This is a short essay I wrote as part of an application to the Cultivation of Compassion Teacher Training program through the Compassion Institute. I am still awaiting notification of acceptance. (Update: I have completed the program on May 6, 2018!)
Tara Brach writes in her book Radical Acceptance, “Our suffering becomes a gateway to the compassion that frees our heart. When we become the holder of our own sorrows, our old roles as a judge, adversary or victim are no longer being fueled. In their place we find not a new role, but a courageous openness and a capacity for genuine tenderness, not only for ourselves but for others as well.”
These words echo a key aspect of my understanding of compassion, which broadened once I began to deliberately engage in self-compassion practice. My first experience with self-compassion was when I committed to no longer living in anger and resentment, to remain a victim of my own suffering. As I embarked on my personal journey to developing a mindfulness meditation practice, I was quickly drawn to lovingkindness practice. Consequently, I dove into researching mindful compassion, which led me to the CCT course.
When I first started my practice, Kristen Neff’s book Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself along with Sharon Salzburg’s book Lovingkindness provided a solid and critical introduction to identifying, listening to and shifting the way I experienced my inner voice, particularly my inner critic. One day, early on in my practice, I had an intense argument with my husband, an experience that happened often over our 20 years of being together. I left the situation to be alone as I typically had done as a means to calm down, but when alone my self-talk was different. In the past, I would get stuck in fight or flight mode telling myself stories about leaving or regretting certain decisions, judging myself and sometimes turning to aggressive or self-destructive behaviors. This time I hugged myself tightly and repeated quietly: I am in a moment of suffering. You are not alone in this suffering. I am here for you. As I gave myself these hugs and spoke these words throughout the next several months along with daily compassion meditation, I noticed a shift in how I responded to situations where I felt hurt or angry. I had integrated a powerful self-care tool into how I related to my experiences: the “self-compassion break,” as termed by Dr. Neff. Furthermore, offering myself compassion and accepting it without judgement nurtured a mindful awareness, in so much that I have become more skillful in responding to challenging situations. This has been liberating and has transformed how I engage in my relationships with others. It has freed my heart.
In Brach’s word, I have and continue to develop a “courageous openness and a capacity for genuine tenderness” for myself and others. An example of this truth is in another exchange with my husband. He returned home from a work trip and was focused immediately on talking out his work interactions. In an effort to listen mindfully, I noticed feelings of rejection intensifying in my body. Why doesn’t he ask about my week or about the kids, I said to myself as I clung to my unmet needs. I noticed his intensity about work come into how he responded to me and my actions. It would have been easy for me to get irritated and respond unskillfully making our first interaction in a week an unpleasant one. Because of my self-compassion practice, I could recognize the neediness I felt and question my expectations of my husband in this moment. I found that courageous tenderness and breathed through my initial negative sensations and thoughts so that I could be present and loving toward my husband’s needs. This shift gave him the space to let out all his pent up thoughts, relax and then be there for me. It turned into a moment of loving connection, which would not have happened had I not been developing the skills of compassion and love for myself and others.
While one can be compassionate towards others, it seems more difficult to sustain this way of being when self-compassion is lacking. Since building a daily compassion and mindfulness practice, I understand compassion as a wholehearted cradling of suffering. In the words of Thich Nhat Hanh, “I am here for you darling,” is said to both ourselves and to others. To be present in a compassionate capacity is a commitment to the bodhisattva path, one that must include ourselves so that we can live a life that serves awakening.