This past Valentine’s Day, I launched a program called the “21-Day Open Heart Immersion: Live in Love.” I received this message (from a stranger) via email:
With all due respect, I think that the global consciousness is in a state of a major shift and it has a lot to do with people like you helping to spread the world and enlighten people on a large scale.
I admire the spiritual community in helping humanity evolve into who we truly were meant to be, however I find that many “teachers” are taking advantage of peoples hunger for growth and spiritual enlightenment to make more than just a living with the substantial cost involved in either participating in a spiritual retreat or otherwise simply taking an e course such as yours. There are many people who simply cannot afford the $300 plus that it costs to take your course for example and so it seems that spiritual enlightenment is left mostly for those who have the means to afford it and leaves a substantial amount of humans behind which seems very contradictory to what most spiritual teachers are preaching about how we are all one and we need to open our hearts to love etc….. I often find myself seeking more and more information and find the cost of seminar or a course to be out of reach monetarily to many many people which defeats the very purpose these teachers are out to accomplish. I understand that there are costs involved in setting up and teachers need to be compensated for their time but on the other hand, sharing this information is almost a responsibility given from the divine to spread to humanity to make this world a better place and the excessive cost being charged seems contradictory to any and all spiritual principles.
I was just wondering what your take on this is.
Thank you, Blank
How would you have responded?
My initial response was to become enraged in a deeply un-spiritual manner. The following went through my mind: Why does she pretend to flatter me and then accuse me of being greedy and disingenuous? What is this “spiritual community?” Does this person know that I offer free meditation instruction to nearly 12000 people via video twice a week—and have been doing so for three years? When did I ever preach that “we are all one?” Why is she passing judgment on me? She has no idea who I am or what my life is like.
Anyone who blogs and teaches knows that this kind of judgment-bomb can land in your inbox at any time and we have several choices about how to respond:
2. Respond politely with appreciation for her comment but offer no real response
3. School (as in “She tried to school me. I tried to school her back”).
A sensible person would have chosen #1. A kind person would chosen #2. I chose #3.
I’m not sure if you are actually interested in my take on these points or if you want me to hear your ideas of what my responsibilities should be and the suggestion that perhaps I am taking advantage of others.
If the former, I need to earn an income and it is up to me how I choose to do so. If the latter, duly noted.
In either case, I wish you the best in finding the information you seek.
Thank you, Susan
Not exactly scathing, but not softly “spiritual” either, whatever that is.
Herein lies the dilemma. How does a “spiritual” person conduct herself in a world where dharma and commerce intermingle? Where anyone who has a judgment of you can share that judgment at a moment of his or her choosing? And anyway, aren’t spiritual people supposed to be peaceful zombies who are inured to anger and hurt feelings? If they aren’t, shouldn’t they at least pretend to be?
Blank-ess brought up a question that has been contested for millennia. Those of us who teach and write on spiritual matters will encounter it at some point in our lives: Should this be free? If so, how will I live? If not, what do I charge and how do I relate to money altogether?
Again, there are choices. Many choices. With great difficulty, I’ve narrowed it down to six.
1. I am a child of the universe and trust that I will be taken care of if I offer to support sentient beings.
2. What I have to offer is of inestimable value and I deserve to be paid handsomely because I know how life-changing it is. (And it is.) Plus, isn’t making money a sign of success and shouldn’t spiritual teachings be associated with power?
3. Hmmm. These teachings are very profound. Too profound, actually—no one will understand them. What harm is there in expressing them in a way that people can access easily (i.e. minus the difficult bits)? If I fit my message into the current conversation, I can probably make my mark as well as some money.
4. Actually, the teachings are simply too deep and sophisticated for most people to grasp and I’m not even going to try to offer them widely. I refuse to dumb anything down. I reserve my offerings for the intelligentsia and if they pay me, fine. If not, I’ll stick to my principles and figure something out.
5. What do I know about anything? Not very much, truth be told. I better charge as little as possible so no one can accuse me of being superior or even knowledgeable.
6. I have no earthly idea how to manage all of this, but I better figure it out because this (writing and teaching) is my calling. I have a mortgage and a need for health insurance. Plus, someday I will be truly old (hopefully) and I don’t want to have to live outside.
