How not to practice “idiot compassion” (Day 33)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

Chogyam Trungpa borrowed from Gurdjieff the very useful notion of “idiot compassion.” Gurdjieff, a rather fascinating spiritual teacher of the early to mid-20th century, had said that we are all idiots of one kind or another, and his extensive lists of the various types of idiots included “the compassionate idiot.”

Compassion is wishing that beings be free from suffering. Idiot compassion is avoiding conflict, letting people walk all over you, not giving people a hard time when actually they need to be given a hard time. It’s “being nice,” or “being good.”

It’s not compassion at all. It ends up causing us pain, and it ends up causing others pain.

The more someone self-consciously thinks of themselves as compassionate, the more likely it is that they’re a compassionate idiot.

Idiot compassion lacks both courage and intelligence.

Idiot compassion lacks courage because “being nice” and “being good” are held to be the most important qualities we can manifest, and so we’re afraid to do anything that might make us unpopular. It’s not uncommon to see a related phenomenon, “idiot kindness,” in parents’ interactions with their children. Some parents want to be their children’s best friends, and don’t want to be unpopular. And so they indulge their children, giving them what they want and never disciplining them, or using very inconsistent discipline. But it’s not a parent’s job to be a BFF for their children. It’s their job to help bring their children up to be responsible adults.

Idiot compassion lacks intelligence, because it doesn’t lead to happiness or to freedom from suffering. If someone cheats you, and you immediately decide to trust them again, you’re not helping either them or you. The person who cheats you is unlikely to have a sudden conversion to being conscientious. Any easy promise they make to change their ways is likely to be just another form of cheating. And so by letting them off the hook you don’t help them. In fact you become an enabler of their dysfunctional behavior, and thus you’re helping them to suffer more in the future, when their unskillful behavior catches up with them. And you end up suffering as well. At some point either resentment against the cheat, or against themselves, is going to kick in.

True compassion does not shy away from causing pain when necessary. Causing pain is not the same as causing harm, by the way. The Buddha talked about this in relation to speech, in an interesting dialogue with a prince named Abhaya.

Abhaya was the follower of a rival teacher, and he was sent to try to entrap the Buddha. He was to ask whether the Buddha would say words that were disagreeable to others. If the Buddha were to say he would say things that were disagreeable, then he would be accused of acting just like ordinary, unenlightened people. If he were to say he wouldn’t, then it would be pointed out that his words had in fact caused others to be upset. This was described as a “two-pronged question.” “When Gotama the contemplative is asked this two-pronged question by you,” Abhaya is told, “he won’t be able to swallow it down or spit it up.”

Of course the Buddha has no difficulty in avoiding this trap, and he turns the “two-pronged” metaphor to his advantage.

Now at that time a baby boy was lying face-up on the prince’s lap. So the Blessed One said to the prince, “What do you think, prince: If this young boy, through your own negligence or that of the nurse, were to take a stick or a piece of gravel into its mouth, what would you do?”

“I would take it out, lord. If I couldn’t get it out right away, then holding its head in my left hand and crooking a finger of my right, I would take it out, even if it meant drawing blood. Why is that? Because I have sympathy for the young boy.”

So the Buddha leads Abhaya to recognize that it’s acceptable to cause pain in the short term if you want to save someone from long-yerm harm. And he goes on to say that:

In the case of words that the Tathagata [i.e. the Buddha] knows to be factual, true, beneficial, but unendearing and disagreeable to others, he has a sense of the proper time for saying them.

And those are the only circumstances under which the Buddha would say something that he knew to be disagreeable.

So this is quite a tough order. What you say has to be true — not just your opinion, but actually true. This requires a great deal of mental clarity. What you say has to be beneficial — which implies that you have a good understanding of psychology and of the spiritual path, otherwise how can you know what it helpful? And you have to have an awareness of what’s the right time to say what needs to be said. This requires some empathy.

I don’t think it’s wise to say, though, that honest but critical communication should be avoided until we’ve attained some kind of near-superhuman state of wisdom. How do we learn when it’s beneficial and timely to tell the truth? How do we clarify whether we’re actually in possession of the truth? We learn by speaking, with as much courage, honesty, kindness, and wisdom as we can muster, and by reflecting on the consequences.

So ask yourself, “Am I avoiding conflict and calling it compassion? Am I afraid to be honest because I might end up being disliked? Am I letting people off the hook too easily? Am I setting myself up for resentment?” And if any of these is the case, muster your courage, and speak up, even if you make mistakes. The spiritual path is, as I like to say, the fine art of making mistakes.

Eventually this all becomes spontaneous. And in fact when the Buddha has done explaining the circumstances under which it’s skillful to say something disagreeable, he goes on to talk about the spontaneous nature of his communication. Those who are most genuinely compassionate don’t think in terms of “being compassionate.” Expressing themselves honestly and with empathy is just what they do.

So be wary of trying to be compassionate in a self-conscious way. The more you do this, the more likely it is that you’re being a compassionate idiot.

PS. You can see a complete list all the 100 Days of Lovingkindness posts here.

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10 Comments. Leave new

  • Excellent!
    So often the urge to be ‘nice’ is unwittingly self serving and fears disapproval. Wish this topic was discussed more.

  • Patricia Hughes
    May 14, 2013 10:14 am

    This sounds like the THINK principle of speech. Is what you’re about to say:
    – True
    – Honest
    – Inspiring
    – Necessary
    – Kind (curiously, this is the one I always have trouble remembering)

    Actually, I think this applies to our thoughts too although they are not so easy to regulate :-)

    And certainly we need to make mistakes, though not on purpose, in order to learn and grow.

    Thanks for all your postings on compassion, Bodhipaksa, for me they are timely.

  • I’ve pondered whether actions I’ve taken in life were actually compassionate or just idiot compassion. Sometimes it’s easier to differentiate between the two if I ask myself “Who does this benefit?”. If the person my intended compassion is directed at isn’t on that list, I know I missed showing real compassion
    We have to understand that the “nice” thing isn’t always the best thing, maybe for anybody

  • Thank you for your insightful explanation. It is a good guide for me as I interact with the many forces in my life and develop my spiritual skills for compassion.

  • […] How not to practice “idiot compassion” (Day 33) […]

  • Love the article. Yes, the balancing act in our lives is continuous. As much as we need to offer others loving kindness, we need to also provide that kindness to ourselves. It can be too easy to go with the flow or please others. Contrary though is the pain of abandoning one’s self and one’s own values. It take courage to offer kindness to both self and others – and along the way the impact of our truth may cause immediate pain in another. I guess we need to ALWAYS watch our intention. This can only be revealed to us if we are present in the moment and self aware. Thus our daily sit to keep or presence present.

  • Diane Hughes
    May 18, 2013 5:45 am

    I have found this so very helpful….. thank you…… though let’s hope that I don’t use the “excuse” of idiot compassion to go round expressing my views regardless of their feelings! But I was glad of the advice to keep trying even if I am making some hopefully small mistakes and being willing to acknowledge where I get it wrong.

  • Angela Anderson
    August 10, 2014 7:58 am

    Thank you. Just thank you.

  • I so needed this. Thank you!

  • This really says it all.I come back and read this at least once a week for the past couple years. Thanks for articulating this so well.


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