Cultivating Compassion: Moving Out of Your Comfort Zone

Written by David Nichtern

I think that many of us these days are trying to figure out how to be more compassionate — both toward ourselves and others, while also realizing that it’s sometimes not that easy to accomplish. It can often feel “easy to be hard,” and it seems to really require focus and discipline to be genuinely helpful to others.

Even with the solid intention to develop a more compassionate attitude, it can be difficult to know what the most skillful and truly helpful action is in any given situation. I’m sure everybody has had the experience of reaching out and trying to be compassionate only to have the gesture fall flat or actually even backfire.

Perhaps we genuinely want to help someone else but are also interested in maintaining our own comfort or are concerned about how our behavior may appear to and be judged by others. In fact, it is possible that our attempts at compassionate action may actually revolve around our own need for confirmation and comfort and never actually benefit anyone else at all!

An obvious example would be enabling someone to continue to develop destructive habits in exchange for a temporary feel-good moment — like a parent avoiding a conflict with a rebellious teenager, giving a known drug addict money for “food,” or overlooking someone abusing a child to avoid making a scene.

One time a man came up to me on 75th Street and asked for $3.65. He said he needed that exact amount for a bottle of formula for his baby who was at home with his sick wife. If I didn’t believe him, he invited me to walk four blocks with him to the nearest pharmacy and buy the formula for him directly. Of course, most people in NY have neither the time nor the inclination to take that walk so we are left with basically three choices — keep walking, call the guy out as a scam artist, or feel guilty and give him all or some of that money.

My teacher, Trungpa Rinpoche coined the phrase “idiot compassion” to describe our attempt to be compassionate when it is not accompanied by wisdom and skillful means. Giving a junkie money for “food” might be idiot compassion. Taking him to the store and buying him and handing him real food might not be. The point is that there is no safe, secure and easy way to be compassionate. It’s really hard work, time-consuming and requires us to be awake and intelligent in each and every situation. There is no compassion button we can just push and forget about.

In the Buddhist tradition compassion can have a wrathful or even ruthless component, maybe comparable to the western notion of “tough love” — where we summon the courage to deliver that which is actually really helpful in a situation. This kind of love and compassion often can take us well beyond our comfort zone and could be described as opening our heart without hope of gaining merit, gratitude, or any kind of confirmation in return. That kind of selflessness is the way of the bodhisattva or awakened heart being.



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