Catch my drift? It is complicated.
There are definitely those who think that so-called spiritual teachers should be saintly and poor. There are those who think that the more powerful and wealthy you are, the closer you are to divinity. Who knows, maybe one of those is true. All I can do with this issue is what I try to do with every issue I encounter: bring it to the path by not attaching to a fixed answer.
I could feel my conflicts and discomfort about money with gentleness and precision—but not as a basis for action.
Ride the waves of self-preservation-related fears, shame at not having enough, and contemplate my supposition that wealth will make me safe.
Examine over and over how this fear and shame might make me do stupid things that are harmful to self and other and avoid said stupidity.
Most important, see how both my confusion and my wisdom can be offered to benefit sentient beings. Watch it all cycle and cycle and in each and every case, let go and keep letting go. Commit again and again to the middle way.
A few years ago, I traveled across the country giving talks based on my book, “The Wisdom of a Broken Heart.” It was an amazing experience. I drove from Boston to Victoria, BC and back, giving talk after talk, hearing story after story, meeting person after heartbroken person who was seeking some way, any way, to mitigate this astonishing pain.
Marilyn came home from a business trip to find that her love of eight years had moved out and taken the cat.
Carlene and her boyfriend were going around with their realtor looking for a house. The next week he sent her an email notifying her that he was in love with someone else.
Dan sold his house and was packing up to move from Texas to California to live with his boyfriend—only to receive a call telling him to unpack because he decided he wasn’t ready for a long term relationship.
These kinds of things happen every day—and every day they leave someone’s life in complete freefall. Heartbreak from lost love is one of the worst things that can happen to a person. The pain takes you by complete surprise.
Who knew anything could be this painful?
When a relationship ends, it is always sad but after a few weeks, months, years, most people pick themselves up and move on. But there are some endings from which it seems impossible to move on and life falls apart.
When it happened to me (in the most prosaic way imaginable—my boyfriend fell in love with someone else), my world went to pieces. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t sleep. I could barely leave the house. The thought of him with her literally made we want to vomit. For two years.
Of course there are countless ways to get your heart broken. People we love become ill. The job we wanted so desperately goes to someone else. We run out of money and have to move somewhere we don’t like. These are all very real sources of pain, but the sorrow of lost love feels different. Not better, not worse, just different. It has attributes that don’t seem to go with the other forms of sorrow.
The first one is called shame. Mind-numbing, life-destroying shame. No matter how many times you tell yourself it’s not true, a desperate sense of ugliness and undesirability arises.
The second quality is (insane) moodiness. You just don’t know when the waves of grief and humiliation will re-arise. I remember once I burst into tears over a basket of jalapeño corn bread because it made me remember his fondness for hot peppers. I was sitting there minding my own business when suddenly some baked goods destroyed my equanimity. And it’s not just food products that can cause you to fall apart, but songs, movies, overheard conversation, basically anything.
The third quality of romantic heartbreak is a little something I like to call “obsessive thinking.” It can seem as if your own mind is attacking you. From moment to moment, mercilessly, unremittingly, it spews forth with things like this: They are probably laughing at me right now. I hate her/him. No, I love her/him. I will never find love again, this was my last chance. If only I hadn’t said boo or worn boots or chewed gum. I have unhealed wounds from childhood that made this happen. I am such a loser. No, s/he is. F*#k her/him.
It seems hopeless, but it is not. There are actually ways to relate with these very difficult inner states and, perhaps surprisingly, they are rooted in Buddhist teachings that are thousands of years old. These teachings present a third alternative to the options for healing we are usually presented with, which are:
1. Screw it. Go out, have a good time, forget about him/her, he/she didn’t deserve you, he/she just wasn’t that into you, so deal with it. Dance it out, girl. (Sorry, but most of the advice is addressed to women.)
2. There is something very wrong with you. You made this happen because you have carried forward unhealed wounds from childhood. Heal them, sister, or you will “attract” the same treatment over and over until you work it out.
