com·pas·sion [kuhm-pash-uhn] noun: “A feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering.”

mother theresa

The English word compassion is derived from the Latin compasio, which literally means ‘with-suffering.’  Normally when we hear this word, we conjure up images of Good Samaritans, Mother Theresa in the streets of Calcutta, or the Buddha teaching tirelessly up until the moment of his death. For those of use who aspire to these extraordinary examples and who are aware of the extent of suffering in the world, it can be daunting to know where to start.


At times, I let the fear that I cannot do everything turn into an excuse to do nothing (read more about this here in my experience working in a community called Anandwan).

The problems are just too big- what difference can I make? Even if I do manage to get off my ass and try to do something to benefit others, no matter what I do and no matter how hard I work, it will never be enough. These nagging feelings of not being “compassionate enough” have sometimes led me to overcompensate. I’ll give all my change to the next homeless guy I’ll see (even if I have to cross the street!). Or maybe look up a charity so I can help some starving Africans…

But notice: in these cases, not only is my compassion monetarily based, but it was I who wanted to be more compassionate.

When acting out of this motivation, it isn’t really about helping the other person. It’s about helping myself.

I can’t stand to see their suffering, so I do something about it not for their sake, but to ease my own guilty conscience.



This blind sort of ‘world-savior’ mentality is what Chogyam Trungpa meant by “idiot compassion.”  It’s quite a pernicious trap, since on the outside it might seem as though I’m stepping outside of my ego-centered existence to extend care to another in need.



But any time I want to be the person who helps (and garner all the recognition that comes with that), I’m using other people to make myself feel superior.

This is a big illusion that I still struggle with. It takes a lot of discriminating wisdom to spot when pity masquerades as compassion. It can be tough to admit my attachment to the role of wanting to be a giver, or when I expect certain results (that homeless guy better say thank you after I give him my sandwich!), or when my actions subtly communicate, “I know what’s good for you.”



This is why we need someone who is clear with themselves to give us a whack on the head and remind us (to use Khalil Gibran’s words) that  “In truth it is life that gives unto life while you, who deem yourself a giver, are but a witness.”

Click here to read part 3 in this series.


Meditation: The next time you find yourself giving to someone or doing something you think is nice, reflect as clearly as you can on your motivations.