urban streetCompassion means to “suffer with” someone. Compassion is a feeling, but when you truly feel another person’s suffering you want to do what you can to ease it and so it becomes an action. There is effective compassionate action and what Buddhist teacher Trungpa Rinpoche called “idiot compassion”. Giving money to a gambler or a drink to an alcoholic because you can’t say “no” may be idiot compassion. Letting someone keep hurting you because you believe they are about to change may be naïve compassion.

Trungpa described it like this,

In order that your compassion doesn’t become idiot compassion, you have to use your intelligence. Otherwise, there could be self-indulgence of thinking that you are creating a compassionate situation when in fact you are feeding the other person’s aggression.

I learnt about idiot compassion when I was working on the streets in Sydney as a youngster. One of the first people that I met was a 15 year-old girl.  She asked for money.  We sat down and at the end of a long conversation I felt her pain so deeply, that I could hardly stand it. I had to do something.  So I took her to a local hotel and I paid for her to stay the night. Then I arranged to meet with her the next morning so we could sit down and talk about getting her a job and an apartment. In my mind I imagined that within three weeks her whole life would miraculously come together in perfect order.

My plan was perfect, and I was so excited that I couldn’t sleep that night.  First thing the next morning I ran to the hotel and was shocked to discover that she wasn’t there.  She checked out the night before, and took the refunded money with her. I was left scratching my head wondering what’s the point. About three days later I saw her on the street, and as we were passing each other she looked me in the eyes without even a hint of remorse. She was a walking zombie. She looked at me as if to say, “How’s that plan working out for you?” She was right. She didn’t want a job, and she certainly didn’t want my advice. She just wanted my money to make one night a little easier by escaping her pain.  She became a serious heroin user, and I often saw her on corners of streets, barely awake on her feet. My compassion made little to no difference in her life. I did, however, learn a lot from the experience and you never know what impact your actions might have at a later time.

When you try to help someone when they don’t want your help, or because you are really trying to help yourself, this may be idiot compassion. Its often the distinction between charity (giving TO someone) and empowerment (helping people help themselves)

There is certainly a place for both.  It’s great to help someone. It’s even better to help people help themselves, and to do so out of a deep inner mindfulness. In many cases, it’s not what you do as much as how you do what you do that makes all the difference.

Compassion has so many faces. The Zen story about compassion with a rolled up umbrella makes the point.  A woman was in India, riding with a friend in a rickshaw when they were attacked by a crazed man. He did no harm other than to frighten the women. However the woman was upset and asked her Zen teacher what the appropriate response to her attacker would be. The teacher said very simply, “You should have very mindfully and with great compassion whacked the attacker over the head with your umbrella.” It’s a surprising answer. You expect him to say something about forgiving the man. But compassion has many faces.

Tara is a Tibetan Buddhist goddess who manifested as various forms of compassion. The White Tara was gentle and serene. Red Tara was fierce and protective. Black Tara was powerful and strategic. Green Tara was contemplative and mindful. Tara is the Tibetan version of the Bodhisattva of compassion, Kanzeon, who was unsatisfied with having two arms to reach out and liberate other beings. Instead Kanzeon had many eyes to see suffering and many arms to help carry the load. Kanzeon literally means, “Hearing the cries of the world.” It is said that Kanzeon has 11 faces to see and hear the pain of the world and 1000 arms to alleviate the suffering of many. Kanzeon has the ability to manifest with different faces and in different ways to meet the needs of the context, always with the face and hands of compassion.

Compassion can be soft and nurturing, and at the same time it can be strong and empowering.  It can be a listening ear and safe space and it can be tough love and clear boundaries. Compassion can be receptive or active and it can be anywhere along that spectrum.  Compassion can be deeply patient, or forcefully impatient.  Compassion can simply be present with someone, or it can take someone by the hand and urge them forward.

Compassion is best without mixed motives. Compassion that is self serving or even just lazy, like some handouts, is a mixed blessing. Compassion where you have to step outside of your comfort zone, and help people you don’t normally associate with, is powerful.

I love the movie Hotel Rwanda. It makes a profound point about compassion. When the President dies in a plane crash, the government blames Tutsis and encourages the people to root out these “cockroaches” and exterminate them. Hutu militias begin murdering Tutsis

Paul, who is Hutu, married to a Tutsi, wants to protect his family. But his wife convinces him to help neighbors as well, Hutus AND Tutsis alike. He hides them in his abandoned hotel and defends them against all sorts of threat and danger.

This is amazing compassion because Paul and his family have to put their own needs aside.

Most of us don’t deal with extreme situations like this, but we all have the opportunity to practice mindful compassion, and every act of compassion makes a difference.

Start with yourself. Have compassion for yourself. Do you ever wish you could give more to others, but just feel empty? It’s a basic truth that if you want to have compassion for others, you need to first have compassion for yourself. It’s like when the flight attendant gives instructions to fit your own oxygen mask first before helping others.

A person full of compassion can hold the pain of the world without letting it crush you. So let it begin within. You don’t have to solve all the problems of the world. Just love the world, do it mindfully and do it in your own unique way, and that will make all the difference. Love the world, in an ever widening circle of kindness, and keep loving until the day when love conquers all hatred and no one and no thing is excluded from love’s tender embrace.

This is the third part in a series on compassion. The first is about keeping it real. He heart of compassion is the courage to let reality be what it is without hiding or denying it. The second is about the many faces of love.

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  1. Nancy says:

    This is exactly the message I needed today. I need to be reminded that compassion has many faces and it is not always the one you associate with compassion. I once heard a swami teachering say to someone who asked a question about why since she began trying to live a more spiritual life, she felt people might be at times taking advantage of her as she tried to always be kind and compassionate no matter what. The teacher very quietly said, “There is nothing enlightened about allowing people to walk all over you.” I think you must temper compassion with discernment for it to be mindful compassion and not idiot compassion.

  2. ian says:

    Awesome Nancy- well said. With thanks, Ian

  3. Luzia Light says:

    I think it’s very dangerous to use terms like “idiot compassion”. This story about the 15 year old girl seems to be just another reason to justify why we should not give to others. I think people who live on the street are in an incredible amount of emotional pain, and/or have serious mental disorders and/or have an drug/alcohol addiction which is impossible to overcome on their own. People living on the street don’t know how to love themselves so they allow themselves to only receive very little. What they do allow to receive is the change people give them, that’s all. If you take that away, wouldn’t that destroy anyone’s belief in the benevolence of people/society?
    Also, when your mind is set on “surviving” on the street, a hotel room seems just idiotic! Of course exchanging that for money makes perfect sense when money is so hard to come by. A hotel room is an incredible luxury for someone without means. It’s way beyond surviving. I don’t think it’s idiotic to give, it creates good vibration, good energy, it expands love into the world.
    Ultimately it would be ideal if we could teach poor/homeless people how to love themselves more, that would be the cure to the problem. Still until that happens, it’s important to show compassion and support. My two cents worth! 

  4. Tom says:

    Very enjoyable read. Reminds us to mix our enlightenment with discretion…

  5. Jamie says:

    This was an excellent article – thank you for writing it

  6. Nazish says:

    What a wonderful article.Thanks.

  7. Laura says:

    podría obtener la información en español? 

  8. Benoit says:

    Thank you for sharing such a wonderful story xoxo

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