Thank you Barbara at Me, My Magnificent Self for inviting me to guest blog on this topic today. It happens to be a very relevant topic for me currently, which I will share in this post. Thank you to all who may read this and be encouraged to further their own journey of compassion.
Compassion — My Journey
A life-long journey toward becoming a more compassionate being has led me through experiences of — fear (of everyone and everything) judgment (of self and others) isolation (“I am alone and no one cares.”) victimization (“I am powerless and helpless to rise above this circumstance.”) hopelessness and grief (“There is no hope of ever getting out of this ‘hell’ I am in.”) – mingled with other experiences of self-reflection (“I am the common denominator of my experiences; perhaps I had some hand in shaping them?”) glimmers of hope (“Maybe there is a way to re-frame this experience and learn from it.”) acceptance (“I can take responsibility for this and feel more empowered.”) forgiveness (of myself, everyone and everything) and eventually, compassion, including self-compassion.
Of all the emotional “tones” described above, self-empathy (or self-compassion) has been the most challenging and elusive for me. At times, I have found it far easier to feel compassion for a snail than for my own self. My ego has held me to an almost impossible standard of behavior and achievement, egging me on to self-criticism, self-doubt and self-judgment, until I declared myself worthless and powerless.
The development of compassion within me has not been a straight line. My early childhood memories present many instances of feeling and showing compassion toward the menagerie of farm animals and pets in my life. My tender heart quailed at the prospect of hurting any of them even in the slightest way. On the other hand, I ruthlessly cut bees in half with scissors as they landed on flowers.
In my middle years, I wore a loving, accepting persona on the surface, while underneath lay the injured animal that lashed out at others from my wounded emotional state of pain and rage. My story is probably not so different from others who have been en-“cult”-urated by our western societal practices. This is not an excuse for my behavior but a statement of relative fact that my journey is nothing remarkable. It is merely my unique variation on the theme for those who tread the path of becoming a more compassionate person.
So, if I’d been able to view my journey toward compassion from above, my path might have looked at times like a backward, downward spiral.
As my awakening process became more conscious and deliberate, my compassion journey began to straighten out a bit. It gained momentum as I took responsibility for the situations that were happening in my life. Still, it was easier to feel and show compassion toward plants, animals and other people (the bees have been safe for decades now) than to feel it toward myself.
Why is it so hard to feel and demonstrate self-compassion, I wondered? Shouldn’t this be the starting point? Apparently, in my case, (and I suspect for many others) it has been the last leg of my journey, not the first.
During the past two years, I have focused more energy in this area: self-acceptance, self-forgiveness, self-empathy. Almost exactly two years ago, I posted an article about compassion, as one of six virtues of the heart. You can read that post here. I summarized that post with this statement:
For me, Compassion is the natural response of my heart to the immediate needs of myself or another. Giving myself the permission to respond from my heart is the first compassionate act. It reflects that gentleness that I have come to understand is innately human.
When I wrote this series, I launched an intensified inquiry of Compassion and several other “Virtues of the Heart,” as presented in the teachings of James Mahu. Looking back now, I realize that it was more of an intellectual understanding, compared with the work that I have done in the past six months. However, it was a great step forward at the time that contributed to my forward progress.
Last December my husband and I moved into an intentional community where one of the stated intentions is for residents to communicate compassionately with one another, following the principles formulated by Marshall Rosenburg, author of several books about Non-Violent Communication. Merely by reading this information, Tomas and I began to speak and listen to each other more compassionately. As we sat in meetings and gatherings with other community members, we noticed how others, skilled in these techniques, spoke and listened to one another and how gently things could be said that might otherwise provoke an emotional reaction. We marveled at how people would ask questions in ways that drew people out without attacking or antagonizing them. By opening ourselves to communicating more compassionately, we are enjoying a more harmonious, fluid and gracious dynamic in our relationship as a couple, as well as with the relationships we are forming with other community residents.
One of the last chapters in Marshall’s book was a chapter on self-empathy. This chapter especially spoke to my heart, allowing me to truly begin to quell the ruthless “dictator” within and soothe the trembling child who had so longed for complete acceptance. Marshall’s exercises helped me to better “unhook” myself when I got triggered, to breathe through my automatic stance as “my own worst enemy” and to look upon myself and my situation with a more gentle, balanced perspective. With practice, I began to heal this life-long dynamic and put into place this “last piece” for me which, as I said above, should have been the “first piece.” We all know intellectually that we cannot truly love or feel compassion for another until we can show it to ourselves. And so I find myself at a new level of ability to share my love with others, having finally given at least the basics of this gift to myself.
In early June of this year, I began reading The Book of Joy, by author Douglas Abrams. This book is the documentation of a conversation about living in joy – a week-long conversation between the Reverend Archbishop Desmond Tutu and His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Abrams interviewed these two spiritual giants in celebration of the Dalai Lama’s 80th Birthday in 2015. Chapter after chapter reveals these two dignitaries’ ability to rise above the many challenges and horrors of their lives and maintain a state of joy. And throughout the book, “compassion” runs a close second to the main topic of joy. Both of these men continually assure the reader that developing compassion for self and others inevitably leads to a more joyous life. Why is this so? I will conclude this post with a short quote from each of these great souls.
Archbishop Tutu:1 “Yes, I hope that [people] would try it (compassion) out, because it’s very difficult just speaking about it theoretically. It’s something that you have to work out in actual life. Try out being kind when you are walking in the street and say good morning to the people you are passing, or smile, when you are not feeling like it. I bet you my bottom dollar, in a very short period of time this pall of self-regard, which is the bad self-regard, lifts. It’s universal. When you try it out, why does it work? We really are wired to be caring of the other. And when we go against that fundamental law of our being, whether we like it or not, it is going to have deleterious consequences for us.”
The Dalai Lama:2 “Too much self-centered thinking is the source of suffering. A compassionate concern for others’ well-being is the source of happiness. . .”
The Buddha supposedly said:’ What is the one thing, which when you possess, you have all other virtues? It is compassion.’
- The Book of Joy, Abrams, Douglas, p 255
- The Book of Joy, Abrams, Douglas, pp 251,252