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What Would Sid Do: Idiot Compassion and Having an Affair

Unfortunately, the historical Buddha never delivered a “How to Call out a Cheater” sermon. He did ask us to explore his teachings on topics like compassion and see how we can best apply them to our situations.

Before Siddhartha Gautama attained enlightenment he was a confused twenty and thirty-something looking to learn how to live a spiritual life. Each time in this column we look at what it might be like if a fictional Siddhartha was on his spiritual journey today. How would he combine Buddhism and dating? How would he handle stress in the workplace? What Would Sid Do is devoted to taking an honest look at what we as meditators face in the modern world.

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My sister is married and actively having an affair. She is lying to her husband and her children. Her mantra is that she deserves happiness. She has yet to realize the pain she is now causing by lying or the future pain when her family finds out. When I "challenge" her on what she is doing, she screams, "Don't judge me!" How do I continue to be there for her when I know that there will be much suffering on so many levels? I cannot continue to be her "yes" person. - Michelle


Compassion, in the Buddhist tradition, can come in many forms. There is the skillful means where you extend yourself to help someone out, even when you’re exhausted and don’t really want to do so. Then there is the type of compassion where you don’t do anything, but simply allow space so that a difficult situation can unfold. Truly, there are a million variations on this theme.

Practitioners in the West often have a warped idea of how compassion can manifest. It’s not synonymous for lying down and letting people walk all over you. The Buddha never said that when the going got tough, the tough just took it.

In fact, there is a term that was coined by the meditation master Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche for just these sorts of occasions: “idiot compassion.” This is when you think you are being a “good” Buddhist and offering support, when really the situation calls for an entirely different set of skillful means.

Let me offer an example: you have a friend who keeps breaking up and getting back together with her boyfriend. This guy treats her poorly, cheats on her, and is verbally abusive yet she continues to go back to him. She turns to you and asks if you will support her if she goes back to her man.

On one hand, I could see someone thinking that a compassionate response would be “I’ll support you no matter what.” Because you want to be there for your friend, right? However, wouldn’t it be more supportive to point out the destructive habitual pattern and encourage the friend to not keep going down that road? While this is a “tough love” approach, it seems more compassionate than being a “yes" person as you describe.

To return to your scenario, I have a few thoughts. Our friend Sid would likely point out that someone who is looking for happiness, like your sister, is going to be continuously disappointed if she thinks she will find it in external factors. All things shift and change, so looking to one person as a means to your happiness, especially someone you have to lie to be with, is very silly.

However, simply pointing this out may not be the most skillful way to penetrate your sister’s seemingly thick head. It may only fall in line with your current form of communication with your sister, which she clearly is unable to hear and finds judgmental. So, as painful as it may be, I recommend engaging in some deep listening.

The practice of meditation is a training in being fully present with our breath. In the same way, we can bring our attention fully to other areas of our life, including simple things like brushing our teeth, or doing the laundry, and especially conversations.

The next time you are with your sister you should just let her talk. Bring your attention fully to her words, just as you do with the breath on the meditation cushion.  You can think of this as a mindfulness practice.

The more we are present with someone, the more we are able to see what they are experiencing. In your sister’s case, you may be able to hear a bit about her motivation for perpetuating the harm she is causing. From there you can inquire as to how she thinks this situation she is in will play out. Continue to listen deeply.

In some cases, the more space you allow for someone to speak their mind on a clearly difficult and painful topic, the more they are able to hear themselves. From there, they may begin to hear just how ridiculous their logic sounds and begin to question it themselves. Through becoming inquisitive with your sister, you are asking her to become inquisitive with her own situation. From there, she may loosen her fixed opinions on this topic and begin to see it with fresh eyes.

This is just one route that may be compassionate and skillful. Unfortunately, the historical Buddha never delivered a “How to Call out a Cheater” sermon. He did ask us to explore his teachings on topics like compassion and see how we can best apply them to our situations. I urge you to act if you are seeing harm being perpetuated, and not give into tacit support thinking that is compassionate. I wish you luck in finding your own penetrating ways to poke holes in your sister’s fixed ideas on this matter, and hope that you do it with an open heart!


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Very informative article,

Very informative article, thanks for posting it here. 

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