I am just about to to go off for three days to teach on the contrasting human expressions of compassion and narcissism to a group of people interested in Buddhist psychotherapy. So my thoughts have been directed to considering these two aspects of our experience. They appear to be on opposing ends of a continuum, with compassion representing an open heart wishing to relieve the suffering of others, whether they be seen as friend or enemy or unknown to us directly.
Narcissism: a closed system!
Narcissism, in its extreme form, is on the other end of the compassion continuum. We all demonstrate some degree of narcissism, based on our habitual tendencies to perceive ourselves as separate, finite entities and to accordingly view the world through self-referencing filters that often ignore or give only fleeting attention to the interests of others. The pathological, or extreme, quality of narcissism represents a more complete turning away from the world and interests of others and the defensive placing of ourselves and our interests as the central and only existing world. The interests of others are, often unconsciously, ignored or quickly over-written with our own interests. The invisible but controlling assumption is that I am the best, or the worst, and I know how it is. The usual result for those who find themselves in an intimate relationship with a very narcissistic person is to feel themselves excluded, as though their feelings, beliefs and needs don’t really exist.
Unfortunately, these narcissistic self-referencing tendencies are not confined to the individual. They are also demonstrated at the exclusive group and national levels of human behaviour. Perhaps the most obvious example of nationalistic narcissism is during times of war when the enemy is deliberately dehumanised and transformed from thinking, feeling, loving and hurting beings into objectified, unscrupulous and dangerous ‘bad people’.
The openness of compassion!
On the other hand, we have the inspiring example of the Dalai Lama, who has been holding high the torch of compassion as he travels almost continuously around the world, opening his heart to others and inspiring them to open their hearts to each other. The Dalai Lama is the great example of embodied compassion and so I would like to share with you an excerpt from the Prologue of his latest book, The Middle Way, Faith Ground in Reason, in which he writes about the power of compassion.
The Power of Compassion – by the Dalai Lama
… When the Chinese invaded [Tibet] and I had to flee my native land, I had only some limited knowledge of buddhist teachings, and I had little experience of dealing with problems. A great burden and responsibility was thrust upon me suddenly, and what training I had was put to the test. During those years, my most reliable friend was my own inner quality of compassion.
Compassion brings inner strength, and compassion also brings truth. With truth, you have nothing to hide and you are not dependent on the opinions of others. That brings a self-confidence with which you can deal with any problem without losing hope or determination. Based on my experiences, I can say that when life becomes difficult and you are confronting a host of problems, if you maintain your determination and keep making an effort, then obstacles or problems become really very helpful, for they broaden and deepen your experience. Thus I think compassion is the most precious thing.
What is compassion? Compassion involves a feeling of closeness to others, a respect and affection that is not based on others’ attitude toward us. We tend to feel affection for people who are important to us. That kind of close feeling does not extend to our enemies – those people who think ill of us. Genuine compassion on the other hand, sees that others, just like us, want a happy and successful life and do not want to suffer. That kind of feeling and concern can be extended to friend and enemy alike, regardless of their feelings toward us. That’s genuine compassion.
Ordinary love is biased and mixed with attachment. Like other afflicted emotions, attachment is based not on reality but on mental projection. It exaggerates reality. In reality there may be some good there, but attachment views it as one hundred percent beautiful or good. Compassion gets much closer to reality. There is a vast difference.
The big question is whether we can cultivate such compassion. Based on my own experience, the answer is yes. It is possible because we all possess the seed of compassion as the very nature of our human existence. Likewise, our very survival as human beings, especially in our first few years of life, is heavily dependent on the affection and compassion of others. We have survived up to now only because at the beginning of our lives, our mother – or someone else, of course – cared. Had she been negligent even one or two days, we would have died. As human beings, using our intelligence, we can extend this sense of caring throughout our whole lives.
To be continued next week when I return from teaching …
In the meantime, it would be great if you would like to add your own thoughts on compassion and narcissism in the comments box below.