What blocks compassion?


What blocks compassion?

This is going to be a series of posts that are meant to act as reminders to future me. Sharing with the world in case they are helpful to others.

I am fond of the Buddhist definition of compassion: "a flow of love that moves from one person to the other in the presence of suffering". I try to cultivate a heart that feels compassion because it is one way in which I can feel connected to the world. Additionally, when I am feeling compassion loving action and speech come intuitively to me, and I want to walk through the world with as much love as I can muster.

Compassion is not a one-way flow. When people embrace me with compassion, my heart also opens to them.

From listening to talks by Rob Burbea, and my own personal experiences, here is a list of states of mind that block compassion.

  1. Fear. When I am afraid, then my brain is consumed by the need to protect myself. Not only does this block the flow, it prevents me from even being able to notice the potential for suffering in the other person. The basic strategies that I try to employ are to notice that I am afraid, and inquire into why. Sometimes this notifies me that there are boundaries that I need before I can feel compassion. Sometimes this is pointing out something that I am attached or clinging to, an expectation that I have, and that this needs to be eased before I can connect with the other person. There are not always clear actions that I can take (this can be a post all on its own). The main thing to note for this exercise is that if I am afraid, I am probably not noticing suffering and even if I am compassion is being blocked.

  2. Anger. When I feel angry at someone, I am many steps away from even being able to notice the cause of their suffering. It is almost like I feel scared to, because if I do, then I might not protect myself. It is a defensive reaction. Anger for me might focus on blaming someone or perceiving an unfairness. It is often my go-to response when I notice someone defecting in a prisoner-like dilemma. When I am angry, I am not seeing their pain or what incentives exist such that lead to them defecting. I do not feel anger often enough to have particularly good advice for it, but at the basic level, I want to notice it is present, become aware that it is blocking compassion, and identify what I am afraid of that it is protecting me from.

  3. Pity. When I feel pity, I am not seeing the other person as my equal, and this creates a separation and a distance from them. I think that I am beyond experiencing what they are experiencing, and am not seeing our common humanity. This is insiduous, because it can feel like compassion, but it is not connective. When I think others are pitying me, it can even aggravate my suffering or create a novel kind. If others are pitying me, then I need to notice, and increase space and decrease their influence over me. When I am feeling pity for someone, I want to notice it, and question what makes me feel like I am beyond feeling what they are feeling.

  4. Grief. When I open my heart to suffering, if I am not careful it can overwhelm and burden me. This feeling is debilitating, and further compassion can get blocked. There is a yin of compassion (empathy with the suffering) and a yang (a desire to heal, soothe, ease). Rob Burbea's theory was that grief comes when there is too much yin, and not enough yang. (There can also be too much yang, and its result is that you become disconnected from the suffering that you are trying to ease.) Another theory that I also take into account is inspired from a friend of mine; it is possibly a signifier that I am not doing enough to take care of myself. Then the thing to do is to focus on opening my heart to myself, and taking space to ease my own suffering.