Are you a compassionate person? I suspect that most people will answer by saying things like, “most of the time,” or “generally, yes.” But I’m intentionally looking for a “yes” or a “no” answer. And although this may cause some people to squirm a little, there’s a reason I ask the question this way.
We are living in a culture in which we seem to think that just about everything is conditional. For example, I think of myself as compassionate, but when we recently sold our home and our neighbor extorted us for money, I had no compassion for him. This suggests that I have compassion for you unless you do something to hurt me, then I don’t. Such compassion is conditional. In other words, how you treat me determines how I treat you. If you hurt me, I feel justified in hurting you.
Is everything conditional?
If everything is conditional (also sometimes called “transactional”), what are the core principles that we live by? This is my concern with the current Trump era. I am concerned that our highest values are being eroded. For example, to talk about groping women and then justify the comment as “locker room banter” doesn’t make it okay. That suggests that it’s okay to talk about women disrespectfully in one situation (the locker room), and then talk about them differently (respectfully) in other situations, and claim that you respect women. But if you respect women then you only talk about them respectfully—all the time.
Some things are conditional
There is nothing wrong with certain behaviors and values being conditional. We spend most of our lives living in safety consciousness—establishing boundaries, making agreements, holding people accountable and being held accountable—which is all pretty conditional. For me to trust you and feel safe with you I need you to do certain things—those are my conditions. For me to follow through on my commitments I expect certain considerations—those are my conditions.
I believe that love between adults is conditional. For me to love you I need you to behave in certain ways and honor certain agreements—those are my conditions. I know many people who believe love between adults is unconditional. This creates many challenges—“If you love me you’ll accept my poor behavior. If you love me you’ll give me another chance. If you love me you’ll forgive my transgressions.”
I’m not saying that love is always conditional. It depends on what level of consciousness I’m in. In our Live Conscious community we make distinctions between different levels of consciousness and this helps people sort out when love is conditional and when it’s unconditional. When I’m in safety consciousness, which is where I am most of the time, love is conditional—appropriately so.
However, when I shift from safety to heart consciousness, love becomes unconditional. Why is love different in heart consciousness? Because, in heart consciousness my love is not derived from another person, but from within myself. My love is not dependent on another behaving in certain ways, but from recognizing the beauty that surrounds me and the miracle of being alive. In heart consciousness love is not earned; it is energized.
And some things are not conditional
Although love may be conditional, I believe other qualities are not. Even when I live in safety consciousness, there are several qualities I live by regardless of how other people treat me. They are unconditional. They have nothing to do with other people. For example, for me, honesty, integrity, and kindness are unconditional.
I am honest whether or not you are honest. I believe I can say whatever I need to say in a kind way, regardless of how you speak to me. My integrity is not contingent upon how you behave.
Is compassion conditional?
Is compassion something I practice with one person, but not another? Is compassion something I extend to you, but not myself? Is compassion something I practice in public but not in the “locker room”? Or, am I compassionate with all people, including myself, all the time? Why would I think that honesty is unconditional, but compassion is conditional?
My understanding is that some values and behaviors are based on reciprocity—there is an exchange. This is what I was saying earlier about love between adults, it involves an exchange. What you give to me and how you treat me influences what I give to you and how I treat you. I share, you share. I invest in us, you invest in us. We don’t each have to give exactly the same thing or in the same amount, as long as the exchange we make works for both of us.
Love will ebb and flow. When one person invests more in a relationship they are likely to earn more love. At times when the reciprocity gets out of whack, that’s when we need to make a course correction—go to couples counseling, attend a Live Conscious retreat—and we reestablish the flow and reciprocity that keeps our love alive.
What about honesty?
For me, honesty is different. It is not predicated upon any kind of exchange, but rather my personal intention to live my life in a certain way—regardless of what others do or don’t do. I am honest with you not because you are honest with me, but because being honest simplifies my life and eliminates confusion. Same thing for integrity. It is something I choose for myself regardless of what others choose.
So, what about compassion? Is your compassion conditional, dependent upon how others behave and how they treat you? Or, is compassion like honesty and integrity, a way of being that you choose for yourself, regardless of what others do?
Maybe answering the following questions will help you identify your relationship with compassion.
- Do you have compassion for Donald Trump?
- Do you have compassion for the person you believe wronged you?
- What happens after you are impatient with a loved one? The first question to ask is do you have compassion for the other person, but the second question is equally worth asking—do you have compassion for yourself . . . after you have behaved in a way that you don’t feel good about?
Compassion is not forgiveness
As you answer these questions, please consider that there is a difference between compassion and forgiveness. I’m not suggesting that because we are compassionate we condone inappropriate behaviors or forgive them. Compassion does not mean passivity; it can be the roots of activism.
Compassion comes from recognizing suffering and then doing something to alleviate it—taking action. People suffer from being abused as well as being abusers. They also suffer from their own ignorance and limitations. Can I recognize such suffering without judging the person as being good or bad? When I don’t understand other people I often judge them. And when I don’t understand myself I often guilt myself.
Severe judgment and guilt both inhibit connection and compassion. When I say “severe judgment” I mean labeling people as bad. This is different than objecting to their behaviors or even judging their behaviors as being inappropriate. After I severely judge someone as being bad, it’s hard to find compassion for him or her. I can’t easily connect with others when I guilt myself. I can’t easily connect with you when you guilt yourself; guilt is a wall. Severe judgments and guilt both limit connection. Compassion builds connection.
Compassion comes from asking, “What is this experience like for you?” not “What would this be like for me if I were in your shoes?” When I ask the latter question I interject myself into the situation. It becomes about me, my feelings, my beliefs, my values. This is why Live Conscious makes it easier for people to be compassionate, because we learn how to witness people without making whatever they are going through be about us.
What values are unconditional in your life?
I hope you take time to consider the questions in this article. For you, what values are conditional, dependent upon how other people behave? And, what values are unconditional?
I have always liked the word “congruent,” and believe that living a congruent life is the key to living a satisfying life. For me to be congruent means that I live according to a few unconditional values. When I deviate from my values I am no longer being congruent. When there is a gap between what I say I value (honesty, integrity, kindness and compassion) and how I actually live, I’m being incongruent.
To justify not living according to my values (honesty, integrity, kindness and compassion) because of some condition—internal (how I feel) or external (how you treat me)—is an excuse for being incongruent. And here’s a question for you, “In those times when we are incongruent, should we be compassionate with ourselves?”
Based on my definition of compassion, “Compassion comes from recognizing suffering and then doing something to alleviate it,” my answer is “yes.” First I seek to understand my own incongruence and then I do something to alleviate it.
When I lacked compassion for my neighbor after he extorted us for money, it was largely because I was preoccupied with my suffering, “How could he do this to me?” Only after I recognized my own incongruence—I don’t want to victimize myself, but sometimes I do—did I realize that I was giving my neighbor the power to determine how I felt. I took the time to understand that he was acting out of his own fears and judgments about me, and if I had those fears and judgments I would be doing the same thing he was doing. The action I took to alleviate suffering—at least my own, maybe his—was to communicate with him that I regretted the way things turned out and I wished him the best.
I did relieve my suffering; I don’t know what it did for him. It cost me nothing. It’s how I choose to live my life and it supported my belief that compassion can be unconditional.