The Near Enemies of Fierce Compassion
By Drs Chris Germer and Kristin Neff
Co-founders, Center for Mindful Self-Compassion
November 13, 2018
We are living in difficult times where, fueled by the internet, people on all sides of the political spectrum feel an acute sense of injustice. Some good has come of it, to be sure, such as the #MeToo movement and underemployed workers getting a voice, but these times seem to demand more active engagement by everyone, especially by people who wish to create a more compassionate world.
In that context, we have been exploring the yin and yang of self-compassion. Throughout the world, compassion is generally associated with the yin, or nurturing, aspect of compassion. The yin aspect refers to “being with” another person, especially comforting, soothing and validating the pain. But is it any less compassionate for a firefighter to run into a burning building to save a trapped individual? Surely not. And if you yourself were trapped in a burning building (as many of us feel in the current political climate), is it self-compassionate to comfort and soothe yourself instead of trying to put out the fire or summoning the courage to run through the flames to safety? Taking action is the “yang” side of compassion (and self-compassion), especially protecting, providing and motivating ourselves do what’s right, even if it’s hard.
Sometimes yang compassion needs to be fierce, as Kristin points out in her recent essay on the topic. The expression “fierce compassion” includes the qualities of strength, courage and empowerment to confront social injustice and change it. As Kristin writes, fierce compassion also includes an element of anger. It’s what happens to a mamma bear when her cub is endangered. The anger aspect can be confusing to people who typically associate compassion with warmth and nurturing, but anger is also important. For example, when we suppress our anger, or deny the relevance of anger in our lives, then we are likely to silence our own voices, lose the capacity to speak truth to power, or be shy about assuming leadership positions required to rectify unjust conditions.
In this essay, we’d like to describe what we consider the “near enemies” of fierce compassion based on Kristin’s three components of self-compassion – mindfulness, common humanity, and self-kindness. A near enemy is a Buddhist term that refers to a state of mind that appears similar to the desired state but actually undermines it. When we are aware of the near enemies of fierce compassion, we can act compassionately and affirmatively in the world without adding to the suffering that is already there.
A number of MSC teachers have contributed to this important conversation, including Hilde Steinhauser, Regula Saner, Susie Fairchild, and Aimee Eckhardt.
Mindfulness to Offset Emotional Reactivity
As we know, mindfulness is spacious awareness of our present-moment experience. A near enemy of fierce compassion is emotional reactivity. When we practice fierce compassion, we need mindfulness. We especially need to go into the bad feelings – anger, betrayal, injustice or despair – and make room for them and understand them. Mindfulness creates the space for a compassionate response to arise. Otherwise, we may find ourselves reacting without any awareness of the consequences of our actions and probably cause further harm.
Is anger tempered by mindfulness the same anger? Probably not quite. In her essay titled, “Was Gandhi Angry?”, Stephanie Van Hook (2015) quotes Mahatma Gandhi (Young India, Oct 1, 1931) as saying, “It is not that I am incapable of anger, for instance; but I succeed almost on all occasions to keep my feelings under control.” In this comment, Gandhi isn’t saying that he is suppressing his emotions – simply that he’s not controlled by them. He is expressing the energy behind the emotion. When anger is channeled in this manner, it is likely to take the form of fierce compassion.
Common Humanity to Offset Self-righteousness
Common humanity is best exemplified by Thupten Jinpa’s (2015) mantra, “Just like me.” A second near enemy to fierce compassion is self-righteousness — when I believe my point of view is morally superior than that of others. It’s true that some points of view lead to more suffering than others, but the crux of the matter is how we hold our points of view. If we are convinced that our view is morally superior to those of others, we are already demonizing (i.e., subtly harming) those who hold different views.
When we demonize others, we lose common humanity. In Thich Nhat Hanh’s (2001) beautiful poem, “Please Call Me by My True Names,” he wrote:
Similarly, Ram Dass (2016) said, “Only that in you which is me can hear what I’m saying.” When we see each person as part of ourselves, we cannot cause pain to others. In our opinion, this is the foundation of sustainable social change.
Kindness to Offset Hostility
Kindness refers to the quality of care inherent in both yin and yang compassion. In yang compassion, care is evident when we protect, provide and motivate ourselves with kindness. A third near enemy of fierce compassion, when we are engaged in protecting ourselves and others, is hostility. The challenge of yang compassion is to be tough and to say “no!” (i.e., to create safe boundaries or remove threat) without developing a hostile attitude.
Hostility is often associated with the emotion of anger and anger is a natural human emotion that we all need to survive. Anger is also a clear sign that we or others are in physical or emotional danger. This is why people on different sides of the political spectrum are so angry. They feel threatened.
The critical issue is how we respond to the experience of threat and anger. Fierce compassion is more likely anger at injustice rather than anger at a person. A useful metaphor is a martial artist. A martial artist is a monastic on the inside and a warrior on the outside. It takes a lot of mental discipline to achieve such a balance. In our current climate of political polarization, who is taking the time to transform their anger for good?
Taking Wise and Compassionate Action
Practitioners of compassion and self-compassion inevitably ask, “What should I do?” about the injustices in their lives. To answer that question, compassion is not enough. We need wisdom. Wisdom may be defined as an understanding of the complexity of a given situation and the ability to see one’s way through. Another definition of wisdom is understanding the short and long-term consequences of an action and choosing to do what yields the greatest long-term benefit.
Wisdom is also selflessness. Jane Hirshfield (2018) wrote:
Adopting a firm commitment to the benefit of all beings, along with the qualities of mindfulness, common humanity and kindness, are is a good foundation for wise and compassionate action.
We would like to offer 3 simple questions as a test of fierce compassion:
- “Am I in the grip of anger or hatred?” (emotional reactivity)
- “Do I feel morally superior?” (self-righteousness)
- “Do I want my adversary to suffer?” (hostility)
When the answer to these questions is “no,” and we add a measure of wisdom, we can surely change the world for the better.
Cultivating Fierce Compassion
MSC teacher, Eva Sivan, contributed the following loving-kindness phrases for fierce compassion:
May I be strong in the face of hate and may my resolve never falter.
May I seek justice with mercy and embrace righteousness and equity.
May I be a source of compassion and kindness and hope.
May I be a pursuer of peace.
▸ Hanh, Thich Nhat (2001). Call me by my true names: The collected poems of Thich Nhat Hanh (p. 72). Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press.
▸ Hirshfield, J. (2004). Six Small Meditations on Desire. Retrieved November 13, 2018, from Tricycle magazine, https://tricycle.org/magazine/six-small-meditations-desire/
▸ Jinpa, T. (2015). A Fearless Heart: How the Courage to Be Compassionate Can Transform Our Lives (pp. 153-175). New York: Penguin Random House.
▸ Ram Dass (2016). Retrieved on November 10, 2018 from https://twitter.com/babaramdass/status/687745466231078912?lang=en
▸ Van Hook, S. (2015). Was Gandhi angry? Retrieved November 12, 2018, from the Metta Center for Nonviolence, https://mettacenter.org/daily-metta/was-gandhi-ang…