Reader Discussion: Wrathful Compassion

Compassion has always been said to be one of the most important spiritual practices. Making the decision to be kind towards everything and everyone is seen to be transformative; when you start giving to life, life starts giving to you, and you slowly realise that you are not, in fact, separate from everyone else.

I do my best to live by this simple principle, but it is certainly very hard and quite complicated. There are so many obstacles here, and I want to discuss one just briefly.

Is Compassion Softness?

For a long time, I thought of compassion as softness, as kindness, and as gentleness. When someone is crying, or hurt, the most compassionate response might be to sit down and listen to them, comfort them, tell them everything will be okay. And yet, is that always true? Many situations are a lot more complicated than this.

Lorne Ladner, in The Lost Art of Compassion, wrote about a painting he saw once, of the Buddha of Compassion. He had wild hair, bulging eyes, and wielded an axe and a sword as he danced in a wreath of fire. How does such an image reflect compassion?

Lorne went on to describe how a loving parent might indeed look like that. Wouldn’t a mother be screaming at the top of her lungs, her eyes bulging and arms waving – as she runs to rescue her young child who had walked into a street full of cars?

Wrathful Compassion Towards Ourselves

Lorne’s example does not talk about other people, but instead focused on our own inner work. Sometimes we are afraid to do look at ourselves, to discipline ourselves, and we justify it as some kind of pseudo-compassion. Negative thoughts and emotions are a form of self-hatred, and choosing to work on them is self-compassion, but it can be painful and many of us shy away from it. This psychological laziness, he says, isn’t real compassion, but can cause even more troubles.

But this got me thinking – how will this apply to other people? What if someone is using you or manipulating you? Some might think that the most compassionate thing is to pretend they don’t realise the manipulation, and go along with it. But is that the best thing to do? Compassion includes ourselves too – we can’t let ourselves get hurt in the process. Is this weakness, a lack of boundaries, pretending to be compassion?

What about if someone is dependent? Perhaps a grown adult who still lives as if he is a little child; would compassion mean being soft and kind and treating him like a little boy? Or would it be best to give him some tough love and teach him to take care of himself, even though it might be hard for him to begin with?

This is a very wide topic, and I don’t have an answer for these questions. What do you think? What would you do, and why? What other obstacles have you come across in the pursuit of compassion? I would love to hear them in the comments below.

Oh, and in using the wrathful Buddha image, I am not suggesting that we go out and scream at someone. Its just something that got me thinking.