The Difference Between Compassion and “Idiot Compassion”

Don’t Misinterpret!

Pema Chodron

Don’t impose the wrong notion of what harmony is, what compassion is, what patience is, what generosity is. Don’t misinterpret what these things really are. There is compassion and there is idiot compassion; there is patience and there is idiot patience; there is generosity and there is idiot generosity.

For example, trying to smooth everything out to avoid confrontation, not to rock the boat, is not what’s meant by compassion or patience. It’s what is meant by control. Then you are not trying to step into unknown territory, to find yourself more naked with less protection and therefore more in contact with reality. Instead, you use the idiot forms of compassion and so forth just to get ground.

When you open the door and invite in all sentient beings as your guests, you have to drop your agenda. Many different people come in. Just when you think you have a little scheme that is going to work, it doesn’t work. It was very beneficial to Juan, but when you tried it on Mortimer, he looked at you as if you were crazy, and when you try it on Juanita, she gets insulted.

Coming up with a formula won’t work. If you invite all sentient beings as your guests while just wanting harmony, sooner or later you’ll find that one of your guests is behaving badly and that just sitting there cheerfully doing your tonglen and trying to cultivate harmony doesn’t work.

(For an introduction to the practice of tonglen, see: All-Embracing Compassion-The Heart-Practice of Tonglen)

So you sit there and you say, “Okay, now I’m going to make friends with the fact that I am hurting and afraid, and this is really awful.” But you are just trying to avoid conflict here; you just don’t want to make things worse. Then all the guests are misbehaving; you work hard all day and they just sit around, smoking cigarettes, drinking beer, eating your food, and then beating you up. You think you’re being a warrior and a Bodhisattva by doing nothing and saying nothing, but what you’re being is a coward. You’re just afraid of making the situation worse. Finally they kick you out of your house and you’re sitting on the sidewalk. Somebody walks by and says, “What are you doing sitting out here?” You answer, “I am practicing patience and compassion.” That’s missing the point.

Even though you’ve dropped your agenda, even though you are trying to work WITH situations instead of struggling AGAINST them, nevertheless you may have to say, “You can stay here tonight, but tomorrow you’re going, and if you don’t get out of here, I am calling the police.” You don’t really know what’s going to benefit somebody, but it doesn’t benefit anybody to allow someone to beat you up, eat all your food, and put you out on the street.

So “Don’t misinterpret” really gets at the notion of the big squeeze. It’s saying that you don’t know what’s going to help, but you need to speak and act with clarity and decisiveness. Clarity and decisiveness come from the willingness to slow down, to listen to and look at what’s happening. They come from opening your heart and not running away. Then the action and the speech are in accord with what needs to be done, for you and for the other person.

We make a lot of mistakes. If you ask people whom you consider to be wise and courageous about their lives, you may find that they have hurt a lot of people and made a lot of mistakes, but that they used those occasions as opportunities to humble themselves and open their hearts. We don’t get wise by staying in a room with all the doors and windows closed.

From Start Where You Are : A Guide to Compassionate Living by Pema Chodron (Copyright 1994, Shambhala Publications.)


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About Steven Goodheart

"I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them." Spinoza

25 Responses to “The Difference Between Compassion and “Idiot Compassion””

  1. Great article! Ties in a lot with not misinterpreting virtues/values such as compassion. Seems like now a days lots of people are practicing idiot compassion when they intend to just be virtuous. I wrote my own thoughts on it – if you have the time to read give it a click and let me know your thoughts!

  2. thank you for such radiant truth with beauty… immediate warmth rises in my heart. luminamar

    • Thank you, Steve! 🙂 I came back to read this again…and I am sure it will not be my last time…Pema would also be grateful for your clarifications here, I feel sure! This is a lifelong challenge for me, largely due to my upbringing…but I am learning to recognize the difference more and more quickly in my daily interacttions, and I hope I will continue to choose to respond appropriately with practice.

