When Compassion Becomes Weakness

I’ve developed a habit of avoiding bad news. I mean the bad news that I read online — in my Facebook newsfeed — or on the International New York Times homepage, or even the print newspaper or magazine that arrives at the doorstep. Television screens were altogether absent from my childhood, so luckily I’m able to cleanly bypass that channel of information.

Quite honestly, the negativity makes me anxious.

For the first 200,000 years of our modern human existence, our knowledge of humanity has extended to a walking, or at most an animal-driven distance around us. Now, imagine the time we live in, which represents a fraction of a percentage of human history, where we actually know what’s going on in every corner of the world: the good, the bad, the ugly.

For a person like me, it becomes not just information but also an EMOTION overload. Eckhart Tolle has a name for this emotional overload — he calls it the pain-body: an accumulation of old emotional pain inside most of us, collected as a result of not facing, accepting and letting go of the emotions in the moment they arose. An external trigger that resembles the original experience will set off the stored pain. I don’t think my pain body — or I — have the emotional bandwidth to handle all of the negative news, complete with images, text and even sound.

Does this make me a weaker person than most? A more compassionate person than most? Or both?

The circle of compassion isn’t only debilitating when it extends thousands of miles around oneself. Even within our own family and close relations, this quality can be overexerting. When we want to help our parents, or our siblings, or our close friends overcome challenges and succeed– this too can become an emotional undertaking. With our family, it’s never objective; it’s a completely subjective desire to lean on and support one another.

Sometimes this can come at the expense of our own peace of mind and happiness. To a degree, many of us are willing to bear with this to see our loved ones breathe a little easier.

The workplace is yet another setting where we straddle the boundaries of compassion. If you show too much compassion, people may just eat you up! Especially in corporate work environments, I’ve experienced that the quality of compassion is hardly welcome — and if it is displayed, it must always, always be tempered with rationality and a calm, controlled demeanor. Otherwise you will be called unprofessional; in other words, unfit for your profession.

Work, our personal life, and the world around us — these are all stages where the quality of compassion is bartered between us and our surroundings.

Indeed, compassion is one of the deepest feelings we can possess as humans — and reflects our highest selves. In Buddhism, we believe that compassion is one of the Buddha’s core qualities. It’s requisite for us to become happy ourselves and help others become happy.

The question then becomes, how do we actually hone and channel our compassion for good?

How do we teach our minds to evolve the way technology has, so that we can process the overload of information we face today in a healthy manner?

How do we create firewalls, or buffers, so that our empathy doesn’t overextend beyond the reaches of our own wellbeing, causing ourselves to suffer?

And how do we direct and optimize our compassion (considering other variables like time, money, skills, etc.) towards its highest marginal use?

Solving the true problems of humanity and possessing compassion go hand-in-hand. Yet when I find myself feeling compassion for a thousand circumstances and people and living beings around the world, let alone hundreds of people in my immediate surroundings, it is paralyzing more than energizing.

First, let us strive to be aware of this fine balance that we must strike, in whichever spheres of society we are active.

Awareness of our inner emotions and their functions is a different process from learning the external functions of society, on which we are educated from a young age. Meditation and self-reflection come in many forms, enabling us to begin to understand the workings of our inner heart.

Following awareness, it is the tools that we choose to incorporate balance in our lives — physical, emotional, mental and spiritual — that will enable us to apply compassion with skill and direction to advance our individual and collective goals. When your body is physically balanced through proper nutrition and exercise, mental and emotional balance tends to follow — and can be supplemented with meditation, self-reflection, therapy and so on. Our spiritual paths are unique to each of us as individuals, and once we find our spiritual calling, it becomes quite evident to us how to skillfully apply our compassion.

For example, I moved from San Francisco to New Delhi this January. While I came to India with the lofty goal of “contributing to my country,” I have spent the past ten months building and maintaining a regular schedule of eating healthy, exercising, chanting, and applying myself at work and in my personal life. These tools are both buffers and guides that have, over time, granted me the gift of understanding how to skillfully and authentically apply compassion to achieving my goals. It is truly a constant process, just like swimming or bicycling — the results are in the journey!

At an individual level and a collective level, addressing the balance — between compassion for oneself and compassion for one’s environment — is one of the key challenges of humanity in the 21st century that we must overcome if we want to shift the tides towards wellbeing and wholeness.