Five Blocks To Compassion

Excerpt from Tara Brach's, What is it like being you, podcast

The following list is by no means comprehensive, however it is a great starting point for reflecting on what gets in the way, or derails our compassionate nature. Take a moment to reflect, and perhaps even journal, on each one the blocks to compassion listed below. You might remember a time where you may have responded from each block, how it felt, its affect on the situation, or why you responded from that place. You might even feel one or more of these blocks arise just by contemplating them. You might keep in mind that on our journey to embody compassion, undoing our inner blocks to compassion is an important part of the learning. At the same time, please remember that self judgement is not only unnecessary, but is essentially a continued lack of compassion towards your own learning journey. Being gentle with our selves helps us to create a safe inner environment, which encourages us to truly touch into the vulnerability necessary to be honest with ourselves and enable our own growth.

"What blocks Compassion? Outmoded survival programming. So when we get highjacked by the limbic system we get cut off from the parts of our brain that are responsible for compassion" - Tara Brach

1. Flight Response - Disassociation from pain.

2. Identification - Stuck in a contraction of pain without mindfulness.

3. Fight Response - Triggering of anger or insecurity

4. Default Programming - Inability to maintain focus and presence due to mind wandering

5. Preoccupation with Self - Distracted with own wants, needs and concerns 



It really goes without saying that talking about and unpacking our privilege is an essential part of growing in our capacity for compassion. 

Unexamined privilege leaves us with huge blind spots in the way we understand others, the world, and our effect on and response-ability to both. Essentially, privilege is an enormous social and cultural preoccupation with self, as it allows us to remain unaware of the wants, needs and concerns of less privileged people, contributing to the perpetuation of all of the 'isms', even if unconsciously.


Unpacking our privilege is an intentional, active, and life-long process of disarming ourselves, as our privilege consistently has the affect of harming those who have less. On the unpacking journey you almost surely will bump into your fight response. In fact you will likely bump into every one of the blocks to compassion listed above. It is a great practice in self-awareness. I encourage you to stay with it, to notice your initial, perhaps blocked, impulses, but to persist in your quest to grow in compassion.

In some ways developing in compassion through unpacking our privilege is simply about becoming an increasingly descent person.

You might begin doing some unpacking by reflecting on your own privilege and how these create blind spots in your worldview. Consider your; Sexual Orientation, Class, Physical Ability, Religion, Gender, Gender Identity, Language, Handedness, Ethnicity, Nation of Origin, Languages of Origin, Employment, Families' relation to education, money, housing and neighbourhoods. (List references from Peggy MacIntosh, Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack Facilitators Notes)

There are so many important resources related to privilege from people who have committed their lives to this work, that I thought it best to largely point you towards their wisdom. Here are some resources to begin.... but keep looking and listening for more opportunities to learn and grow.

Talking About Privilege with Catrice M Jackson 

White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack by Peggy MacIntosh

Evolving Beyond "Unreal Othering", Tara Brach


The excerpt below is from When the Past Is Present: Healing the Emotional Wounds That Sabotage Our Relationships, by David Richo. In it he explains the basic concept of transference as it relates, largely, to our intimate relationships. I encourage you to also expand your awareness of transference to include all of our relationships, both casual and profound. Regardless of the degree to which our relationships are intimate, transference influences and sometimes even determines how we see others through the lens of our own unmet needs, rather than who they actually are.

This insight can be helpful in our efforts to become more aware of how our past affects they way we are in relationship in the present. And in so doing, we are better able to see and understand people as they are, rather than how we are, or how we would prefer them to be. When we practice perceiving beyond our personal needs and expectations, compassion is often more available to apply in even challenging situations.

What Transference Does

"Much of our childhood may be unsayable, but it is not inexpressible, and transference lets the story be told in spite of our muteness. We act out what we cannot quite cry out. We locate those who shall stand in loco parentis: We unconsciously beg from our intimate partner what we were refused by our parents. The story of our deprivation has to be told before the gift of our love can be given. We hope the other will take the clue and make up for what we missed. When that happens, we feel truly loved. This is why we can give love in return most easily to those who understand us.

The muteness-turned-transference also take the form of acting toward a partner as a significant person acted toward us so we can show what happened. For instance, we withhold intimacy from others, as we play the part of our own ungiving parent. We do this not because we are tight-fisted about giving our love but because we are compelled to let the world know how deprived we were in receiving love. Only when we get something like that off our chest can our heart be opened.

Likewise we may not be manipulating our partner because we are simply controllers. We are stammering out in actions rather than in words how invaded we felt by our father's harsh control of us. We are showing as a way of telling, using a metaphor instead of a statement. In fact, the Greek word for "transference" is our word metaphor. Our present relationships are metaphors for our original bonds, both successful and failed. Intimacy is the momentary liberation from metaphorical comparisons into reality beyond compare.

We show what happened to us rather than simply telling it. We are doing this not because we are playing it close to the vest or lying. The showing rather than telling happens because we are unconscious of the impact of the past and unconscious of the ways we are repeating it through transference.



Pity is not compassion. The subconscious structure of pity almost always involves a 'victim' and a 'saviour', in addition to a whole lot of projection based on how you see and judge a situation. Feel into the energy of pity for a moment. Have you experienced it? Have you expressed it? What does it feel like? What does it do for either side? You probably need no prompting to notice how few, if any, redeeming qualities pity has. Instead it often only reinforces the status quo and alienates everyone involved.

Spiritual leaders and social activists alike instead call for solidarity.... the understanding that our liberation is bound to one another's, as expressed in Lilla Watson's quote at the top of the page. It is Martin Luther Kings beloved community, Audre Lorde's call for an inclusive, intersectional feminist movement, and the Dalai Lama's vision of a global community.

Where pity reinforces and separates, solidarity activates and unites.

Below is an excerpt from a talk given by HH the Dali Lama on The Global Community and the need for universal responsibility....

"Whether we like it or not, we have all been born on this earth as part of one great human family. Rich or poor, educated or uneducated, belonging to one nation or another, to one religion or another, adhering to this ideology or that, ultimately each of us is just a human being like everyone else: we all desire happiness and do not want suffering. Furthermore, each of us has an equal right to pursue these goals.

Today's world requires that we accept the oneness of humanity. In the past, isolated communities could afford to think of one another as fundamentally separate and even existed in total isolation. Nowadays, however, events in one part of the world eventually affect the entire planet. Therefore we have to treat each major local problem as a global concern from the moment it begins. We can no longer invoke the national, racial or ideological barriers that separate us without destructive repercussions. In the context of our new interdependence, considering the interests of others is clearly the best form of self-interest.

I view this fact as a source of hope. The necessity for cooperation can only strengthen mankind, because it helps us recognize that the most secure foundation for the new world order is not simply broader political and economic alliances, but rather each individual's genuine practice of love and compassion. For a better, happier, more stable and civilized future, each of us must develop a sincere, warm-hearted feeling of brother- and sisterhood."  

Read more

On Engaged Compassion

“Compassion is a verb” - Thich Nhat Hanh

I hope you enjoy this talk…. it is a favourite that we could all benefit from having on repeat :)