Idiot Compassion and Mindfulness

Compassion is an important concept, and even more important practice to integrate into one’s life. Like all ideas, layers underlie the meaning. One of the most fascinating is what Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche termed ‘idiot compassion.’


His well known student, Buddhist nun and author Pema Chodron, explains:

It refers to something we all do a lot of and call it compassion. In some ways, it’s what’s called enabling. It’s the general tendency to give people what they want because you can't bear to see them suffering.

Chodron exposes the danger in this: instead of offering a friend medicine, bitter though it may be when ingested, you feed them more poison—at the very least, you don’t take it away from them. This, she says, is not compassion at all. It’s selfishness, as you’re more concerned with your own feelings than attending to your friend’s actual needs.

Granted, saying uncomfortable things to someone close to you is no easy task. If they are violent or depressive, criticism could send them spiraling. Yet enabling is not good either. Stepping up and being a teacher in challenging situations requires great tact and care, and does not always work out how you intended it to.

As I’ve been exploring this concept this week in my yoga classes, I began thinking about the ways we enable ourselves as well. We are extremely good at self-deception, using bad habits as crutches for some future good we imagine is right around the corner. We trick ourselves with the ‘one more’ syndrome: one more cigarette, one more drink, one more email to the ex who refuses our pleas.

The issue is really expectation: we fear upsetting our friend, or ourselves, because we don’t want to make things uncomfortable. We choose short-term avoidance over what we perceive to be longer term suffering. Since we don’t inherently know what the future state holds, we choose what we think to be the most comfortable path, persisting in our folly without becoming wise.

The hardest part is not imagining the future. Hypothesizing is what our brains do, which is why suffering lies at the heart of Buddhism. Two things keep us locked in a perpetual state of conflict: expecting reality to conform to what we want it to be and demanding the future unravels as we hope it will. When one or both of these projections fail, we blame the situation rather than our expectations.

One powerful form of changing these habits of enabling is mindfulness meditation. As neuroscientist Richard J. Davidson has written, habitual manners of dealing with emotions are the product of both genetics and experience. Some of us are genetically inclined to be more resilient and compassionate than others, but it is our life experiences that define our outlook, and how we treat others (and ourselves). As he writes,

Mindfulness retrains these habits of mind by tapping into the plasticity of the brain’s connections, creating new ones, strengthening some old ones, and weakening others.

In his research Davidson has found that mindfulness practitioners exhibit greater activity in the left prefrontal cortex—they are able to redirect thoughts and feelings while reducing anxiety and strengthening resilience and well-being. Put in Tibetan Buddhist terms, meditators are able to shift both their reactions to situations, as well as their reactions to their reactions.

Oftentimes when something happens in our lives, we say, ‘Why did that happen to me?’ as if the weight of billions of years of history has led to this moment just for you. Fortunately meditation helps one overcome this overbearing sense of self. It loosens the grip of the brain’s ‘me center.’ You begin to view the world in terms of collectivity instead of individuality, and thus are able to process your emotions better.

When this occurs—when you are mindful of your thoughts from a third-party perspective and attain some level of control over the direction they unfold—idiot compassion becomes impossible. You no longer aim for long-term habits or short-term pleasure. Rather, you do what’s best for the present you, or the friend you’re engaging with. In that way, everyone benefits, even if it takes a little while for the medicine to kick in.

Image: Shambhala.com

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