Radical Compassion

Photo by Simon Ray

At the Midwest Alliance for Mindfulness we’ve offered a discussion and practice group called Inner Revolutionaries in which we explore the radical edges of mindfulness. By radical, we mean two things – total or complete and outside the confines of mainstream US views. This opportunity for experimentation and group exploration can help us break through rigid ways of thinking and open ourselves to new possibilities.

Radical compassion means total compassion – nothing is excluded. According to philosopher Khen Lampert, it’s a specific type of compassion which includes the inner imperative to change reality in order to alleviate the pain of others. This state of mind, according to Lampert’s theory, is universal, and stands at the root of the historical cry for social change. It involves a sense of social responsibility and a desire for the common good (Traditions of Compassion: From Religious Duty to Social Activism, 2005). Insight meditation teacher, Tara Brach, calls radical compassion an embodied experience – “a felt sense of tenderness, that is inclusive of all beings, and naturally moves us to act from a caring heart”.

Research is telling us that the seeds of compassion are inborn and that we can learn to cultivate this beneficial quality. But, any natural instinct can be oppressed by cultural norms and social pressures. Mainstream US culture overvalues a number of qualities and behaviors, such as competition, rugged individualism, bootstrap mentality and put-down humor, that can limit our interest in cultivating compassion. In addition, the very same technology that brings us wondrous innovations can also serve to disconnect us. So, it’s important that we are intentional about exercising our innate capacities for caring and kindness and pursuing authentic human encounters that trigger our natural empathy.

Compassion is Good for Us All

Although we may get temporary relief from our own distress by hating those we blame for it, this mind state takes a toll on us. The immediate gratification we sometimes experience from anger can make it self-perpetuating. But this state of mind requires an amazing amount of mental space and energy and, over the long term, it can have harmful effects on our health. Research shows compassion provides a buffer against stress and increases our sense of connection with others. This creates a beneficial cycle that, over time, can:

  • improve social relationships
  • increase longevity
  • enhance positive emotions and levels of reported happiness
  • decrease mental illness
  • reduce inflammation in the body

Out of control or chronic anger is not only harmful to the individual, it causes problems for the greater society, even becoming a threat to public health. It’s much easier for us to mistreat those we judge as fundamentally bad. Research tells us that punitiveness isn’t nearly as effective for behavior change as reinforcement and people generally live up or sink down to the expectations we set for them. Finally, hatred results in counter-hatred and a harmful escalating cycle emerges. In my blog post, Is Anyone Beyond Compassion? I list a number of very interesting situations in which a compassionate approach has been the most effective response to some of society’s deepest problems.

While it is easy to love the lovable, it may be the unlovable who need our love more. – Thich Nhat Hanh

It’s not always easy to love. There may be a secret fear that having compassion for people who do evil deeds will make us seem guilty by association – that we will be seen as somehow complicit. Also, the people we help can bring up unresolved issues or push our buttons, which can lead us to feel resentful or overwhelmed. If we have a mistaken view of compassion as permissiveness, we might feel fearful of allowing ourselves to have kind feelings for people we perceive as dangerous or threatening.

Wise compassion can be firm and fierce, but never angry. It takes great courage and determination to set and maintain a boundary or to sit unwavering in the burning heat of another’s disapproval. Setting a limit does not mean closing your heart. It means seeing the bigger picture and allowing your intention to help outweigh your desire to be comfortable. In this way love can be a powerful force for transformation.

“…the natural love of the heart has to be balanced with the wisdom of equanimity. If we focus only on feelings of love and compassion without the balance of equanimity and peace, we can get overly attached to the way we want things to be.” – Jack Kornfield

How Can We Cultivate Radical Compassion in Our Lives?

Be Mindful – Consider pausing before reacting to perceived threats or strong feelings, taking a moment to examine your own thoughts, emotions, body sensations and urges to action. This will create space for wiser responding.

Practice Supportive Attitudes & Mental States – In his book The Five Invitations, Frank Ostaseski describes three other qualities that support compassion. Lovingkindness, the foundation for compassion, is the goodwill and friendliness we feel toward others. Appreciative joy, which like compassion is an expression of lovingkindness, happens when we wish for others’ joy or good fortune to continue. Finally, equanimity is the balance and stability that protects the other three qualities, allowing them to be universal, skillful and sustainable. In addition to these sublime mind states, we can also cultivate patience, which might be characterized as the ability to abide with our own suffering.

Connect with your Personal Blocks to Compassion – When unexamined, our own suffering can become a barrier to loving fully. Can you dare to explore your own vulnerability, fears, and uncertainties with self-compassion? Be like the poet Rumi who said, “Seek and find all the barriers we’ve made against love and then love them.”

Cultivate Humility – Having compassion for someone who might seem hard to love takes humility. A modest estimation of one’s own importance in the grand scheme of things is a great equalizer – we realize that nobody is any less or more deserving of happiness than we are. We can see actions, but we can’t see motivations and we don’t have all the information – we aren’t all knowing. When we acknowledge the limits of our control and understanding, we realize that we can’t fully know the heart of another.

Get In Touch With Our Interdependence – Find opportunities to connect with our common humanity and the ways in which we depend on others in daily life. Notice how the misfortune of others, societal unrest and dissatisfaction, ripple out and impact us all. See if its possible to respect the disrespectful and love the unloving without endangering your own personal integrity. Investigate the ways in which increased personal happiness and decreased personal suffering makes the world a better place for everyone.

Connect with Others Directly – Our actions have an effect even when they are committed with anonymity or in secret. The Gyges Effect, based on Plato’s Ring of Gyges, is a phenomenon in which the impersonal nature of the Internet can foster disinhibition in our social interactions. Meeting in person whenever possible helps us be more mindful of the humanity, complexity and three dimensionality of the people we interact with and triggers our natural capacity for compassion.

See the Good in Everyone: Do you believe there is a glimmer of goodness that resides in everyone – even yourself? If so, it can be helpful to remember this when you encounter behavior that makes someone hard to love. Remind yourself that this person too was once in innocent baby and that, underneath it all, they also desire happiness and to be free from suffering (though they may not be pursuing this common goal wisely).

If you are not to become a monster,
you must care what they think.
If you care what they think,
how will you not hate them,
and so become a monster
of the opposite kind? From where then
is love to come—love for your enemy
that is the way of liberty?
From forgiveness. Forgiven, they go
free of you, and you of them;
they are to you as sunlight
on a green branch. You must not
think of them again, except
as monsters like yourself,
pitiable because unforgiving.

– Wendell Berry, Enemies

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