Okay, fine. It can be great to remember that you are awesome and it is also useful to explore your psyche. However, neither of those are about relating with the pain. They are both about getting away from it.
The third option is to stop running, turn around, and look directly at your sorrow. Simply acknowledging and embracing it (without an agenda, simply as a gesture of kindness) has immediate pacifying effect.
There are three things you can do once you begin to develop a relationship with the pain and I found them so helpful I wrote a whole book about them.
1. Reassert dominion over your own mind. Your thoughts will continue to run roughshod unless you develop a kind way of relating with them. In Buddhist tradition this kind way is called meditation. Here, meditation is the simple act of being with yourself as you feel what you feel. This—“being with”—as opposed to “working on” turns out to be a more expeditious way of metabolizing sorrow.
2. View your sorrow as wisdom. I know this sounds crazy because it just feels so bad to be in this much pain. And it is. However, it is there and you might as well try to learn from it.
Here’s the thing about having a broken heart: you can feel everything. Everything. Your pain, your friends’ pain, the pain of people on TV, and also their joy. There is no longer a barrier between your heart and this world. In Buddhist tradition, this is actually the point of spiritual practice—to have a completely open heart. However, the difference between you and me and, say, the Dalai Lama, is that his heart is open and stable while ours is open and, well, out of control.
It is possible to stabilize your heart in the open state and it begins with using all of this emotional energy to give love in every possible way. I know that when you are heartbroken, you need love and may feel that you don’t have a lot to give. However if you begin to turn the tables even a teeny tiny bit from “how will I find love” to “how will I give love” I promise you will be amazed at the power your own loving kindness has to heal you. But don’t take my word for it. Try it. Be kind. Help out. Think kind thoughts. Give something. And report back to me, please.
3. Let your heartbreak transform you into a fierce warrior god/goddess. Okay, now you know the truth: there is no protection from heartbreak. There is nothing you or I can do to banish the possibility. In fact—don’t be bummed out—there is no relationship that will not end in heartbreak. People change. Relationships crater and no one knows why. And, of course, someone is going to die first. I realize this may not sound very soothing…but it is always empowering to recognize the truth. Saul Bellow once said about death, “it is the black backing on the mirror that allows us to see anything at all” and acknowledging impermanence, while making me very pissed off, also conveys the astonishing preciousness of our lives.
At this point you reach a very interesting junction. Are you willing to love anyway now that you know it can never be made safe? If the answer is yes: wow. I want to be in a relationship with you because you are one courageous, daring, and powerful individual who knows what it really means to love.
To learn to meditate: The Open Heart Project
To read more of my thoughts on the wisdom of heartbreak: The Wisdom of a Broken Heart
To dive in and work with the power of love to transform and heal: 21-Day Open Heart Immersion: Live in Love (starts Feb 14).
A new podcast!
As a Buddhist teacher and someone with a lifelong interest in spirituality, I have attended my share of, well, interesting gatherings. From months-long meditation retreats where the vast and profound dharma is practiced, to sweaty evenings of devotional chanting, to workshops on using Sacred Geometry to attract love, to cocktail parties where sage is burned to prevent hangovers, to business meetings about marketing spirituality…I’m pretty sure I’ve seen a lot of what we in the west do to connect with our inner lives.
One concept that seems to come up in every setting is that of “ego.” At meditation retreats, we’re taught that clinging to ego prevents liberation from suffering. Devotional chanting is said to dissolve ego. Ego stands between us and love, causes health problems, and if only we could get past our egos in business, we could sell the crap out of whatever we want. (BTW, I’ve been in more than one business meeting where “let go of your ego” was used to mean, “I think what you just said is stupid and I don’t want to do it.” But I digress.)
Ego, then, is very powerful indeed.
What is it??
As a meditation teacher, I have heard many questions and ideas about ego. As a meditation student, I have my own share of questions and ideas. However, what I notice in both my students and myself is that we wield the notion of ego as a weapon of shame and unworthiness.
If we didn’t have such a big ego, our feelings wouldn’t be hurt by rejection.
We wouldn’t crumble in despair when our plans don’t work out.
We wouldn’t wish to be treated thoughtfully, as important beings who matter; in fact, whether or not we mattered to anyone wouldn’t matter at all if we didn’t have an ego.
