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Detachment or Compassion?

Written by Professor Lance Butler.

We have learnt of these heavenly twins from Buddhism. We know we should be detached and we know that we should be compassionate, but for most of us, there can be something of a question hanging over this double injunction. I mean, how detached can we really be when we’re feeling compassion? And how compassionate can we be if we are feeling detached?


Since this is Buddhism there must be a simple answer – even if its simplicity is slightly complicated. The key may be to ask about the people concerned in any interaction. Essentially: is it just me or is there someone else involved?


Thus, perhaps it goes something like this, in four stages:


  1. I should feel some compassion for myself. It’s not a great plan to drown in self-pity but we do now say that it isn’t good to ‘beat oneself up’. And surely that’s right. Let’s be loving all the way around, including ourselves.


  1. I should be detached to some degree, if I can, from my own desires. If I feel a strong urge to lose my temper and a little detached reflection prevents me from starting to shout that is surely a good thing. Is my desire to rage really that important? Is it good for everyone involved? Is it even good for me? Is my desire to drive faster or play my music more loudly really a need? Aren’t I really just showing of? Can I step back from taking actions that will get me what I want when I know that they will be at the expense of others? Let’s be mindful.


  1. I should be compassionate about your desires. I’m not going to react with cold indifference if you tell me that you want to get into the university of your choice, or avoid prison, or earn a bit more. I can’t just remain aloof when you say you would like children but aren’t able to conceive. And I may usefully sympathise with you when you are in pain or grieving (and thus desiring a change in your circumstances). And here we can add Jesus to the Buddha and bring in the Good Samaritan: it is compassion that drives me to help you if I can. Let’s not just stand aside when we can usefully be kind.


  1. So far so good, but what about the fourth possibility? Should we really try to feel detached from the pains and problems of others? Here the slogan may be ‘be cool but useful’. There is no point in getting involved in the dramatics of other people’s lives unless you can do something concrete to help (there’s that Samaritan again) and perhaps there are over-dramatised situations around you that are best left to burn themselves out without your intervention. A little cool assessment of what is going on may help you to avoid adding flames to the fire. The offer of kindness can always be there, in the background, for when it’s needed. I can’t summarise this as easily as I have the previous points but it must be something of what Jesus meant when he told his disciples to be ‘wise as serpents and simple as doves.’ Anyway, let’s be cool but useful.


My last thought is that the cooler you are the more useful you are likely to be. So perhaps the really detached person is the one who can operate in the most effectively compassionate manner. And thus there may be no dilemma here after all. And if there is then the solution would be something like ‘Step back in your mind and forward in your heart.

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