Saturday, 12 July 2014

The Two Types of Compassion

If you are a fan of the blog Smiling Buddha Cabaret (And who isn't?), then you are likely to know that one of NellaLou’s dozen truly great blogposts is “Manifestations of Idiot Compassion” from 2010. She dug deeply into the issue, weaving words from perhaps a couple dozen sources on the topic of untainted compassion and its ugly knuckleheaded cousin, the Idiot kind.  I am dependent on her work for this blogpost. BUT, conclusions I reach and opinions I express are my own; I am responsible for them, and the knuckle in my head.

I have been thinking about compassion recently [See my post in Sacramento Homeless blog, “Money Guy.”] and am wondering how we should restrain or encourage our compassion what with the near-infinite situation variations there are. Sometimes – indeed, often – I think we should be comfortable with “mistakes” we are likely to make when we determine to act (or NOT act) when confronted with something sad and finding that our desire to help is aroused. Yes, sometimes we should find that we've been idiots. Of course, if we know ourself to be clumsy, we should be very keen not to do harm; we should watch ourself like a hawk! But I would aver that we must err on the "do too much" side; take some risks on occasion (but not always); be bold; suffer some losses.

But first, before I dig my shovel into the moist soil of this delightful, depressing and bedeviling topic "the two types of compassion," let me define terms. Here are two somewhat different descriptions of ‘Compassion rightly felt and deployed’ contrasted with its neurotic, idiotic cuz:

This first bit comes from  Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, quoted in a book about him, titled Ocean of Dharma. Chögyam Trungpa, as many of you know, was very much a wild man – but, also, certainly, a profoundly advanced and dazzlingly brilliant Buddhist, who amazed and received the support and backing of the Dalai Lama. He died because of alcoholism at the age of 48 in 1987:
Idiot Compassion is the highly conceptualized idea that you want to do good. Of course, according to the mahayana teachings of Buddhism you should do everything for everybody; there is no selection involved at all. But that doesn't mean to say that you have to be gentle all the time. Your gentleness should have heart, strength. In order that your compassion doesn't become idiot compassion you have to use your intelligence. Otherwise, there could be self-indulgence, thinking you are creating a compassionate situation when in fact you are feeding the other person's aggression. If you go to the shop and the shopkeeper cheats you and you go back and let him cheat you again, that doesn't seem to be a very healthy thing to do for others.
Similarly, here are the two types of compassion in the Dalai Lama’s words, quoted from the 2002 book Visions of Compassion:
A distinction is sometimes made in Buddhism between two types of compassion which may reflect a difference in the temperament of the person. Some people take their own self-interest as the primary wish to fulfill, although they may not totally disregard other sentient beings' well-being. When they confront a situation where someone is suffering, they may wish to see that person free of suffering. That's one type of compassion. Other people who confront this situation experience a much more active type of compassion. It is not just a wish to see sentient beings free from suffering, but an immediate need to intervene and actively engage, to try to help. The technical terminology used is that the former type of compassion is the wish to see others free from suffering; and the latter is the wish to help others be free from suffering.
From other prominent Buddhists we learn about, what I’ll call, a “second aspect” of wrongheaded Idiot Compassion. Contradicting Chögyam Trungpa and the Dalai Lama – both of whom say that untainted compassion properly motivates us to JUMP IN and do what all we can to free others from suffering – other prominent Buddhists say that there are times when we should back off or refuse to help others because our intention to help will not truly be beneficial.

Using the Gold Mine of information and links from NellaLou’s 2010 blogpost AND other stuff I’ve found, allow me to chart a sort of spectrum of what I think I find. Please note that I, of course, do not know the whole of any Buddhist’s written words and thoughts and am likely to be making some mistakes, here. My intent is only to get a rough (but useful) facsimile of the terrain to facilitate further thought and discussion.