  3. I come back to this on occasion to remind myself of the lesson. Thank you, Steve.

    • Michael, I think this is a lesson we all have to learn and re-learn. I know I do, but we do get wiser, and more wisely compassionate, I’ve found as we continue on in the path. Thanks for stopping by and commenting! Steve

  4. Reblogged this on words of wisdom and commented:
    Am like the way you broke it down…. Am an SGI MEMBER, and we believe compassion never dies, even when love does…. with compassion you dont struggle to act it, its not what you frame up, it comes out naturally, this is due to your constant faith on the Gohonzon which helps you cultivate this act..

  5. Idiot compassion is not showing compassion for oneself. Therefore in metta practice, one starts radiating kindness to oneself first and slowing extend the metta outwards to all sentient beings. Sharing means sharing what you have, not what you don’t.

  6. Reblogged this on Reflections on Life Thus Far and commented:
    Great words of advice! I know a lot of us do the idiot form of compassion, generosity, and patience because it’s easier but it doesn’t help us when all is said and done.

  7. Be Well And Happy Reply 2013/04/14 at 1:27 PM

    Reblogged this on Be Well And Happy.

  8. Thank you for the post! Pema Chodron is definitely touching on some of the very foundational experiences that one has when exercising our hearts in Loving-Kindness. I am a high school teacher in a poverty stricken urban school. This has been my greatest challenge to spiritual maturity, as the dynamics of this environment are extreme. I found myself observing this tension between passivity and active guidance to be the all encompassing demand.

    One thing that has made it even more challenging for me is my sensitivity toward falling back to the aggression of my past. I have seen that these dynamics alone have become a school of my own, and I am humbled at how extremely varied the demand for compassion and action can be from minute to minute.

  9. Pema Chodron has the great ability to link teachings to “current everyday reality”. The notion of “Leaving things as they are” and my own social conscience are often conflicting. Thank you Steven for posting _/|\_

  10. Mister Rabbitt Reply 2012/03/12 at 10:57 AM


  11. Great post thanks for the contribution. But here’s my question. What is the role of compassion in situations where we stand to benefit from tacit complicity with the status quo. Example: you’re at work, someone in authority is harassing a junior staff member. To stay silent means stability for your own situation. It means a paycheck. Food in the fridge. Roof over the head. It’s the opposite to the situation Pema Chodron discusses in this piece of hers where the warrior/bodhisattva has abusive roommates.

    • I’d like to point out that what you mention is a very good point.

      I think that partially, that we have to nonetheless accept the responsibility of our actions and inaction.

      Also, most of the time, the world is not “black and white” nor “now or never”.

      My take on your specific example:

      First and foremost, I’d try to understand the situation better. Things may not be what they seem.
      Then, if necessary I would try to act directly and confront. If I am unable to do so(to maintain my own subsistence), I would at least take indirect action(report to a superior, contact labor lawyer etc).

      Failing even that, I would then confront myself.
      Did what happened, really require my action? Why did I not take action? Am I justifying the event by not taking action?

      In each and every stage above, I believe, “clarity and decisiveness” is crucial.

      I may have wandered away from the point somewhat.
      I’d appreciate your response or anyone else’s.

      • Great response. Bowing.

        You know, the Buddha contended with political intrigue within the Sangha as well as in the larger world around him. He gave teachings to kings and diplomats just like he taught monks and sages.

        From his example I draw the importance of not alienating those whose attitudes and actions differ from my own. Compassion is a big place in the heart. And there’s room for victims and tyrants alike.

        Kind regards.

  12. Reblogged this on bluegrassnotes and commented:
    This is some of the trickiest territory to negotiate in any spiritual life and this is a really great explanation of how to do it.

  13. Reblogged this on MindMindful and commented:
    I love Pema Chodron – she’s like your dear auntie, explaining subtle but powerful ideas …….. simply

    • LOL! Yes, she *is* just like our dear auntie, our dear dharma auntie! I feel that kind of affection for her too, and her teachings are so deep and yet so accessible.

      Thank you for sharing and for stopping by,


  14. Reblogged this on Mindful Lifestyle – Devoted to Healing & Being and commented:
    Thanks for sharing this from Ani Pema!

  15. Maureen Yeomans Reply 2012/03/09 at 12:55 AM

    Loved it! Thanks so much for posting.


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