Blocks To Compassion

What interferes with or derails our compassionate nature?

In her podcast, What Is It Like Being You, Tara Brach explains that our blocks to compassion are a direct result of, “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.”

These are five common blocks to compassion:

1. Flight Response - Disassociation from pain

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

3. Fight Response - Trigger 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 

Discovering and undoing our inner blocks is an important part of learning how to embody compassion. As a starting point, take a moment to carefully reflect on the blocks listed above, and perhaps even journal about each one. Can you recall instances where your responses were influenced by each block? How did it feel? How did it impact the situation? Why might you have responded from that place? (Also notice if one or more of these blocks are arising for you right now simply because you are contemplating them.)

Please remember that self-judgement is not only unnecessary, it demonstrates a lack of compassion towards our own learning journey. Being gentle with our selves helps us create a safe inner environment that encourages the honesty and vulnerability needed to enable our growth.

Tara Brach’s podcast What Is It Like Being You explores these five blocks and so much more. Listen to the full podcast here.


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 critical blind spots in the way we understand others, the world, as well as 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 those who are less privileged than us. This lack of awareness, intentional or unconscious, reinforces interconnected systems of oppression (the 'isms').


Unpacking our privilege is an intentional, active, and life-long process of disarming ourselves. Though most of us have experienced some degree of suffering in our lives, we can still benefit from privilege. While unpacking, you will likely bump into your ‘fight’ response. In fact, you may 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: notice your initial, perhaps blocked, impulses and persist in your quest to grow in compassion.

In some ways, developing in compassion through unpacking our privilege is simply about becoming a better person. Explore the resources linked below to help you begin (or further) your own unpacking, and let’s always 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" by Tara Brach


In When the Past is Present, David Richo explains how the concept of transference impacts our intimate relationships. Regardless of the degree to which our relationships are intimate, transference can influence and sometimes even determine how we see others. We often see them through the lens of our own unmet needs, rather than as they actually are.

Richo explains what transference looks like:

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.

Understanding how transference works increases our awareness of how our past shapes the way we are in relationship in the present. With this knowledge, we can 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 own needs and expectations, we can learn to embody compassion, even in challenging situations.


Pity is not compassion.

The subconscious structure of pity almost always involves a 'victim' and a 'saviour,' further informed by our own biases and assumptions. 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 of a situation? You probably need no prompting to notice how few, if any, redeeming qualities belong to pity. Instead, it often serves to reinforce the status quo and alienate everyone involved.


Where pity reinforces and separates, solidarity activates and unites.

Spiritual leaders and social activists, like Martin Luther King, Audre Lorde, and the Dalai Lama, continue to call for solidarity among us. Solidarity, though, requires an understanding that our liberation is inextricably bound together, locally and globally.

What follows is an excerpt from a talk by the Dalai Lama entitled, The Global Community and the Need for Universal Responsibility:

One Human Family

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 the full talk here.

On Engaged Compassion

This talk is a favourite that we could all benefit from having on repeat. Enjoy!

Compassion is a verb.
— Thich Nhat Hanh