Chögyam Trungpa " should do everything for everybody; there is no selection involved at all. This does not mean you should always be gentle … you have to use your intelligence." If you are being too gentle and not using your intelligence, you could be self-indulgent. This can lead to a non-beneficial outcome.
Dalai Lama This is the active type of Compassion. One is motivated to DO something to free people from suffering. Self-interest interferes such that less or nothing is done. The "compassion" is one of just wishing another is free of suffering.
Ven Sangye Khadro True compassion balances loving-concern with clear wisdom. This wisdom enables us to stay calm and think clearly how best to help, without being carried away by our emotions. Our heart may be moved with pity but our emotions are so out-of-control that we can’t do anything to help! In other cases we might do something but because we lack right understanding of the problem or the person experiencing it, our “help” only makes the situation worse.
Thanis- saro Bhikkhu "... our intentions are the main factors shaping our lives and ... can be mastered as a skill. If we subject them to the same qualities of mindfulness, persistence, and discernment involved in developing any skill, we can perfect them to the point where they will lead to no regrets or damaging results in any given situation ..." "...delusion is one of the three main roots for unskillful mental habits...Unskillful roots lie entangled with skillful roots — states of mind that are free of greed, aversion, and delusion — in the soil of the untrained heart. If we can’t isolate and dig up the unskillful roots, we can never be fully sure of our intentions. Even when a skillful intention seems foremost in the mind, the unskillful roots can quickly send up shoots that blind us as to what’s actually going on.
Pema Chodron “True compassion does not come from wanting to help out those less fortunate than ourselves but from realizing our kinship with all beings.”

[From criticism at the website Spiritual Critiques: "Chodron’s no-self doctrine with its asceticism leads her to have no or little concern for material or worldly problems like the lack of money. For example in one book she talks about “feeling angry, poverty-stricken or depressed,” and suggests a way of dealing with these problematical feelings by transforming your feelings. But what if your problem is not feeling poverty-stricken but actually being poor, like being homeless in the rain while your child is crying from hunger? Her method of dealing with problems focuses on feelings and transforming them. It does not seem to deal with problems that are based more in the material world and not in feelings."]
Idiot compassion … refers to something we all do a lot of and call it compassion. In some ways, it’s what’s called enabling. It’s the general tendency to give people what they want because you can’t bear to see them suffering. Basically, you’re not giving them what they need. You’re trying to get away from your feeling of  "I can’t bear to see them suffering." In other words, you’re doing it for yourself. You’re not really doing it for them.
Paul [of the New Testa- ment] [Some Bible translations use the word "love" as the oft-repeated word in 1 Corinthians 13; others use "charity." I wonder if "compassion" might be the idea that was intended. 1 Corinthians 13:3-7 would then read...]

If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have true compassion, I gain nothing. Compassion is patient, compassion is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Compassion does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

I tend to think that True Compassion & Idiot Compassion aren’t two fully separate buckets of possibility. Rather, they are the two extremes along a spectrum of possibility for those motivated to do something compassionate. Yes, usually we do something compassionate properly with appropriate factors of motivation OR we fuck up; but on occasion we land in a gray area where either our actions, or motivation, or the outcome is not fully the best or has some kinks in it.

Thus, it is like the Kinsey Scale with Heterosexual and Homosexual as the two extremes with interposed possibilities (of dual or dueling sexual orientations). Or, the Dawkins Scale [aka, Spectrum of Theistic Probability], where some people place themselves in a middle ground between fully believing in God or completely NOT believing in him. With both Kinsey and Dawkins, people tend to pile up at the poles, but others are spread out in the sparse middleground.

Rather than there being so many of us who are good at compassion with others of us who are bunglers, I think we all are faced with events or circumstances that seem hard to fully figure out. Too, other people's minds are more-than-a-bit a black box. You can't tell what's going on in there. You can't fully know what that other person's experience is or if you're being manipulated.

In any case, I don’t think we should tend to be too cautious. We should want to help. We should retain a healthy portion of gullibility and hope and “do the thing,” whatever that might be, to aid a fellow human being.

I have loaned money (small amounts) to people I know in Homeless World Sacramento. I have learned that it is a very bad risk except in the case of just a couple fellows. So, I am reluctant to do that anymore; I must look out for my poor-ish self, too, a bit. But on occasion I discard my reticence. I am not restrained by logic; I don’t act like a banker. I trust the huge jazz band that plays in my skull. [My brain knows a great deal more than it lets me know that I know. You know? Thus my "instincts," like yours, I'd wager, while not perfect, are mighty good.]

