28. Don’t misinterpret.
This slogan invites differentiating between the genuine and idiot forms of compassion, patience and generosity. The idiot forms of each quality are based in fear and create ground and separation. They are what I do when I am scared to let others know I don’t know what to do. The genuine forms, however, arise when I am willing to step into unknown territory, give up ground and leave my comfort zone. While I may not know what to do and may feel very shaky about this, I’m much more likely to be open and available to the situation.
As an example of this differentiation, let us consider the the idiot and genuine forms of compassion. Idiot compassion – which we could also call “neurotic” or “habitual” or “conditioned” – is actually based in the desire to get ground for myself and relieve my own discomfort. When presented with someone else’s suffering I might give advice, sympathize, react or respond according to some formula I have learned. Genuine compassion, on the other hand, begins with just being present with the person in front of me, receiving them just as they are. I let go of the idea that I know what to do, or that there even IS anything to do. At the same time I am also present to my own direct experience, noticing any sensations, thoughts or impulses to act that arise. I let these be and return my attention to what the person in front of me is expressing. This of course may be uncomfortable to me, especially if I am closely connected to the other person or if I perceive that their suffering is somehow related to something I said or did. When and if I do finally speak, what I say is more likely to be helpful than if I immediately responded in a habitual way.
Another way to consider the meaning of compassion is by examining the word itself. “Compassion” comes from the Latin com passus, which literally means “to suffer with.” Turning next to Sanskrit, we find that the word most commonly translated as “suffering” is dukkha, literally meaning “bad axle hole.” Given the timeframe when these teachings were first presented, I imagine the axle is probably on a wooden cart wheel. Thus a “bad axle hole” is one that is not centered on the wheel, is irregularly shaped or in some other way prevents the wheel from rotating smoothly and consistently. Such a situation would then produce a bumpy ride for the cart. This bumpy ride is suffering.
Thus when I am willing to come along on someone else’s bumpy ride – without trying to smooth it out or jumping off – I am practicing genuine compassion.