Brene Brown and Chris Germer Explore Fierce Compassion – and Enemies Near and Far
I’ve known and treasured Chris Germer personally and professionally for a full decade. Chris is the co-developer of the Mindful Self-Compassion protocol, now taught to more than 200,000 people world-wide. I’ve never met Brene Brown, but along with millions of other readers of The Gifts of Imperfection and Atlas of the Heart, I treasure her wisdom and genuine care about the very real vulnerabilities of being a human being in our world today.
To hear them playfully exploring together, yet seriously applying basic principles to social justice work on Brene Brown’s recent podcasts, The Near and Far Enemies of Fierce Compassion, is an inspiration and a joy.
And here’s my brief summary of the most salient points.
In Part One:
Defining fierce compassion as the balance of yin and yang: The yin nurturing aspect refers to “being with” another person, especially comforting, connecting, and validating the pain of another. Taking action to protect others, to provide for those in need, and to motivate one another to do what’s right, even if it’s hard, is the “yang” side of compassion.
Far enemies of a quality like compassion are behaviors that are the direct opposite of compassion. Near enemies are behaviors similar to the quality but that actually undermine it, unravel it, corrode it. Chris and Brene applied these ideas to the three pillars of self-compassion:
Mindfulness means awareness of present moment experience. The opposite or far enemy of mindfulness is emotional reactivity – getting hijacked by our emotions such as anger, fear, or despair, and losing sight of the other person. The near enemy of mindfulness is complacency. Not reacting. Saying “both sides are at fault” and then doing nothing when one group is obviously harming another.
Common humanity is the tangible experience that all human beings suffer, all human beings wish to be happy and free of suffering, and we are all inter-connected in the truth of that reality of being human. The far enemy of common humanity is hostility or hatred. The demonizing and dehumanizing of other people. The near enemy is blithely assuming we are all the same, “your experience is the same as my experience.” That assumption can be profoundly alienating, disrespecting, hurtful when somebody has had a much different experience or if they’ve been harmed by the dominant majority.
Kindness is genuine care and compassionate action to relieve suffering. The far enemy is cruelty. The near enemy is pity, which creates a separation or distancing between ourselves and those we are “helping.” Pity is a defense against the pain we feel when somebody is suffering. That distancing is demeaning to the person experiencing it.[Note: Many, many practices to cultivate fierce compassion are available on the websites of Chris Germer and Kristin Neff, co-founders of the Mindful Self-Compassion protocol, through their Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook, and through Kristin’s new book Fierce Self-Compassion.]
In Part Two:
Brene asks Chris about the role of anger in fierce compassion, seen to include qualities of strength, courage, and empowerment to confront social injustice and change it. How do we move beyond reactivity in the face of injustice and use our individual agency to bring about a better world?
When there’s so much pain and hurt in the world and we want to be a voice, we want to speak up and speak out, we want to take action, and we want to do so from a place where we are healing pain, not causing more pain. You’ve witnessed an injustice, you’re outraged about something that seems immoral and hurtful, and the far enemies of fierce compassion are emotional reactivity, demonizing or dehumanizing, and hostility or cruelty. Am I allowed to engage and come from a place of fierce compassion and get really pissed off sometimes?
And Chris answers, framing anger, like any emotion, as information.
The issue is not what emotion we have, but how we’re holding that emotion and what we can learn from that emotion. Anger points to something really deep, like our core values. So anger is a function, which is actually protecting something sacred, if we have the courage to go into that place, into that place of deepest meaning and also into that place of brokenness…
Anger is protective. But if we don’t have the capacity to see deeply, if we can’t get to those broken places, if we can’t get to those core values of what is sacred to us and honor them and protect them then what’s going to happen is we’re not going to behave wisely, we just going to react on the surface with our anger and cause more pain and suffering.
The energy side of anger mobilizes us potentially for goodness. However, we need to apply it wisely. We need to be able to validate it, to be able to feel it, to know what it is that we’re protecting, and then to find wise and effective ways of protecting those sacred things that need protecting without causing further harm.
And both Brene and Chris advocate that we need to work on ourselves and the unjust systems that we live in at the same time. It has to happen simultaneously or it’s going to get lopsided, either feeling loveless or leading to burn-out. We need to grow as individuals even as we want to grow the world around us.
Treat yourself to a bit of a romp through one of the most powerful practices we have to recover our resilience and well-being and to extend those qualities to others in the world, even enemies near and far.