From “The Music of the Brain”:
While a decade ago the dominant analogy for the brain was still the digital computer, today's brain models look more like a symphony orchestra or a chorus. Conscious states in this view consist of the pattern of variations in frequency, time, and space of the brain's electrical fields, generated by the correlated electrical activity of shifting assemblies of neurons, as members of a symphony orchestra or chorus work together in shifting patterns to produce a pattern of variations in frequency, time, and space of sound vibrations. Of course, the brain involves millions of "players" at any time, out of a population of hundreds of billions, and the "score" is improvised by the players collectively, like an extremely large jazz band.
The new model is still far from explaining how these shifting patterns of electrical and magnetic fields and the neurons that generate and interact with them produce the phenomenon of consciousness. There is no general agreement on this new model or its details. Yuste, for one, is skeptical that correlations really extend beyond very local areas of the brain. However, by focusing on the coordinated functioning of the brain as a whole, this approach seems to be a large step toward understanding that central fact of human experience.
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Now, I want to get back to “Money Guy” which I mentioned in the second paragraph of this post. Y’all  don’t need to read the blogpost about it; I can explain things easily; it’s classic, straightforward.

A rich guy chooses to pass out $2-bills to homeless people from a street corner. He does this every week. A long line forms, the bills get dispensed.

Is this compassion? Is it wise; might it be an emotional thing the rich fellow is doing that is delusional – that exaggerates the misery of being homeless? Is the rich guy there to offset guilt, or make himself feel that he’s a good person? Is the two bucks what the homeless people NEED, or is it inappropriately what they WANT?

Is the rich guy aware of skillful means?  Is what rich guy does in sync with Pema Chodron’s dictum --“True compassion does not come from wanting to help out those less fortunate than ourselves but from realizing our kinship with all beings.” – or is it a violation?

For me, what is very beautiful in what the rich guy does is THAT IT IS SPENDIDLY EFFICIENT. The rich guy suffers some time and expense getting to the street corner each week and in getting the some-200 two-dollar bills he chooses to use, but otherwise there is no numbing bureaucracy with hoops he needs to jump through. No hours-long meetings to fuss over particulars.

Likely, much of the money will be spent on beer or cigarettes -- which the general public disapproves of homeless people having. But some of it will be spent buying a pen or a newspaper. I can see myself in my long usually-penniless period buying a cup of coffee at Starbucks, enjoying a spell of relative happiness.

I guess my point is that I think our Buddhist Wizards are THINKING TOO MUCH. There is a valid point in all that they are saying, but some of it is lost to the meager merit of the rich guy “just doing something” -- that the Dalai Lama argues is the good kind of compassion.

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Another reason that I think the Wizards are "thinking too much" comes from knowing that investigation into "Theory of Mind" shows that people at a very young age come to a rich understanding of how other people operate. We come to know, by the age of four or five, that others are a lot like us but have their own set of beliefs and preferences.

Here is how "Theory of Mind" is defined by wikipedia: "Theory of mind is the ability to attribute mental states — beliefs, intents, desires, pretending, knowledge, etc. — to oneself and others and to understand that others have beliefs, desires, and intentions that are different from one's own."

Thus -- unless we are schizophrenic or autistic (two conditions that inhibit one's "theory of mind" appreciation of others -- we are likely to be VERY aware in a circumstance when we are seeking to aid another.  This is something Chögyam Trungpa could not have known because research into this topic hadn't begun to flourish before his death.

Likely, I think, we are pretty damn good at coming to understand and help others. Sure, we often believe lies that we are told, and we can be manipulated, but we have some innate skills to (sometimes) see through all of that.

And, yes, some people who hope to help someone else seem destructively bossy. But on occasion, the bossy ones, while annoying, cut quickly through all the red tape and, with lightning speed, save situations that no one unlike them could have.

I guess I am just hopeful -- a rube, maybe -- that a lot more good gets done than we tend to appreciate.
Writer Thomas Armstrong is the author of “If you see the nice buddhists on the road, run over them with your tank.”

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