When we are yelled at, we would not yell back, we could live without love, and when someone dies, we might suffer, but only reasonably and for a short time.
The truth is, I don’t quite know what ego means. Great sages and adepts have written profound texts and offered powerful practices on the topic and I urge you to explore them. I just know it doesn’t mean anything about you being too full of yourself and undeserving of care. When we use “ego” as a way of making ourselves or others feel bad, a red flag should go up.
Rather than a reminder of our un-deservingness, we could see our ego as that part of ourselves that is most deeply wounded and confused. Ego arises, perhaps, from doubt in our basic goodness rather than misplaced certainty in it.
When we are convinced of our worthiness, there is nothing to prove. When we can rest in our true nature, there is no unrest. When we know that all beings are similarly good at the core, we construct our lives to invite rather than defend.
In this sense, ego is evidence of our fragility. Rather than trying to root it out to become good boys and girls who have no desires or preferences, we could hold it in the cradle of loving kindness. Rather than a reason to abandon ourselves, it could be cause to care even more deeply about ourselves and this precious experience of being alive.
I’m a meditation teacher who speaks about mindfulness and teaches workshops around the world. I’m also founder of the Open Heart Project, an online meditation community with close to 12,000 members. And what a great time it is to be a meditation teacher! Mindfulness is becoming a movement and although I’m not always sure what people mean when they use the word, I’m just glad they’re using it.
Two recent experiences sharpened my view of the current culture surrounding mindfulness meditation. One involves the esteemed psychologist, academic, and thought leader Daniel Goleman. The other involves side boob.
I was at a recent talk in New York by Dan Goleman in support of his new book, Focus, which makes the case that focus is what drives excellence: accomplishment, impact, leadership. Fair enough. It can.
The talk was at the beautiful ABC Carpet and Home which, in addition to selling exquisite furnishings, hosts such events. One of his opening sentences began, “Recent research at Harvard shows… ” and before he finished the statement I thought, it does not matter what he says next. Everyone is going to believe him (which, in the case of Dan is well-placed because he is awesome). But if he had said, “Through deep practice and perfect realization, the 10th-century mahasiddha Tilopa shows… ” not so much. Okay, I thought. That’s cool. In our culture, scientific proof lowers resistance to new information.
The talk itself was excellent and inspiring. People seemed convinced that mindfulness was important and that somehow it was also a road to success.
In a recent Marie Claire article entitled “Single Girl’s Guide: How to Meditate for a Month” the altogether wonderful writer and meditation practitioner Whitney Joiner wrote a short piece on her experience at a month-long meditation retreat. I happen to have attended the same retreat at a different time so I knew she was not kidding when she wrote, “committing to ostensibly doing nothing is one of the bravest things I’ve ever done.” Truth. Sitting with your own mind hour after hour, day after day, is not easy.
The photograph chosen to accompany the piece was of a supernaturally beautiful and serene-looking young woman sitting on a meditation cushion, wearing a see-through top cut to show major side boob. (Hey, I’ve meditated a lot! I thought. I never got boobs like that.) With this image, mindfulness glowed with the patina of fabulousness. Perhaps readers would think that meditation was somehow connected with glamour, beauty and youthful cool.
Some readers were outraged: Using sex to sell meditation is bad! Others were sanguine: It’s great that meditation is a part of our culture and we should just be happy that it’s entered the mainstream.
Success and sex. These are the things we are taught to value most and of course we will use them to sell meditation. But is it okay to offer the reassurance of scientific proof or a glimpse of perfect breasts to get people to meditate?
Personally, I don’t care. At some point along the path, we find that while success and sex can be awesome, no amount brings lasting happiness and so all our formulas begin to unravel.
In spiritual tradition, this is considered a fortuitous moment.
