In these current times, we know that compassion is essential and we are seeing many expressions of this. However, a regular practice of compassion is a trickier act. We all need to witness the suffering in the world and in our lives, but sometimes it seems easier to look away or just too hard to stay present.
Compassion can be defined as suffering together. It is the feeling that arises when we encounter suffering and feel motivation to act on it in some ways. A definition of self-compassion from Kristen Neff, a researcher in the field, consists of the following three actions – a state of loving, connected, presence. In other words, compassion requires attention, kindness and motivation to act/help. An important element is that it can be learnt. As Jack Kornfield and others make clear, access to compassion for “self” can be attained through having compassion for others and receiving compassion from others. Thich Nhat Hanh emphasises transforming one’s own suffering first.
The key question is – how close are we willing to come to our own experiences and to the experiences of others? How often do we recognise and remember that we are all inter-connected beings? As I heard Joan Halifax state recently, can our hearts break open, as opposed to simply break? Why do we sometimes consciously or subconsciously flinch away from compassion and/or have little to no inclination towards compassion? Below I have listed some obstacles and then pathways to practice.
Obstacles to us accessing and practicing Compassion:
Ideas of separateness - when we think we are superior, inferior, different, unworthy, not enough, too much or any other variation, it separates us both from our own humanity and that of others. We are not above suffering. There is suffering in this world and we will encounter it. How can we embrace or lean into suffering as graciously as possible?
Being counter-culture - compassion is sometimes viewed as “shmultzy” or weak, or not valued. We don’t have to look far to see this being the case. Institutional under-valuing of compassion is evidenced in the salaries of aged-care workers, those very people who often hold the hands of the sometimes lonely dying. It is quite astonishing to compare the salaries of these essential workers to the earnings of our sports stars. In recent days, more of the world is waking up to the astonishing endurance and acts of kindness from our essential workers in so many fields.
Timing - when the amygdala in the deeper part of our brain is shrieking in fight or flight mode it can be hard to access the reasoning of the pre-frontal cortex or the heart of compassion (yes, there is plenty of science about how we are wired for connection and also how it can all go haywire).
The Second Arrow and our Patterned Reactivity - we all experience pain, disappointment and a range of events that might often be out of our control but it can be our own reactions, the slinging of a second arrow after the original event, that can cause the most harm. When are you likely to fire that second arrow? What are those top 10 tunes or thoughts that might discharge judgement and blame rather than compassion? For me, sitting in ambiguity or confusion can be very uncomfortable and cause me to react unwisely. For others, ambiguity or “don’t know mind” can be quite a creative or even a relaxed state. What are the circumstances that might be likely to inspire an unwise action, for you? Knowing in advance which triggers or patterns might set off a chain of non-compassion is a great way to create a more gentle u-turn towards staying present. When we start to know ourselves well, we can enlist mindfulness as soon as signs or circumstances that might lead to unwise actions arise.
Empathy overload - while compassion can be opening and even energising, over-identification with the pains and sorrows of this world, without clarity or wisdom, can be draining. In an attempt to either separate ourselves from discomfort or pain or over-identify with suffering, we begin to pity others or ourselves. We can be wise to remember that often we are probably not all in the same boat, but we are in the same storm of life.
“Fear is the cheapest room in the house. I would like to see you living in better conditions.” – the poet Hafiz.
Delusion - what are you believing? Is what you’re thinking true? Does what you think sometimes lead to catastrophising or any other unhelpful states? As the writer Anne Lamott warns, “my mind is like a dangerous neighbourhood I try not to go into alone.” Can we be present to our thoughts without necessarily believing them all?
Indifference, dissociation and/or denial - can we notice when we have the flinch reflex of “it could be me”, “this shouldn’t be me/others”, “this can’t be happening to me/others.”
Privilege or difference - sometimes we identify more/less strongly or compare different forms of suffering – “I shouldn’t be feeling this”. We disenfranchise or privilege our own or others’ grief when we think things such as, “my loss/grief is not that bad, compared to others (…so I shouldn’t feel this)”.
Too hard/overwhelming - this is the big resistance of “I don’t want to be feeling this” and/or…“I don’t want to STILL be feeling this.” When we sit with compassion we need to remain aware of our window of tolerance or capacity to be with the suffering. We also need to be careful of the desire to make the pain go away. We need to be with the pain and let it subside in its own time and in its own way. We can let the healing soft scar tissue form through our encounters with suffering and learn how to protect and hold wounds with kindness and care.
How to practice self-compassion:
It is an ongoing practice, training or discipline. It is something to be CULTIVATED (because our hearts don’t necessarily break open or stay open through all circumstances).
