A recent problem with someone I know led me to explore the nature of compassion more fully, with an eye to not being a doormat – ie. where does compassion end and walking all over someone begin? Can we keep that line intact, or should we constantly give of ourselves – is there a line at all? No one wants to be hurt, though some people do seem to enjoy their suffering. And so, it led me to an article from the Dalai Lama entitled “Compassion and the Individual”. (http://www.fpmt.org/teachers/hhdl/teachings/713-compassion-and-the-individual.html)
We are a people that can become obsessed with retribution – like for like, an eye for an eye. But this compulsion for retaliation is entirely based on a selfish desire, more often than not to “save face”. We are protecting our image of our Self, and yet, just who are we? Who is this Self that we are protecting? Is it an unchanging, immutable force or does it flow like a river around rocks and bends?
What are we really losing when we let go of anger and hate? This is the question that kind of turned things around for me. Yes, I could be angry that this person who hurt me several times, no matter what I did. Or, I could adopt the Zen attitude and get on with it. Throw a little Buddhist compassion in there and learn something from it as well.
In his essay, the Dalai Lama wrote:-
“You should realize that even though your opponents appear to be harming you, in the end, their destructive activity will damage only themselves. In order to check your own selfish impulse to retaliate, you should recall your desire to practice compassion and assume responsibility for helping prevent the other person from suffering the consequences of his or her acts. Thus, because the measures you employ have been calmly chosen, they will be more effective, more accurate and more forceful. Retaliation based on the blind energy of anger seldom hits the target.”
We do not have any control over external influences on our lives, heck, we have little control over ourselves most of the time. But what we can control, to the best of our abilities, is our reactions to certain events. When we release anger and hate we also release the energy that they give us, which can be tremendous, but which seldom, if ever, does any good. What the Dalai Lama explained was that the energy that comes from compassion is much more controlled, and thus can benefit the world at large.
But what about being taken advantage of, I thought? I certainly didn’t want to be a doormat again, hurt once again by this person. To this point, in the essay he states:
“It is possible, however, to develop an equally forceful but far more controlled energy with which to handle difficult situations. This controlled energy comes not only from a compassionate attitude, but also from reason and patience. These are the most powerful antidotes to anger. Unfortunately, many people misjudge these qualities as signs of weakness. I believe the opposite to be true: that they are the true signs of inner strength. Compassion is by nature gentle, peaceful and soft, but it is also very powerful. It is those who easily lose their patience who are insecure and unstable. Thus, to me, the arousal of anger is a direct sign of weakness.”
Now, it had never occurred to me to think of anger and hatred as a sign of weakness, for they are the showy emotions, the ones that scare and provoke, that snap people to attention much more quickly than a mild-mannered, compassionate soul. But look a little deeper and what he is saying makes sense. To just be able to maintain one’s self-control is an enormous task – the red-rager inside us is all too easily willing to come out (see Brian Froud’s Good Faeries, Bad Faeries book for the Red Rager).
So how do we not become doormats? The Dalai Lama says:-
“[w]hen a problem first arises, try to remain humble and maintain a sincere attitude and be concerned that the outcome is fair. Of course, others may try to take advantage of you, and if your remaining detached only encourages unjust aggression, adopt a strong stand. This, however, should be done with compassion, and if it is necessary to express your views and take strong countermeasures, do so without anger or ill-intent.”
The key to not being a doormat is to adopt a kind of fascist compassion. We should also be grateful for those who challenge us in our lives, so that we can become better people. While I am still having trouble with this one, I can see the sense in it. When we realise that anger and hatred are the real enemies, and not the people challenging us day in and day out, the perspective shifts.
The most challenging part of this essay is this:- “Ultimately, humanity is one and this small planet is our only home. If we are to protect this home of ours, each of us needs to experience a vivid sense of universal altruism. It is only this feeling that can remove the self-centered motives that cause people to deceive and misuse one another. If you have a sincere and open heart, you naturally feel self-worth and confidence, and there is no need to be fearful of others.”
I’ve yet to meet an altruistic human being, or any other altruistic being for that matter (I’m sure some, like the Dalai Lama, Buddha or Mother Theresa come close). Our own need for survival may, indeed, counter any altruistic tendencies that we may aspire to. That doesn’t mean that we can’t try, however. It is a good thing to remove self-centred motives, for sure. Having a sincere and open heart is most difficult though – for we’ve been hurt, again and again, seeing the cycle being repeated in a future that doesn’t even exist, or reflected in a past that we can no longer reach. Can we honestly say that we will never be fearful of others?
Perhaps, one day. Until then, I will take my compassion one day at a time, as well as a strong stance against those who have hurt me to ensure that it won’t happen again. These two things are not at odds with each other, as I once thought. Fascist Compassion. I like it.