Serving with Wise Compassion

The love stoneIn the mindfulness and yoga community we are fortunate to have so many wonderful, loving, and giving practitioners. I have benefitted greatly from the guidance of more caring and talented teachers/mentors here in Kansas City than I can count on both hands. Much gratitude to them all!

We are each made for goodness, love and compassion. Our lives are transformed as much as the world is when we live with these truths. – Desmond Tutu

The heartfelt desire of most mindfulness practitioners, caregivers, coaches, teachers and educators is to alleviate suffering.  This is called compassion and it gives great meaning to our work. However, many of us do not get the kind of training needed to work with the most vulnerable people who are drawn to the practices. These include those who:

  • are suffering so intensely that they need more than we alone can provide, – or –
  • lack the insight required to prevent harm to self and/or others.

In these cases, our beneficent intentions may not be enough. Although we may feel a strong desire to help, uninformed or misguided action can actually make things worse in the long run. Our attachment to our identity as helpers and healers can override reason. Kind-hearted souls may end up doing inadvertent damage. It can be quite complicated.

My experience as a psychologist has shown me that not all caring, well-intentioned as it may be, is skillful. Benefiting others does not always mean giving someone immediate satisfaction. We are taught to believe that if someone is unhappy with us, we have done something wrong. We forget that one’s thoughts and feelings are more reflective of one’s inner experience than external conditions – and we can’t fully know someone else’s inner experience.

In the yoga community we endeavor to maintain a healing energy in the studio and in our minds, so we sometimes avoid confronting harmful behavior and setting boundaries. In meditation circles, we often practice non-reactivity and acceptance, so we may let harmful phenomena wash over us. We try to embody right speech and ahimsa, so we are careful not to “gossip” about others. We are giving, so we patiently listen, holding space again and again.

These are usually quite useful practices and qualities, but if taken too far, they can discourage us from speaking up when something seems wrong. A pattern of damaging behavior can be allowed to escalate. We may inadvertently enable, through reinforcing with loving attention, behaviors and qualities that should not be encouraged. As hard as it is to believe, some people do not understand the language of patience and compassion – they mistrust and defend against it or they misinterpret it as weakness and exploit it. By the time we realize we are really in a pickle, the situation is much worse than it ever needed to be. In the long run, this causes more suffering for everyone involved.

…it is necessary and very important to avoid idiot compassion. If one handles fire wrongly, he gets burned; if one rides a horse badly, he gets thrown. There is a sense of earthy reality. Working with the world requires some kind of practical intelligence. We cannot just be “love-and-light” bodhisattvas. If we do not work intelligently with sentient beings, quite possibly our help will become addictive rather than beneficial. People will become addicted to our help in the same way they become addicted to sleeping pills. By trying to get more and more help they will become weaker and weaker. So for the benefit of sentient beings, we need to open ourselves with an attitude of fearlessness. Because of people’s natural tendency toward indulgence, sometimes it is best for us to be direct and cutting. The bodhisattva’s approach is to help others to help themselves. It is analogous to the elements: earth, water, air, and fire always reject us when we try to use them in a manner that is beyond what is suitable, but at the same time, they offer themselves generously to be worked with and used properly. – Chogyam Trungpa

One of the most wonderful things about yoga and mindfulness communities is they tend to be inclusive and welcoming of differences. This creates a powerful sense of safety and belonging, and brings a richness to the practices. However, we also have to realize that a rare few people are on the “fringes” because their chronically harmful or abusive behavior alienates others. When this becomes apparent we must practice wise compassion so we don’t inadvertently support the proliferation of suffering.

Sometimes taking a step back, consulting with others, or setting a boundary is the most compassionate course of action.

Wise compassion can be firm and even fierce, but it is never angry. In both yoga and Buddhism we have the imagery of the spiritual warrior, understanding that love can be a powerful force for transformation. It takes courage and determination to set and maintain a boundary or to sit unwavering in the burning heat of another’s disapproval. Remember that setting a limit does not mean closing your heart. It means seeing the bigger picture and allowing your intention to help outweigh your desire to be comfortable.

…forgiveness and compassion are always linked: how do we hold people accountable for wrongdoing and yet at the same time remain in touch with their humanity enough to believe in their capacity to be transformed? – bell hooks

Leave a Reply