Non-discrimination because we are all part of common humanity/inter-connected - we are not superior to others, or inferior. We are not immune to suffering. We are inter-connected beings wired to care and love. We can witness others’ suffering. We can stay present to our own suffering by remembering that this a very human/humane story. “Understanding suffering is the mechanism of compassion.” (Thich Nhat Hanh).
Embodied, embodied, embodied - observe physical sensations in the body, eg. find somewhere already soft and safe, and/or scan areas to release tension where possible. Engage in soothing touch, such as placing palms at the heart. Find some tenderness in body, heart and mind.
Physical Posture - find your seat/power in seated meditation, “Strong back and soft front”, the great Joan Halifax regularly reminds practitioners. In the meditation posture we feel strength and resiliency through holding the spine upright and feel supported so that we can remain soft and open at the front/heart.
Be present - As Aboriginal Elder Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr says – “to know me is to breathe with me. To breathe with me is to listen deeply. To listen deeply is to connect.” See: Dadirri – Deep Listening
Breathe - find the safety, anchor or harbour in the breath. The breath waits for us tenderly as our most intimate and constant companion. The breath won’t lie to us or allow us to lie to ourselves, if we pay attention. With it we can energise, expand and open into the in-breath and settle, release and let be with each out-breath.
Contemplate needs versus wants - see what opens up and what drops away when staying with one simple and yet sophisticated instruction – breathe in what you need, breathe out what you don’t need. Softly repeat this without demand or expectation but as an offering or contemplation to see what comes up. So much of what we crave or run from is unnecessary. What drops away on the breath?
And/so, why is the breath so central to practice? We know that when we hold the breath, it won’t work out for very long! Exhale into a letting go, or more realistically, “letting be”.
Mindful LOVING Awareness - “welcome to the party”, says meditation teacher Jeff Warren. Try not to discriminate by only letting some feelings or thoughts in (does that really work anyway?). Remember, what we resist, persists so let yourself observe and allow all experiences. Can we gently stay with reality – the way it is? How? Can we softly lean into things exactly the way they are and not the way we want them to be?
Mindful movement - emotions need motion, so we can move the body and also the voice.
Non-identification - is that thought even true? Is that feeling all there is? Eg. are there more/other feelings/emotions underneath etc? For example, is fear under anger, is sadness under fear…?
See yourself or another person as a child - what might you say or do with this child to be loving?
Statements of loving-kindness and wishes to ease suffering - may your suffering be eased.
Tonglen practice - we sit and take in another’s/others’ suffering on the in-breath and breathe out for them and wish them relief or ease from suffering on the out-breath. Sit with the intention to contemplate and hold and then release others’ and our own suffering. It is also particularly powerful to do this practice for someone who challenges or triggers you in some way by stopping to consider the possible causes of their suffering and also everyone’s wish to end their own suffering.
Qualities of compassion from others - connect to a person who has been most generous to you. This could be a real person or a spiritual being, What would that person say to you to support you? Reach out and feel support from your own loving community of others. Go out and find or form a community that supports you. What we put out there by being loving ourselves usually returns to us. As many spiritual teachers have advised over the centuries, be the compassion you want to see in the world. If you saw a friend engaged in that dance of lack of compassion, what would you say to them? What is the kindest, most compassionate thing you’d say to them?
Qualities of self-compassion from Nature - consider the flexibility of a tree’s branches, along with the solidness of trunk and roots. The seasons turn, spring comes and the fruit return. Nature is the great teacher and healer across all traditions and people. Contemplate the resiliency of that flower that popped up from the concrete pathway or the wide open embrace of the sky or whatever settles and opens your heart.
Gratitude - I am alive to witness this whole damn mystery/tragedy (and the sun keeps rising regardless/too.) Practice observing and nourishing yourself through gratitude, joy and happiness, wherever and however they are found.
An (inevitable) dose of loss or grief - it is no surprise that some of the most compassionate people have suffered a lot and also met, understood and been transformed by their own suffering. “No Mud, No Lotus” – Thich Nhat Hanh
The Power of Intention (Sankalpa) - in this practice we brainstorm and commit to repeating some words that capture a deep intention which resonates with our own values. This practice of digging deep into one’s roots and developing some words of intention that you can repeat to yourself when in receptive states is called Sankalpa in the yogic tradition, but like all deeply meaningful work, it is a universal inclination to want to come home to oneself or as Jung reminds us – “The privilege of a lifetime is to become who you truly are.” When we are in the spaciousness of who we truly are, we cannot help but radiate compassion.
Artwork: Interconnected by Suzanne Frydman
© Suzanne Frydman / Relax Communications