Idiot Compassion vs True Compassion

CompassionIn my last post we explored the concept of selfishness as it pertains to personal growth. To take the conversation a step further, we have to talk about service. Why? Because if you really want to talk about not being selfish, then a conversation about being self-less needs to happen.

But what is selflessness? What does that really mean? And how do I know when I am being selfish versus selfless?

I’m here to assert that by being “selfish” you can be genuinely selfless.

Conventional Service & Service Materialism

How is it that service is so often taught as “scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours?” In our modern, western culture, service seems to be fairly conditional. I’ll help you, but I expect something in return. I’ll give you my $20 million, but I want the stadium named after me.

Not only that, but service in many circles overtly excludes and discriminates against people. WTF?

For example, some religions teach that if you serve “correctly” and according to God’s will, going to heaven one day will be your reward. So rather than serve because it genuinely comes through me, I serve so that I can get the carrot– heaven.

Some groups will even teach their followers to only help certain groups of people while discriminating against others (people of color, gays, women). Hmmm. Seems fishy to me.

These examples are what I call service materialism—serving in hopes of material reward and discrimination cloaked in the name of service. Essentially, service materialism is when you use service as a way to confirm yourself or get what you want for your own benefit.

Idiot Compassion

Another term for this kind of behavior is “idiot compassion.” In a conventional sense, acting selfless gives you accolades and confirmation from friends, coworkers and colleagues. But remember, acting selfless doesn’t mean that you are selfless. Tibetan Buddhist master Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche called acting nice and kind “idiot compassion.”

Rinpoche defined Idiot compassion as “a slimy way of trying to fulfill your desire secretly.” Or as the karmayogini journal states, “It is when you give people what they want as opposed to what they need, all in the name of being nice and compassionate [so that you can feel better yourself].”

Idiot compassion then, has serious strings attached and is all about the givers own neurotic needs and desires.

However, for some of us, idiot compassion is the doorway to true compassion. I remember in my college fraternity we would do a philanthropy just to get the University, neighbors, and national office off our backs. But once we actually got in there and rolled up our sleeves with the elementary school kids, my heart would melt and I would have a blast genuinely serving the kids.

Genuine Service & True Compassion

Genuine service on the other hand, comes from your heart and there is no need to get anything in return, such as tithing, a trophy with your name on it, a back rub, or even a thank you. However, the irony is when we serve from an open, extended heart, we naturally get something in return.

Service is when I wake up in the middle of the night, five nights in a row, to hold or comfort my upset child. It just comes out of me. And I don’t need my wife, my son, or anyone to say “good job” or “hey thanks!”

Or, you might help a stranger with a dead battery jump their car without thinking about it or expecting anything. It’s just what you do.

True compassion doesn’t have preferences such as “I’ll help this person over here, but not over there.”  Service coming from true compassion transcends social, political or religious values and extends way beyond superficial or socio-economic barriers.

I’m painting the ideal, because in reality, we are all fairly preferential in the way we serve. For example, I can’t tell you how many times, I drove on by a stranded person with a broken down car as I sped past at 75 miles/hr, unwilling to stop because “I had to get somewhere.”

People often associate compassion with being nice or kind. Being nice doesn’t really go far enough if we look at true compassion. On the other hand, true compassion is responding to a situation once you have seen things as they are.  According to Rinpoche, “Love or compassion is the open path, is associated with ‘what is.’ In order to develop love–universal love, cosmic love, whatever you would like to call it–one must accept the whole situation of life as it is, both the light and the dark, the good and the bad.”

For me, that sums it up and when I can drop my agendas, be in the moment and respond from my heart, I know that I am serving from a genuine place.

Try making a commitment to living a life of service and see what you learn along the way.

For example,

I commit to living a life of service. I will value the people around me and cultivate both the intention and capacity to help them in ways that matter to them. I seek to understand idiot compassion versus true compassion.

Bottom line? The more you can attend to yourself, the more love and compassion you will have to serve.


  • Steven

    Reply Reply November 19, 2009

    The word “nice” is derived from niche’ which means “irrelevant” so I really don’t use the word nice anymore. Being kind works. Good post.

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  • Lindsay

    Reply Reply August 23, 2011

    I absolutely love the part about not giving people what they want, but what they need! This re-affirms so many lessons that I have tried to put into practice lately, and helps give me the fire I need to keep practicing this. Thank you!

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