To practice mindfulness, neither scientific proof nor magnetizing boobage will help you to meet the joys and sorrows of your life. The truth is, the point of mindfulness is not peace, nor is it bliss or transcendence. It does not make you permanently calm or inure you to pain and it does not even give you perky breasts, much to my dissatisfaction. Rather, it shows you where your heart is hard. It reminds you of your dreams. It shows you where you are afraid. It unlocks all the tears you have been holding back and in so doing breaks your heart to the preciousness of your life, the uniqueness of your genius, the unending grief of your losses, and your immeasurable capacity to love. It goes one better than to make you into a supermodel CEO — it shows you how to be who you really are and you discover gentleness, authenticity, and fearlessness. There is no Harvard research or conventional image of beauty that can make it otherwise.
To read about meditation: Turning the Mind Into an Ally.
To learn meditation: The Open Heart Project.
To experience meditation: Being Brave: Is Enlightened Society Possible?
For some reason, I’ve taken it upon myself to declare new holidays. The last one was “International I Don’t Feel Bad About Anything Day” which was celebrated by not feeling guilty or judgmental about anything for one whole day.
The new holiday is called “What About You? Day.” We celebrate by replacing the thought, “What About Me?” with “What About You?” for an entire day. Woohoo!!
This may not sound like the world’s most joyful holiday, but I can tell you that it is. It is not simple politeness that caused the Dalai Lama to say, “If you want to be happy, think of others. If you want to be unhappy, think of yourself.” He said it because it is true.
My teacher, Sakyong Mipham, wrote a song-poem (and even an entire book) about the pain brought about by the question that most of us pose first in any situation: “What about me?” When I first read his thoughts on this, my reaction was, uh-oh. People are going to take this as an opportunity to shame themselves for being selfish rather than the expansive, empowering, important gesture that it really is.
I don’t know one person who wasn’t brought up with issues of self-regard. We were taught either that wanting what we wanted was selfish/silly, or, equally detrimental, that getting what we wanted was an entitlement.
People in the first camp may believe that only after everyone else is comfortable, satisfied, fulfilled, and appreciated can they turn whatever energy they have left (usually not much) to pursuits of self-interest.
People in the second camp may believe either that the world is constructed to deprive them–so they must grab what they want–or, seen especially in young people, that if they want it, it is good and the world should somehow give it to them without pause.
The only two choices here are: 1) denying your needs or 2) making them primary, both of which are acts of aggression. If you try to please and accommodate others at your own expense (self-aggression), of course you will end up depleted and resentful. If you try to grab what you think will make you happy (aggression-aggression), you will immediately see, once you have it, that it doesn’t. So you have to start wanting something else. Both roads lead to pain.
The only issues in being generous arise when we think we don’t have or deserve enough ourselves. We may have been taught to think of others first, but not from a sense of richness and kindness, rather because, well, who are we to place our wants on a par with everyone else’s? Thus our gestures of generosity are from a weakened supply.
The truth is, we are neither more or less deserving than anyone else and when we simply drop the “who comes first” question to explore the contents of our heart now and now and now, we discover that we already possess immeasurable bounty. The supply is beyond estimation. Our capacity to love is endless. Our capacity to care is endless. Our capacity for clarity is endless. These are the treasures that really count and when we draw from them to give to others, no depletion occurs. We find that we are riddled with wealth.
This slight inner switch from making offerings to others as a gesture of bounty rather than of need changes everything, nothing less. To make this switch, you may think you have to become a different kind of person first. You don’t. No global change is required and in fact focusing on that is a distraction. All you have to do is, in the words of Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, change one word. Change “me” to “you”.
When we change “What about me?” to “What about you?” we are pointed toward our wealth, not our poverty. Richness feels good. Therefore, if you want to be happy, think of others.
To kick off this new holiday, let me ask: What about you? What do you think? What do you need to feel happy? I may or may not be able to help, but I am always glad to listen.
When it comes to the spiritual path, it seems there are two schools of thought. (Well, three. The first school says there is no such thing as a spiritual path.)
The next school says that there is a particular path for you. Find it. Stay with it. Work it.
The final school says there is something of value in all paths (which lead to the same place anyway). It is good to take from each what resonates most for you and create something unique and personal.
I am firmly in the “work it” camp. I believe in ancient wisdom and depth and, truth be told, I believe in pain to a certain degree. If we don’t become uncomfortable at some point in our spiritual life, we’ve probably gone off the rails.
