The Capacity for Compassion: Don’t Be an Idiot

compassionThere are two undeniable facts in our world today. One is that there is a whole lot of suffering going on. The other is that you and I can’t “fix” it.  How we choose to live with that reality says everything about our capacity for compassion.

If you’re reading this, chances are you are already a pretty compassion person. You are probably already engaged in social justice activities on both a local and a global level.So what can I possibly share with you that you don’t already know? I suppose the good news for me is that compassion is not an intellectual exercise – instead it is a space within that we can all expand and grow. 

So instead of focusing on the myriad causes that cry for our attention, I want to challenge us to feel care and compassion toward people we just don’t like. People who are fearful, angry, jealous, overpowered by addictions of all kinds, arrogant, proud, miserly, selfish, mean, needy, whiny, depressing —you name it. You know who I’m talking about!

All of us have someone that gets under our skin. A person or a personality type that brings out the worst in us. Feelings of resentment and anger are simply part of our human condition. And when those feelings come up in us, we clench down. We contract. But when we can own our dislike, when we can admit the struggle inherent in the words, “Love your neighbor” then we begin to pump air, literally the breath of the Spirit, back into that collapsed space in the center of our being that holds our capacity for compassion.

Let Go of the Guilt

Here’s the secret for cultivating true compassion for others: Let go of the guilt. Now, there is a useful role for guilt – we should feel guilty and convicted when we ignore the needs of those around us or when our actions cause someone pain. But guilt can also suck the air out of that space for compassion – until all we are is one big contraction, powerless to do anything but conserve precious energy because nothing is going in and noting is coming out. 

Compassion can’t happen until we let go of the self-contraction and allow divine energy to enter us. Compassion arises in the space that DW Winnicott calls our “capacity for concern.” This space is where we integrate both our love and our hate for other people.

Now I’m going to stop there because I’m sure I just lost some of you. When I have the capacity for concern, I am able to integrate both my love and my hate for other people. If I can’t do this, I end up with guilt. So the first thing we need to admit is that we don’t always love everyone. Or if you can’t go there because you have managed to cultivate universal love and equanimity for everyone, including FOX News pundits and fundamentalist Christians, then please consider that there are still people you just don’t like.   

Creating and expanding the capacity for compassion is not an intellectual exercise. It’s an emotional exercise and a spiritual practice. It takes intentionality and hard work. But opportunities for doing the work are all around us.

Here’s the problem with not doing the work. When we don’t take time to develop this capacity, we risk getting stuck in the middle of guilt. And guilt can lead directly to idiot compassion. 

Idiot Compassion

Idiot Compassion is a term coined by the Buddhist teacher Trungpa Rinpoche. It comes out of our desire to help other people but involves acting without wisdom. Idiot Compassion is more about feeling better ourselves than about really helping someone else. 

When we get stuck in guilt, we keep the focus on our self. We can’t stand to see someone suffer, so we do something to make it stop. In other words, we’re helping because we want to feel better. We’re not really doing it for them. The classic example of idiot compassion is giving a drink to an alcoholic because it will make them happy. 

Idiot Compassion is not a kind and gentle term. No one wants to think of themselves as an idiot. If you need to, you can substitute the term enabling. But I like the phrase BECAUSE it stops me short and makes me really think about what I’m doing or trying to do.

Idiot compassion also moves us to give people what we think they need instead of finding out what they need. It’s amazing to me that as wise as I am, I am still not an expert on other people. In his book Cross-Cultural Connections, Duane Elmer retells the story of the monkey and the fish. 

A typhoon stranded a monkey temporarily on an island. In a secure and protected place, while waiting for the raging waters to recede, he saw a fish swimming against the current. It seemed obvious to the monkey that the fish was struggling and in need of assistance. Being of kind heart, the monkey resolved to help the fish. 

A tree precariously dangled over the very spot where the fish seemed to be struggling. At considerable risk to himself, the monkey moved far out on a limb, reached down and snatched the fish from the threatening waters. Immediately scurrying back to the safety of his shelter, he carefully laid the fish on dry ground. For a few moments the fish showed excitement, but soon settled into a peaceful rest. Joy and satisfaction swelled inside the monkey. He had successfully helped another creature.  

True compassion involves acting in a thoughtful and responsible manner around what other people really need. True compassion balances concern with wisdom. Compassion is not simply giving someone what they want – nor is it simply giving them what you think they need. 

To have compassion and to care for difficult people, for those people we both love and hate, means that we have to confront the pain of finding those things that annoy us about others in ourselves. In fact, our whole attitude toward pain can change. Instead of fending it off and hiding from it, we can open our heart and allow ourself to feel that pain, feel it as something that will soften the contraction and make us far more loving and kind. 

Transforming Pain into Compassion

I had the opportunity to transform pain into compassion when I was still working as an Assistant to the Bishop. When I spoke here a few months ago, I shared the fact that I am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. One Sunday I traveled to a church to provide the message. The pastor was there, so I didn’t lead communion. When I went to the railing to kneel for the bread and wine, I realized the person kneeling next to me was the father of my abuser – and that the man kneeling next to him was undoubtedly the very person who had abused me so many long years ago.  

It was rather surreal to realize there was this sordid and painful history between us that no one knew about, no one could see or hear or perceive. And it made me think about what Communion is supposed to be all about. It made me think about my own new ministry and the assertion I have always made that all are welcome at the table.

It took a lot of soul searching, but I did find the space inside of me to know that I meant it – that I could welcome anyone to the table – because it isn’t my table. Not only that, but I realized that the human being kneeling just a few feet away from me was also carrying scars that I could not begin to see or perceive. At the table, at the place where we recognize our common humanity and our interconnectedness, we will each continue to work through the hurts and the shame we carry. And Divine Energy will continue to bring healing.


I would like to invite you into the practice of Tonglen that draws on that Divine Energy and expands our capacity for compassion. I’d like to invite you to read this through first, then move through the steps sitting comfortably with your feet flat on the floor and your eyes closed. 

Frist, think of a person you know who is suffering and whom you wish to help.  Then breathe in the pain and fear of that person. Then, as you breathe out, send that person happiness, joy or whatever would relieve their pain. Breathe in the darkness and the pain and breath out light and relief. 

This is the core of the practice: breathing in other’s pain so they can be well and breathing out relaxation and happiness. However, we often cannot do this practice because in the process we come face to face with our own fear, our own resistance, anger, or whatever our personal pain is at that moment. It is a natural reaction to back away and shield ourself from suffering, so be intentional about staying in the suffering and breathing it in. 

Now begin to breathe in your own suffering. Begin doing Tonglen for what you are feeling and for millions of others just like you who at this very moment are also feeling exactly the same way you are feeling. Maybe you feel worry or anger or the desire for revenge. Recognize it and breathe it in for all the people who are having that same emotion and send out relief and healing for everyone. Maybe you can’t name what you’re feeling, but you can feel it —a tightness in the stomach, a darkness, a heaviness. Focus on that feeling and breathe it in, take it in for all of us and then send out relief to all of us. 

Rather than feeling guilty or beating yourself up for your feelings of resistance, use your experience as a stepping stone to understand what other people are struggling with all over the world. Breathe in for all of us and breathe out for all of us.

And as you now open your eyes, remember that the divine in me recognizes and bows to the divine in you. Namaste. 


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