Quaker Practice

Detached Compassion

What does Detached Compassion mean? Doesn’t being compassionate involve passionate caring about others? I began exploring this concept while I was in the throes of burnout. After years as a counselor, I wasn’t sure I could go on caring so much for others and neglecting myself. I was suffering from compassion fatigue, which is a common problem in helping professions.

I studied professional literature, which recommended taking time for self-care and setting better boundaries. But often I would prioritize the suffering of clients and friends over my own needs. I didn’t feel right about doing something good for myself or enjoying life while others were suffering. It seemed selfish, and I wasn’t supposed to be selfish.

I started seeing a therapist who encouraged me to be “self-full.” “You will be more effective if you give from a full bucket,” she told me. While this made sense, I still wavered in my resolve, regularly dropping my own plans to help someone in need.

I read books on gender dynamics and realized that, as a woman, I was culturally programmed to care for others above myself. Observing my family, I could clearly see where these messages had come from. This awareness helped me understand the emotional hooks which triggered my automatic responses.

I also read several Buddhist books that introduced me to the idea of detached compassion, which was new to me. Compassion is a central tenet of Buddhism, but it is not connected to martyrdom. Compassion for all living beings, including oneself, is a goal of Buddhist practice. So is detachment, which is not being attached to the passing forms and states of human existence. In other words, detachment is accepting where we are and what is happening in each moment as we move through life.

So how does one detach while being compassionate? The basic idea is to detach from the outcome, while allowing our hearts to guide us in compassionate action. This was a liberating concept I’d never considered! I realized I was very attached to the outcome of my helping and giving. I wanted clients to reach their goals, and my professional evaluations focused on this. I wanted friends and family to be happy. I wanted the world to be just and peaceful. I couldn’t rest until those outcomes were achieved, which meant I never rested.

It also meant I often took more responsibility for others and their choices than was my place. Detached compassion means we let others make their own choices and deal with their own outcomes, while still caring deeply about them. We may have to make choices in response, like setting boundaries and detaching from toxic or abusive relationships. I remind myself that others have a right to learn as they go, just like me, and while I like to help, it’s their life. I can be more helpful when I’m centered in myself and not caught up in their emotions and crises. It’s also helpful to maintain awareness that all things pass.

In my explorations on the topic of detached compassion, I have found the writings of the Dalai Lama to be particularly helpful. What I learned from him is that life is full of suffering, but it is also full of joy. He has witnessed terrible suffering, especially of his own people when China invaded Tibet. He lives in exile, and he is full of joy. How is that possible? He can detach emotionally from suffering while being compassionately present with an open heart, allowing his words and actions to be guided in each moment. His intention is to alleviate suffering; however, he is not attached to how or when this will happen. In this way, he opens space around suffering with his acceptance, so its hold can be loosened. In this spacious awareness, new possibilities arise. He also has a great sense of humor and strong faith in others.

As I absorbed the Buddhist perspectives, the possibility of being at peace with suffering arose. I learned it was my resistance to the fact of suffering which was causing my distress and leading to burnout. I began to practice being with the suffering of myself and others, while keeping my heart open. That required getting out of my head, which is my favorite place to hang out! I learned about the dance that happens between heart and head. I discovered that leading with my heart while letting go of my head’s agenda and judgments was a more skillful and joyful way to be with others. Then my head can be in service to my heart instead of the other way around.

I am still working with these lessons every day. I often forget what I learned and fall back into old patterns. When I catch myself getting hooked again into outcomes, I take a deep breath and remind myself to let go, open my heart and simply be with what is in the moment. I am a living creative process, as is everyone else. I can be deeply compassionate towards suffering and trust the process. I have learned that suffering often leads to joy given the spaciousness of acceptance and time.

By Rhonda Ashurst, Blog Contributor, Reno Friends Meeting

The opinions expressed above are not necessarily those of Reno Friends Meeting.