Are Good Intentions Enough?

“The road to hell is paved with good intentions” is a cautionary idiom (if a bit dramatic) reminding us that meaning well doesn’t always equate to doing good. Yet, intentions are very important. When we are aware of the intentions behind our actions, our lives become more purposeful because we understand what we’re aiming at.

When we first begin a practice of compassion cultivation, most of us are learning to soften the strongly conditioned barriers to openness, trust and generosity that block the doors of our hearts. So, it’s best not to concern ourselves too much with the inherent complexities. As our practice matures, we might consider further refining our compassionate instincts by beginning to examine the nuances of giving and helping. This blog post is meant for those whose doors are already wide open and ripe for refinement.

More often than we’d like to admit, we act without awareness of the deepest needs and desires behind what we think, say and do. Cultivating greater awareness certainly is key, but even when we know our intentions and they are good, our actions can be unskillful. Discernment, balance and equanimity in the face of suffering are also important factors.

“Pathological Altruism”

Wise altruism is a beautiful virtue and, fortunately, all beings have the capacity to act out of selfless concern for others. We can credit our very survival, at least in part, to this innate potential. Yet, there are times when we take helping to an unhealthy extreme – either over-focusing on the immediate suffering of another or unconsciously prioritizing our own happiness above all else. This is when our actions can cause more harm than good. For example, we can develop a pattern of allowing strong emotions to tip us over into habitually sacrificing our own long-term wellbeing in order to meet another’s short term needs. This can result in empathy fatigue, burnout and ill-health, limiting our ability to be of service. Another example is when our unexamined helping urges come from a place of ego or ignorance. Instead of addressing what is truly needed, our actions only bolster a preferred self-image. These extremes create the conditions in which helping becomes ineffective at best or harmful at worst.

Unintended Consequences

There can be unintended consequences when people reflexively give out of a place of strong emotion, rather than thinking things through. In 1998 in Honduras after hurricane Mitch, supply planes containing basic needs like food and water could not land because the runways were choked with unnecessary donations like winter coats and stuffed animals. The unused donations eventually rotted and became a second environmental disaster. “Unfortunately, it’s estimated that up to 60 percent of products given in the wake of disasters end up unused and otherwise thrown into landfills because the wrong products are given at the wrong time,” says Tiffany Everett, Good360’s Director of Disaster Recovery.

Another example is “orphanage tourism”, where children are trafficked and sometimes forced into slavery in order to turn a profit from well-intentioned volunteers. People with an excess of passion in their compassionate hearts might skip past important steps like really getting to know the beings they intend to help and the context of their lives or pondering the longer term ramifications of well-intended deeds.

On a smaller scale, I live in the city and the overpass I cross each day to get to work is a popular place for people to ask for donations. This corner is often piled with food containers filled with uneaten food, unopened beverage bottles, and other apparently unwanted items that drivers have kindly offered these folks. While the corner becomes a refuse pile baking in the sun, there are well run food banks and charitable organizations within walking distance accepting donations that they will efficiently distribute to those in need.

When ego is dominant, helping can function as a sort of paternalism in which we push our own values on people. Allowing others to have their autonomy, even when we don’t agree with their choices or methods, can be an act of deep compassion. Ego can also drive us to give only in a way that makes us feel good about ourselves or that helps us avoid our own discomfort, rather than truly considering what is best for others.

Preferences Over Reason

When we feel compelled to help by strong emotions, we tend to prioritize immediate, attention grabbing problems and personally appealing subjects – even when the need may be higher or when our generosity would be of greater benefit elsewhere or at another time. Instead of considering the extent or urgency of the suffering, we are susceptible to being drawn in by the attractiveness or the personal relevance of the subject or cause. For example, around a billion dollars were pledged to help reconstruct the Notre-Dame Cathedral soon after it burned while only about $300 million in immediate relief was raised after Cyclone Nargis that killed about 140,000 people and displaced 800,000 in Bangladesh and Myanmar. Our preferences are what compel us to rescue puppies while at the same time factory farming pigs – despite the fact that dog and pig brains have a similar number of cortical neurons, and thus presumably, a similar capacity for suffering.

Band-Aid Solutions

There are a number of unfortunate examples of the ways in which our unexamined reactions merely prolong or intensify underlying problems. We often feel compelled to give when a disaster or tragedy is first publicized, but our generosity loses steam around crucial longer-term recovery needs. Just as with the Upstream Downstream Fable, mindless giving and helping can act as a distraction that keeps us from addressing the deeper and more systemic issues that create suffering. Attention, resources and efforts can be diverted from the places and circumstances in which they would make the most difference. It can be helpful to pause and ask ourselves whether we are targeting root causes in a proactive way or merely responding to symptoms reactively. True compassion gives us the ability to be with suffering even when we can’t quickly eliminate it – this allows us to make space to consider a wise response.

How Can We Practice Wise Compassion?

Wise compassion comes from the selfless desire to eliminate suffering coupled with the discernment necessary to help in a skillful way. We find a middle ground to act from, somewhere between our deep desire to help and our awareness of the possibility of harm. We are cognizant of possible outcomes, but not attached to them, recognizing they are not fully within our control. The following are some humble suggestions for refining your compassion practice so that it is more likely you are responding from a place of wisdom:

  • Be mindful of strong emotions that arise from witnessing suffering. Take a moment to pause and find your balance so that you can help from a place of choicefulness and groundedness.
  • Examine your intentions and ask yourself if your urges to act are truly in alignment with your deepest values
  • Make an effort to get to know the beings you are interested in helping. Take time to understand their values and context. Research whether well organized and coordinated efforts are already in place that you can support.
  • Ask permission. Not everyone wants or needs what you wish to give.
  • Know the difference between empowering and enabling. Remember that participating in someone else’s unskillful actions doesn’t ultimately increase their happiness or reduce their suffering.

One of the greatest gifts and continuous lessons of my mindfulness practice has been to reconnect me, again and again, with the wisdom of balance – noticing extremes and discovering that the middle way is often the most appropriate choice. Equanimity becomes the anchor that holds us steady amidst the stormy winds of life so that we can respond with an open heart in a skillful way, without becoming a bull in a china shop, paralyzed by uncertainty, or falling into despair. May you cultivate a strong foundation of equanimity from which the powerful wings of mindfulness and compassion might lift us all from suffering.

Everyone is on their own life journey

I am not the cause of this person’s suffering nor is it entirely within my power to make it go away, even though I wish I could

Moments like this are difficult to bear, yet I may still try and help if I can

– Chris Germer, Compassion with Equanimity

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