Dangerous compassion

'The Able Ones, the Buddhas, who have considered this for many aeons, have all seen bodhichitta to be the most beneficial. Because through it countless masses of living beings can easily attain the supreme bliss of enlightenment.' ~ A guide to the Boddhisatva’s way of life (Bodhisatvacharyavatara)

Bodhichitta, for those not familiar with this text, is essentially the wish for enlightenment for all other beings and can roughly be translated in Cherryl’s words as compassion on a mega grand scale.

If you’ve been practicing yoga for longer than a few months, you most likely would’ve come across principles like non-violence, mindfulness and compassion, to name just a few, and even if you haven’t yet come into contact with a text like the one above, you would’ve hopefully started some kind of inquiry into the different paths and states of consciousness available to you.

And if you’re like me and have been practicing and studying this stuff for more than a decade you would’ve most likely delved a little deeper into these principles and started living them, dissecting them, debating them, trying them on and even throwing some of them out.

It’s a complicated one to really get. But if the text on developing compassion i.e Bodhichitta is to be believed, then total enlightenment is within our grasp. The above quote is just an excerpt from an entire poem that basically says total enlightenment is not possible without the wish for enlightenment for everyone else (In case you didn’t get it). You can read the whole poem in

A guide to the Boddhisatva’s way of life  - How to Enjoy a Life of Great Meaning and Altruism By Shantideva, translated under the guidance of Geshe Kelsang Gyatso. It’s available on Amazon

So let’s look at compassion.

It isn’t sympathy, because sympathy is said to exacerbate our already hard-wired belief that we are separate from everyone and everything around us, and being sympathetic puts you firmly in a ‘I am here and you over there suffering’ relationship.

Empathy, while closer, is still not compassion exactly. While empathy allows us to truly feel what another is feeling, it doesn’t necessarily compel us to action. We simply feel with the other.

Compassion is when we feel with the other, and then are compelled to perform some act to alleviate the other person’s suffering. And this is where it get’s tricky. It get’s tricky because I don’t think compassion is possible without empathy. I think empathy comes first, and then we take the extra step to help, or do something about the other person’s suffering.

Developing true empathy alone means taking the step to stop thinking of oneself for a time, and to step into someone else’s world and situation irrespective of our own relationship to the topic. It means dropping our own beliefs and opinions about their situation and just being in another’s space as they see it. We look, but only for a moment, into our own memory bank of feeling and bring up similar experiences we’ve had (sometimes we need to use our imagination), but only so we gain access to the feeling so we can feel with another.

Some of us will do this more easily than others and some of us will do this too often for our own good. So how do we know when it’s good?

Gregory David Roberts, in his book Shantaram wrote ‘Every virtuous act is inspired by a dark secret’ and while this seems to be a rather grim way of seeing great acts of kindness, I believe there is some real truth in what he’s saying.

We must look deep within ourselves and ask ourselves the motivation for doing the ‘kind’ things we do or accept from others.

Here are some examples of dark-secret-motivated acts of kindness and why they cannot be classified as acts of compassion:

Compassion is not doing something for someone else with expectation of some kind of pay back or return..

Compassion is not putting someone else before you because you believe you don’t deserve the respect, the validation, or the love.

Compassion is not giving someone your time, your energy and your resources out of a sense of obligation or threat.

Compassion is not performing outlandish acts of kindness in the hope of filling up your karma bank and then feeling self righteous about it.

Compassion is not indulging someone else’s selfish pathology and allowing them to cross your own personal and healthy boundaries even if you can understand why they do the heinous things they do.

I encourage looking closely at this word, and getting more honest about it. My view is that empathy is the key. When we can truly feel with another, and then act from that place, then we have a chance to practice compassion. We also have a chance to act authentically compassionately which often comes with the wisdom on how to act, which doesn’t mean giving the person what they are asking for necessarily.

And while we’re on the topic, let me also add that you do not lack compassion if you are driven, have vision, are motivated, inspired and are giving yourself the love you ask for from the world. Because I have come to realise that the more love you can give yourself, the more compassion you can show yourself, the more you can give to others. Not out of pathology but out of genuine empathy, which leads to wise and most likely helpful action.

The world needs compassionate people. The world needs empathetic people. It’s critical. We need to be both these things for our sakes and for the sake of humanity, so let’s get real about it, let’s take the time to truly understand it.

- Cherryl Duncan

Cherryl Duncan is the creator of dharmaKaya yoga and is committed to the path of demystifying the ancient truths of yoga and Eastern philosophy and harnessing its power in a practical and useful way for personal transformation and empowerment. She offers 0ne on one coaching, group coaching, and teacher training in Munich, Germany. Email cherryl@cherrylduncan.com to book a session 

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