Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Blind Compassion

I have been working to understand compassion and learn how to apply it in my work and life for the past several years. Recently, however, I’ve been looking at compassion from a different perspective. When does compassion not really look like compassion - or how we have been led to believe compassion should look? When is it more compassionate to be fierce? To say no? To hold another accountable for their actions? And how can we use true compassion to effectively serve another?

As a homeless shelter manager, I am called to make decisions every day that test my understanding of genuine compassion. It's been a learning experience over these past two years. The first time I needed to hold someone truly accountable for their behavior, it tore me apart. I needed to call the police on a couple who was causing such chaos in the shelter that they were taking the house down. Everyone wanted them out and we were in a one-room warehouse at the time. It was COLD outside - like really cold! And, I liked them. I, of course, worked with them every which way I could think of to calm them down so everyone could sleep. When nothing worked and they wouldn't leave on their own accord, I called the police to escort them out. As they left, the woman looked at me and said 'I curse you. Our lives are in your hands.' Geez! After they left, I went in the back alley and cried. When I got home that night, I did prayer ceremonies for them both. That was two years ago. I think it took them a few months to get over it and since then our paths have crossed frequently through the street outreach work I do and all is quite well between us.

Idiot (or blind) compassion is a term that was introduced by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche and refers to the tendency of spiritual practitioners to give people what they want as opposed to what they need, all in the name of being nice and compassionate. In an effort to maintain harmony, one takes the limited view of what the ego wants versus what the soul actually needs to grow.

Idiot compassion is the highly conceptualized idea that you want to do good to somebody. At this point, good is purely related with pleasure. Idiot compassion also stems from not have enough courage to say no. -Chogyam Trungpa

Robert Augustus Masters
defines blind compassion* as "neurotically tolerant, confrontation-phobic, indiscriminating caring."

Blind compassion is commonly centered by the belief that everyone is doing the best they can. Not surprisingly, blind compassion cuts everyone - everyone - far too much slack, making an ever-so-gentle fuss about not making a fuss regarding behavioral lapse it is taking pains to so kindly address.

… Very rarely does blind compassion show any anger, for it's scared to upset anyone. This is reinforced by its negative conceptualizing of anger, especially in its more fiery expression, as something less than spiritual, something equated with ill will, hostility, and aggression, something that should not be there if we are being truly loving. Blind compassion has the mistaken notion that compassion has to be gentle.

Blind compassion has no voice, other than that of making nice and making excuses; its articulation is relentlessly soft and pleasant, brightly buttoned-up. No guts. Being a harmony junkie, blind compassion will do just about anything to keep the peace, so long as it doesn't have to show its teeth in anything other than I-wouldn't-harm-a-fly smiles.

… When those who espouse blind compassion encounter offensive behavior from others, they usually take pains to not only be nonjudgmental (or at least not to say or do anything that could be construed as judgmental), but also to examine whatever such behavior may be triggering in them, while bringing no significant heat to those who are actually behaving offensively. That is, if what you are doing is upsetting me, my job (as a graduate of Blind Compassion 101) is not to focus to any significant degree on your behavior, but rather to find out what my being bothered says about me, while perhaps also acknowledging and appreciating the opportunity you are giving me to examine myself.

This is not only a misguided reading of the art of allowing all things to serve our awakening, but also a far-from-compassionate response to our offending others, for we, in not being on the side of doing what we can to bring them face to face with the consequences of their actions, are on the side of depriving them of something they may sorely need. And in letting them off the hook, we are doing the same for ourselves.

Masters suggests that to effectively deal with blind compassion that we get familiar with it. "Don't get pulled into its embrace. See it, name it, don't blame it. Meet it and its underlying fear with genuine compassion, compassion that's willing to be fiery, fierce, unsmiling, compassion that is loving enough not to give a damn about being nice. As blind compassion sheds its masks, and opens its eyes to its own pain, its own anger and hurt and frustration and moral outrage, thereby letting in a love previously not accessible, it loses its blind nature, and simply becomes compassion, with an especially keen eye for those who are still under the spell of blind compassion."

One of the greatest leaps in my understanding of genuine compassion is that if you are truly centered in love and are coming from the place of compassion, then if it is called for to be fierce, to hold others accountable for their actions, or to make hard decisions - that they will receive this well. They may be angry in the moment, but it will pass. I believe that when you come from the place of blind compassion, you are (in a way) demeaning the other person - holding them in a vision that is less than what they are capable of…asking too little.

In working with the practice of genuine compassion, a number of questions arise for me:

  • Can I handle people getting mad at me because I'm not playing to their ego-centered desires - what they want versus what they need?
  • Can I get over potential disapproval or judgment when others view me as unkind, unsympathetic, or even cold?
  • Do I have enough awareness of my own shadow tendencies to have clarity on what is a genuine compassionate response and what's not?
  • How can I remain centered in the space of absolute compassion and love while still holding others responsible for their actions, choices, etc.?
  • How comfortable am I in the presence of another’s pain and suffering?
  • How can I effectively navigate around my aversion to conflict?
  • How can I get over the idea that I am causing another harm (or potentially causing harm) when I hold them accountable for their choices? How can I shift my thinking from the short-term view to an eternal perspective?

*In the original essay from which Robert Augustus Masters is quoted (see his November 2006 newsletter), he used the term “idiot compassion;” however, at his suggestion we have used the less pejorative term “blind compassion” as reflected in an updated version of the essay included in his new book Transformation Through Intimacy.

-Contributed by Jayne Sorrels, Executive Director of an interfaith homeless shelter in Boise, Idaho and Director/Founder of the Viriditas Center, an ecumenical center for Contemplative Christianity committed to supporting individuals pursuing an integrated path of contemplation and engaged compassion.

see also I-Thou: Twenty-Four Hour Lament

The Integral News and Views blog aims to explore accessible and practical integral perspectives for people who are interested in getting beyond fragmented worldviews, who desire intimacy with all that they are, and who wish to help the world, themselves, and others evolve and thrive in a mutually beneficial and sustainable manner.

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