Chogyam Trungpa, head of the Shambhala Buddhist lineage and founder of Naropa University, spoke often on the concept of compassion.
An idea prevalent to Buddhism in general, compassion is considered the cornerstone of human decency and the path to self liberation.
Compassion is defined as the concern that we are able to express for the suffering of others, and it connects us empathically to all others, allowing us to escape the narrow confines of our limited ego selves when we practice it consistently.
Trungpa took a different stance on what compassion looked like than most, however, and for this he became quite controversial. He was known for being excessively direct, blunt, sometimes aggressive and less-than-tactful in his approach with students, appearing, to many, to be not at all the vision of compassion that was classically assumed.
For example, a friend whom I worked with at the Shambhala meditation center in France studied with him in the 1970's, and said you would walk into the room with him and he might take one look at you and tell you to go away and come back when you were ready to be honest with yourself.
A little harsh, right? And certainly not a way of being we would normally associate with an enlightened master.
But Trungpa saw this directness as a very high form of compassion, however, differentiated from what he said we most often think of as 'compassionate acts' which were really, most of the time, camouflaged attempts by the ego to get our own self gratification through 'assisting' others.
In his book, 'Cutting through Spiritual Materialism' (a favorite),Trungpa spoke often about what he called 'idiot compassion', or compassion that lacks the courage to say and do what we really feel when in relationship to other people, but that chooses instead to say and do what we think others want us to in order to seem 'nice' or 'good'. The ego uses the idea of compassion and caring for others as a way to make itself even stronger, even more present, and misses the mark entirely on doing what would be best for the other person at that moment.
We do what is best for us at that instance, allowing us to feel like a caring, loving person by enabling another to continue in their suffering by feeling sorry for them and expressing that, making them into the victim of their circumstances through our pity and comforting.
It is uncomfortable to have to call someone out on habits or behaviors they are engaged in that we don't agree with, and the majority of that discomfort comes from our own egos and the desire we have to be perceived as 'nice' people. It is so much easier to pacify both their hurt and our ego by telling them what their ego wants to hear at that moment--'that shouldn't have happened to you', or 'she is just a terrible person so just forget the whole thing', or 'it's so unfair that things like this happen to you so often'--instead of being fully honest with both others and ourselves.
Idiot compassion prevents us and those we interact with from growing. It keeps us all in stagnant patterns and reduces any possibility for growth to bland niceties and socially accepted pacification. It is the ego using the idea of compassion--a high spiritual practice--to gain solidity and false confidence.
To move away from this ego-supporting practice and into real compassion it is necessary that we take stock of where and how we do this. Where in our relationships do we feel and think one thing but say another? Where are we duplicitous with our words and actions, so that we don't have to contact the discomfort that comes from saying things that people don't want to hear?
The key thing is to do this process with kindness, and to perceive the truth that we do this, we engage in idiot compassion not because we are bad people, but because we want connection, and the ego tells us that is the only way to achieve it. It is a practice grounded in a very valid human desire--for love, for relationships that 'work'--and no indicator of badness or lasting dysfunction in us.
But...it is also something that must be attended to if we desire to have honest, powerful and truly connected relationship experiences, for those can never be if we are dishonest with ourselves and others.
Compassion is a beautiful and life-changing practice, but one that is not necessarily synonymous with being 'nice', as we classically understand it. Compassion means we serve the spirit, the Buddha nature inside who has the capacity to be loving, honest, and fully aligned at all times, and this service might look very different than telling a person they are in the right.
Remembering our Buddha nature doesn't happen because we receive feedback that says what we're doing and who we are at this moment is perfect and everyone else is at fault, but because we pause to look honestly at the places where we deceive ourselves and lack this alignment, and take responsibility for adjusting them.