As awake compassion, you experience no separation. You know that the apparent division of experience between "I" and "the world" is a misperception and that even the subtlest sense of superiority is a further delusion.
Ken McLeod

Compassion arises in a context of non-attachment, when we have no expectations of reciprocity and it is not about me. As a therapist, as a mother, or even with a total stranger on the street, it is relatively easy to be compassionate in this way. I have all the power, and nothing is at stake for me personally[1].

But when I am in a friendship or love relationship, there is a me and there is a you. Necessarily, there is duality, because we are rooted in a personal connection. Naturally, these relationships activate attachment needs and all the other stuff that goes along with wanting to transcend separation in an embodied way. This is not to say that each person cannot be compassionately awake to the other; separation need not imply falling asleep, or the will to power. On the contrary, each person in an equal partnership has the ability to be awake. The question is how to be awake and act from a place of attachment at the same time.

Compassion becomes particularly problematic when we are both in pain and when the remedy for my pain is the opposite of yours, when, for example, I need closeness and you need distance. I may respond to your withdrawal with approaching you, but this is because of my own need for closeness. You may respond to my need for closeness with detachment, but this is because of your own need for distance. Neither is a compassionate response to the other but an attachment-based reaction, sometimes even obscured to oneself because of one's feeling compassionate. In fact, each often becomes quite defensive about his or her reaction to the other.

So the question is:
How, from a perspective of non-attachment, do you and I remain awake in relationship?

[1] Martin Buber’s I-Thou relationship is like this. Thou is not an object, but neither is it you per se. It is an aspect of, “the face of”, God.


  1. Although Buddhism typically speaks of oneness and non-separation, compassion in relationship may require acknowledgment of difference
    and the acceptance of the otherness of our partner. Only by allowing the other to be a separate subjectivity do we free them from being reduced to a function, to how well or badly they are meeting my needs. I think this is analogous in Buber's terms of not reducing the other to an "it."

    Non-separation can become a pernicious concept if we use it to condemn difference; if we imagine we or our partner should always be in perfect synch with one another and idealize a kind of twinship in which words and feelings never have to be spoken let alone negotiated. Practice should lead us to cherish imperfection and ordinary humanness, not create a fantasy of being or being loved by an all-knowing never frustrated Bodhisattva.

    Barry Magid


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