The Power of Fierce Gentleness
Gentleness with ourselves and our others sometimes means pushing back.
My yoga practice is, essentially, a practice of relationship. When I show up to my yoga mat, I’m working on my relationship with my body. I’m listening to what it’s telling me, asking it questions, feeling it out. Meditation is a practice of relationship with my mind; it’s an opportunity for me to sit and listen to what kinds of thoughts are bouncing around in my head. Mindfulness is about my relationship with the world around me, with the other people in my life. It’s a way of paying attention to how I’m reacting to certain people or situations or news items and how the world reacts back. All these relationships require a certain gentleness.
There’s so much in the world that we can’t control. Other people are sometimes totally unfathomable, but even our own minds and bodies do things from time to time that make no sense to us. In order to stay engaged and present and hoping for the best, we must be patient and loving. Especially if we are trying to implement changes in any of these relationships, we must be gentle, not push too hard, expect too much, or turn to punishment or shame when things don’t go our way.
Compassion is a wonderful and incredibly important quality. Punishment has never worked to instigate positive change. Gentleness is a certain kind of power in our lives and relationships, but it’s not always sweet and kind. Powerful gentleness must sometimes be fierce.
The psychologist Robert Augustus Masters has pointed out that when we think of compassion, we often think it means forgiving absolutely anything, never getting angry, never pushing back against someone that is hurting you. Blind compassion is easy, but it’s not useful. It doesn’t ask anyone to take responsibility for their actions. Masters writes in his book Spiritual Bypassing, “When we are driven by blind compassion, we cut everyone far too much slack, making excuses for others’ behavior and making nice in situations that require a forceful ‘no,’ an unmistakable voicing of displeasure, or a firm setting and maintaining of boundaries.”
Gentleness with ourselves and others sometimes means pushing back. Loving ourselves, certainly, requires that we get angry from time to time. Anger is the bodyguard of our boundaries, our needs, and our desires. Anger stands up for our sense of self, our autonomy and our physical safety. When we think compassion means never getting angry, we miss a powerful and appropriate opportunity to protect our boundaries. We teach people how to treat us, and blind compassion can teach others that our autonomy and safety don’t matter, that we do not ask for appropriate gentleness from the world around us. True intimacy is the coming together of two separate selves, not the enmeshment of two people into one boundary-less being. Anger can help us to know when to stand up for our right to a separate, autonomous self.
We can protect our boundaries fiercely and with gentleness. Sometimes we need to tell someone that as much as we love them, the way they are treating us is not okay. Sometimes we need to walk away. Masters insists that standing up for our boundaries and setting limits “can, and often should, be done out of love, but blind compassion keeps love too meek, sentenced to wearing a kind face.” Love isn’t always kind and sweet. True love is fierce. True love knows where its “no” is. Cultivating relationships, whether it’s with ourselves or with other human beings, requires some negotiation, some separation between the self and the other, some insistence on the limits of how far a loved one can push us. We must be gentle, certainly, with ourselves and with our others, and sometimes that includes a clear, fierce, “no.”