Seeking the Compassionate Life
Author: Lynne Namka, Ed. D.
I awoke today contemplating compassion. Introspection and contemplation are the major forms of my spirituality and thus it shapes my self-growth. Contemplation for me is to raise the great questions of meaning and purpose in life. I sit and muse, reflect, cogitate and mull over an idea until something wiser than what I’ve been considering pops out. So it’s amusing that compassion has come out upon awakening, urging at me this morning. With a few real problems and many perceived problems, I’ve not been in a state of calm mind space recently.
Focusing on compassion and connection to the greater whole is a way back home from the flurry of dark emotions that have been present lately. Moving into compassion is a way of taking me out of my insignificant thoughts to shift and be more connected, more real and certainly more present. If we focus on the greater whole, we can recognize that we are all connected. Albert Einstein said, “The idea that there is separateness is but an illusion, we are all one thing in this universe, and our job is to widen our circle of compassion till it surrounds everything in the universe.” Practicing the art of compassion produces a sense of awe that leads to wisdom.
Relationships are so challenging! Compassion is the ability to reach out and care about others in a loving, empathetic way. It is to hold them with love without judging them. It is a state of presence of just being with another person with kindness. It is to greet and be with another human being or animal with an open heart. It is to give up the me, me, me and be in comfort with the one before you. It is to give up the personal confusion and just be there. Chogyam Trungpa Ripoche tells us that the confusion of emotions can be transmuted into wisdom.
In the state of compassion, all you have to do is to be open to another, just hanging out with where they are in the moment. To just be with. Just being there totally with another in loving consideration, empathy and concern. And of course, you may be moved to do something to help, but not always.
The compassionate mind does not judge others or our self. Tenzin Wangyal Ripoche quotes the Buddhist teaching that says compassion is like trading places with the other person. It is to understand the other person’s pain and suffering because we too have pain and suffering. This is the bright message that empathy holds for us because we too have been hungry, tired, sick and poor. It also means to sit with ourselves without judging, when we too are in the misery of hunger, exhaustion, illness or poverty of mind.
Compassion is to let the beloved in you come forth. Sufi teacher Iyanla Vanzant says, “The beloved is the one who nurtures you, twists you, supports you, encourages you without condition. That’s you.” The heart of the Sufi experience is to open the heart. Opening the heart as a daily exercise is to experience love no matter what is happening. Unhappy experiences in life can cause us to harden our heart. Betrayal and trauma experiences can create a cynical outlook that replaces the compassionate heart. Opening requires a decision and a choice to be with love no matter what is happening. It is to surrender to the connection that we living beings have with each other with abandon. That must have been what Norman Vincent Peale meant when he said, “Throw your heart over the fence and the rest will follow.”
It is treating others with respect while insisting that they treat you with respect as well. It does not mean excusing poor behavior from yourself or others. It does not mean enabling destructive, addictive behavior. It is a fine line between feeling empathy for others and giving too much in a codependent fashion which cripples not only you but the other person. As Irma Kurtz said, “Givers have to set limits because takers rarely do.” Know your limits and stick to them.
So what takes me away from being a compassionate person more of the time? It turns out that my fear-based ego-that False Self entering the picture. The False Self takes me away from who I truly am — a loving compassionate person interested in the welfare of others. The False Self comes up when Compassion Fatigue sets in.
Compassion or Empathy Fatigue sets in when we are so used up that we are heading for burnout. It happens when I get out of balance and don’t take good care of myself. Here are the signs that I have given too much and feel like I don’t have any more to give.
1. I have a lack of personal resources. When I’m hungry, tired or sick I don’t have the energy to reach out to others. When I’m so depleted, there is nothing left to give; there is not even enough energy to think kindly of others. When I go into this state of depletion I simply allow, knowing from past history that I will garner energy from rest and taking care of myself to be back into my giving self.
2. When I haven’t been aware that I’m letting someone transgress on my boundaries and I’ve given so much that I become resentful at having to give more. Compassion fatigue sets in when I feel sucked dry by someone who is needy and I haven’t said no. Then it becomes burn out time.
3. I’m too busy, rushing around to complete too many tasks. I call this my “Woman on a Mission” state in which my ego deems that what I have to do is so important. Sometimes what I think needs to be done interferes with my kindness towards others and towards myself.
4. I dip down into a state of depression and despair accompanied by negative thinking about how hard my life is, and when my ego mind has all sorts of grand ideas of places to go and things to accomplish which are not consistent with reality. It’s funny how the mind can go down into these dark places of victimhood that requires some kind of wrench to pull itself out.
5. When I’m in a state of being judgmental which usually comes out of an irritated mood where I deem that my way of seeing things is the best and why can’t other people just think and act like I do? Addressing the “I must control things so I can feel safe” is a major challenge on the spiritual path. The need to control is an ever present speed bump or road block that must be dismantled or gone around. The need to judge and control are the opposite of compassion.
6. When I’m resentful or angry because of some injustice done to me or even a perceived injustice that isn’t really there, the energy of judgment robs me of my caring about others. Resentment and not addressing the issue while continuing to give more, more, move is the enemy of compassion. Resentment can turn me into a martyr victim! When I let myself go to that old belief of “It’s not fair,” I lose compassion. It becomes about me and my petty needs rather than seeing the bigger picture of the possibilities of personal growth. Focusing on injustice rather than my peace of mind is like allowing a robber to come in and make me miserable. And it surely does!
What keeps me truer to living in compassion besides contemplation is to do spiritual reading on this topic. I’ve found that the Buddhist teachings offer deeply-touching articles on living with compassion in this crazy, uncompassionate world. I’m not a Buddhist but utilize the wisdom of Buddhist psychology in my psychology practice daily. I read two magazines, Tricycle: The Buddhist Review and Shambhala Sun and scan the Snow Lion Publisher catalog to help keep my mind cognizant of staying in a loving, compassionate space.
Here are the other things I do to bring myself back to a compassionate space. I give myself a good talking to about snapping out of it and do some inspirational reading. Taking time to reach a place of gratitude during the contemplative time helps bring me to a better place. Sharing my talents with someone else tunes me in to being centered, present and focused on solutions which come quicker when I’m compassionate. The last thing that brings compassion for me is in the inspirational writing. The bottom line is the channel of the mind can always be tuned to a higher level channel when we make the choice.
Living a life with compassion is a healthy goal that can be achieved with much practice. It brings you to a place of happiness and that place of the open heart is a lovely place to be.
So sit for a while and focus on those two important life questions of finding meaning and purpose in your life. Look outside your little story and turn to the greater picture to see what you could be called to do. Ask yourself these questions:
What boundaries with others could I set so that I could be more loving and giving with someone else?
What is my no drain policy? Where do I feel resentful because I allow someone else to drain me because I haven’t set limits with them?
A purpose-filled life gives the greatest happiness. What is the meaning that I ascribe to my life? What is my purpose for living?
Where could I best apply my compassion?
In what areas could I forgive myself and be more compassionate with myself?
Studying and then applying compassion will make you a wiser person who is at peace with yourself and the world. You can become healthy, happy and loving in your relationships by being aware and making better and better choices. The prize is worth the effort. Inner beauty becomes you.