If we seek a new context every time our habitual patterns awkwardly come to light, they will become stronger.
When we pick and choose and then project our interpretation onto the various teachings and practices (as opposed to developing an understanding through experiencing them), our path goes in circles. There is always a new and exciting thing to learn. There is always a new practice to try. There is always an opportunity to hone in on what delights intellectually or emotionally while pointing us away from the deep. And invariably, somewhere someone is promising us bliss in 3 or 7 or 21 steps. When our ego does the picking, it always chooses to skate rather than dive.
(That said, there is a tradition of people for whom tradition is anathema and for them, a proscribed path is a distraction. Thus they must find their own way with less guidance. Such people are very rare. It must be quite lonely and quite beautiful—and quite difficult—to be one.)
I actually don’t believe that all paths are the same in that they are not the same for you. Thinking so is like saying that anyone you love would make a good spouse. If only this were so. You can love many different kinds of people (and I hope you will), but there may be only a few with whom you could actually make a life that you love.
In relationships, dating does not bring you face to face with your capacity to love, only in your capacity to fall in love. Commitment, however, does. This also applies to spirituality.
Thus, I posit. How about you? What do you believe about the spiritual path?
I was in beautiful Shambhala Mountain Center recently, teaching a writing and meditation workshop. As always, it was a wonderful combination of creativity, peace, and vulnerability.
I really don’t know why, but the act of writing produces a lot of emotion, regardless of the subject matter.
I’ve never known a writer who doesn’t do regular battle with these two issues:
1. Inadequacy: I’m not a writer, what do I really know anyway, I have no right, I’m a phony, etc, etc.
2. Unworthiness: Everything worth saying on this subject has already been said, I have nothing new to add, who wants to read what I have to say anyway, etc, etc.
I don’t know if painters are afraid of paint or musicians afraid of their instruments, but writers often begin with fear of writing.
Writing retreats can be surprisingly helpful (if the focus is on writing rather than talking about writing). Meditation also helps. After a few days of regular meditation sessions interspersed with regular writing periods with a clear beginning and end, we all began to relax into the groove. (It’s amazing how helpful it is to have someone other than yourself say: “Start writing.” “Please stop in two hours.” Seriously, that is all it takes.)
In our closing conversation about continuing the groove at home, one woman asked, “How can I find the confidence to keep going? When I’m here, it feels natural but when I’m home, I have all sorts of doubt.” Nods all around the room.
What I said: It’s one thing to try to source confidence from within yourself by telling yourself that certainly you’re good enough and you have something valuable to say and who cares if anyone else thinks so, your story is your story and you have a right to tell it.
That is fine. But it doesn’t really carry you very far.
There is a second source of confidence and it is often overlooked.
That second source is the environment you create around yourself. Yes, you can gain confidence from your surroundings. One reason writing retreats work so well is because the environment is strong and supportive. In Shambhala Buddhism, we call this the “Container Principle” which states that the environment in which an act occurs co-creates the act. The frame changes the picture. You are not the only force at work in any situation. The world you’re in is also a force and when you attend to that aspect, you are covering the bases.
A container can be created by a variety of things. At our retreat, meditation practice, quietude, the presence of other writers, and, most important, the schedule create containment. All the writer has to do is show up. The environment is structured to give confidence no matter what your state of mind upon arrival.
The container you create at home has a different foundation. It starts with uplifting the space itself. (This is in no way meant to send you on a search for the perfect pen, computer, desk, table lamp, task chair, and so on. God, if I only had a word for every second I’ve spent on such searches, I could have written an encyclopedia.) (PS The perfect pen, computer, etc is the one you currently possess…)
By uplifting the space, I mean things like keeping it neat and clean, having flowers or beautiful objects around, and/or surrounding yourself with pictures of people or places you love. These are indications that you take yourself seriously. When the outer environment telegraphs acceptance and doubtlessness, the inner environment responds.
Like many, I struggle intensely with self-doubt. Some time ago, I was telling a friend that I sometimes feel weird because I did not go to college. She said, “Have you framed pictures of your book covers and hung them on the wall? Those are your diplomas.” Wow, that was brilliant. Of course I hadn’t and of course they are.
