully and clearly — it’s as if we were sitting on a porch somewhere and talking. Thank you.

  2. nepermhome says:

    This is a wonderful post. I am at a point in my life where spirituality is something that I spend a lot of time thinking about. I love the Buddhist way of thinking about so many things. Compassion had never even crossed my mind. It has now, and you have brought out many thoughts I didn’t know I had. I especially like the part about what it is not. Thanks!

  3. Nepermhome, thanks. For me, compassion is so fraught. I had to begin to understand (like you say) what it is not. It was time. All the best to you!

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