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Sharon Salzberg

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Fierce Compassion

Posted: 08/14/2012 11:00 am

I've spent quite a bit of my life as a meditation teacher and writer commending the strengths of love and compassion. So many times people have approached me and said something along the lines of, "I don't know about developing greater love and compassion. Surely that will consign me to only saying 'yes'/ refusing to take a stand/ letting other people be treated unjustly/ being a wimp."

I think these views to some extent are a cultural legacy, the degradation of love to sentimentality and compassion to a root cause of fatigue. It is sometimes difficult to view compassion and loving kindness as the strengths they are. They are viewed too often as secondary virtues at best in our competitive culture ("If you can't be brave or brilliant or wonderful, then you might as well be kind"). But compassion does not imply ducking our responsibilities or shirking our power. Compassion, instead, is a potent tool for transformation since it requires us to step outside of our conditioned response patterns.

Ordinarily, we're so preoccupied with ourselves and defended against the "Other" that we feel continuously threatened and anxious. We forget how connected we actually are and it is this perceived division that creates antipathy and alienation. This limited perspective prompts responses that are less creative with fewer possibilities for happiness.

My friend, Cheri Maples, used this wisdom to help move her own community forward when she was a police officer. Cheri saw that when offenders were exposed to the extended consequences of their actions, their us-vs.-them behavior could shift. When a petty thief was told that because he ripped off a certain gas station, the kid who worked there couldn't support his sister, who could no longer make the rent and ended up on the street, this information shifted the boy's sense of what interconnection actually means. We have a limited awareness of how our actions ripple out into the world, but when we're reminded of how directly our behavior impacts others -- those we know and those we don't -- it changes our minds and hearts. "It doesn't matter what happens to them" shifts to "Oh, actually it does matter because they have many similarities to me." They have vulnerability, they're taking care of people, and they want to be happy. Our common ground expands in the light of attention.

So how do we deal with our outrage? It is indeed natural to be outraged in the face of injustice or cruelty. But when anger becomes a steady presence, it narrows our options, perceptions and possibilities. It burns us up. Unfortunately, many of us are taught to see non-aggression, and the resistance to us-vs.-them thinking, as passivity, weakness, or delusional. In fact, it is an act of courage to step outside our familiar reaction patterns to discover approaches that can shift the dynamic we face.

It's possible to feel outrage when it arises without it becoming our overriding motivation for seeking change. We can learn the art of fierce compassion -- redefining strength, deconstructing isolation and renewing a sense of community, practicing letting go of rigid us-vs.-them thinking -- while cultivating power and clarity in response to difficult situations. Love and compassion don't at all have to make us weak, or lead us to losing discernment and vision. We just have to learn how to find them. And see, in truth, what they bring us.

Cheri and I are doing a workshop at the Omega Institute this September on fierce compassion. Every time I get to explore this with others, I learn so much more myself.

 

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