What are your diplomas? Surround yourself with them. They could include a note from a friend thanking you for your kindness, a picture of a family member who has benefitted from your love, a book cover of something written by an artist you admire and whose spirit you too somehow embody…these are your real credentials. When you surround yourself with them, you create a container that longs to be filled with words.
In this podcast, drawn from a talk in late 2013 at the New York Shambhala Center, Susan discusses some of the sources of the biggest problems we face: speed and stress; fundamentalism; fear–and how reconnecting with our innate softness reverses them. She draws the connection between mindfulness meditation and the softening of our hearts.
To be a spiritual warrior, one must have a broken heart; without a broken heart and the sense of tenderness and vulnerability that is in one’s self and all others, your warriorship is untrustworthy. -Chögyam Trungpa
Chogyam Trungpa, the Tibetan meditation master who introduced the Shambhala teachings in the West, famously coined the phrase “idiot compassion” which is an interesting thing for a Buddhist teacher to say. One of the central tenets of Buddhism is compassion in all its forms, relative and absolute. In many ways, the entire point of all the practice and study that we do is in order to become more compassionate. This compassion is meant for all beings, no matter what: the people you love, the people you like, the people you don’t know, and the people you hate. All of them are worthy of your compassion and in each case, we are to find a way to express it.
If it is always appropriate to express compassion, what then could “idiot compassion” be?
When you think of the word “compassion,” what comes to mind? Maybe you get an image of Mother Theresa or a parent holding an infant. Maybe you think of a room full of people who are upset while the compassionate person calms everyone down or someone who stops at the site of a roadside accident to see if there is anything he can do to help.
You probably don’t think of someone who is yelling or walking out or coldly observing the scene around herself, however these too can be gestures of compassion.
Compassion is an inner stance, not an external pose. We can only know the difference with an ongoing connection to our own heart. When we allow ourselves to feel, it is possible to detect what is most compassionate in any situation. When we are afraid to feel, it is not. So one could say that when we lean into our heart of hearts, we discover the fount of kindness. When we clamp down on our inner experience or avoid emotions, the path to kindness is also obscured. Kindness toward others is actually synonymous with kindness toward self.
This may seem counter intuitive. Many definitions of compassion include putting others before self. This is great, a perfectly sound definition. However, if we think of others instead of ourselves, we lose the heart connection that gives rise to compassion altogether. (Pema Chodron says idiot compassion is “what’s called enabling.”) So the formula could look something like this:
1. Encounter event (child crying, fender bender, stupid political warfare [redundant, I know]). 2. Notice what you feel and, beyond noticing it, feel it. Would you call it fear, anger, sadness? Find it in your body. Does it feel hot or cold, does it make your shoulders tense or your stomach clench? 3. Relax. (Here, relax means “allow” rather than “tune out.”) 4. Let your heart soften to what you feel and allow yourself to fill with it. 5. Reencounter event and let your heart soften to those involved, even if only for a moment, and trust whatever instinct arises about what is most helpful. Perhaps it is a hug. Or a phone call for help. Or an angry confrontation with the forces of wrong.
Unless you feel your own heart, you won’t know which gesture is kindest.
Idiot compassion skips this step.
The source of true compassion is your own heart and the guiding question is, “what is needed in this exact moment?” The source of idiot compassion is concept and the guiding question is, “what do I need to do to feel good about myself?”
I’m not saying this is easy. Compassion has two components that arise simultaneously. One of them is frightening. It is called “pain.” The world is riddled with pain. It is everywhere we look. When we open to the pain in our own hearts, the pain of others also enters and this can feel quite daunting. However it is necessary.
The second component is called “love” and refers to the response that naturally arises when we do so. This is just how we are built. On the heels of pain comes the counter balance that restores to us the only lasting source of joy.
Someone once said to me that compassion is the ability to hold pain and love in your heart simultaneously and I have never heard a better, more intimate definition.
Thus compassion takes tremendous courage. It is an act of fearlessness.
You can totally do it. All you have to do is allow your heart to break to the sorrow and beauty of this world.