Compassion: it feels like a real response to the world we live in particularly to those who have been through a lot. You’ve got two choices: Either we armor up our hearts for fear of ever being hurt again, or we make a more courageous decision. We have those resources.
The path to me seems like it’s about transforming obstacles into doorways, which is good for us who have had a lot of obstacles—lots of doorways. And I really do think those doorways lead us home.
I think there’s a hundred ways to practice compassion on a daily basis whether it’s pain in the body, the people in our lives, or our world that seems at war with itself sometimes. The way compassion works in my practice is when we bring that care to difficulty, to pain, to challenges, when we bring that open heart, there’s a tenderness that just naturally arises. Because the truth is that we do care, already. After all my failed strategies, the truth remains that I care. So we open up to our difficulties instead of closing off to them.
It starts with this shift. The message from the mind, for me, is that something has to be done, so I immediately want to go into action. But the message from the body is something needs to be felt, maybe.
Engaging the Compassionate Response
So how do we tend to this inner experience? How do we get intimate with the things that we’re hardwired to push away? How do we show up and bear witness to not only our own humanity but the humanity that we’re surrounded by? And I think that’s the miracle of compassion for me—it’s an alchemy from the things that I’ve always kept at a distance out of self protection to things that I can bring in and tend to.
One of my friends said it so beautifully. He was talking about our friendship and he goes, “Look man, wherever you cut the cake, I’ll be there singing Happy Birthday.” That’s what we’re doing with this practice—whatever’s happening, can we just befriend our experience?
One of my friends said it so beautifully. He was talking about our friendship and he goes, “Look man, wherever you cut the cake, I’ll be there singing Happy Birthday.” I just thought that was so beautiful, and that’s what we’re doing with this practice—whatever’s happening man, sometimes it’s cool, sometimes it’s difficult, and can we just befriend our experience? So we’re looking for this compassionate response, but the compassionate response can only really arise when we tend to the pain. As long as we keep it at a distance, it’s hard for it to arise because it really comes out of the heart, and we don’t have access to the heart because we’re armored up, so part of this is just softening and really tending to the difficulties—our own, and the people around us.
The compassionate response can only really arise when we tend to the pain. As long as we keep it at a distance, it’s hard for it to arise because it really comes out of the heart, and we don’t have access to the heart because we’re armored up, so part of this is just softening and really tending to the difficulties—our own, and the people around us.
I know for me, personally, I was lost in the shadows of a frightened and confused mind for a long time. I acted with a certain kind of blindness, you could say. Some sort of self-protection, twisted through the distorted lens of ignorance and fear. I acted like I didn’t have any relatives. And it was a really lonely outlook. So I have no idea what the people around me are going through. I take some solace in the words of Longfellow who said: “If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each man’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.”
So what is a compassionate response to what we’ve been carrying, to what we see in the world? Sometimes it’s easier to practice on the world and then bring it home to ourselves. A lot of us are good at giving, but can we bring it home? Growing up, I was a really tender-hearted little guy, and I thought my heart was something I was supposed to hide from the world. I did my best to armor up. But now I feel like my heart is my greatest gift to the world, so how do I hold this world deep in my heart and offer it up every day as much as I can to the conditions that I find myself in? I would say the practice, for me, is about widening the range of experience that I can meet with a generous heart.
Compassion as Self-Care
When I find myself a little overwhelmed by what’s happening inside of me, I really try to take solace in the sensations themselves. A lot of the times, for me, the overwhelming part is the stories about it, and the stories are just looping, and they are echoes and they can last a really long time. I can tend to the sensations, like the sensation of a broken heart. I went through a divorce and it was like, “Wow, what is the sensation here!” And sometimes it felt like a white-hot poker in my chest and even that could have been overwhelming. So we do take care of ourselves, we do walk ourselves through it—sometimes I can only put my toe in it, sometimes I can cannonball in, but other times I’ve gotta be a little more careful and say, “alright, opening slowly,” and slowly melting that armor around the heart. So it’s not about just ripping our heart open in every moment, it’s about, “Okay, how do I care for me, and everybody else?”—we’re all in this together.
Here’s a loving-kindness practice from developmental behavioral specialist and mindfulness author Mark Bertin, MD, that can help us extend compassion to ourselves, those around us, and the larger world.
1. Find a comfortable, stable position, either seated or lying down, and observe several breaths. Notice how you’re feeling while letting go of striving or effort to feel otherwise. You cannot force yourself to feel relaxed, nonjudgmental, or anything else in particular. Let yourself simply feel whatever you feel.
2. Next, picture your child. Imagine what you most wish for him. This unbounded affection, deeper than any surface emotions, has traditionally been encompassed within four phrases: “May you be happy. May you be healthy. May you feel safe. May you live your life with ease.” Use these phrases or any that capture your deepest wishes, and silently repeat them at a comfortable pace, timed to your breathing.
3. Continue repeating these wishes for your child, reminding yourself of your deepest intentions: “May you be happy. May you be healthy. May you feel safe. May you live your life with ease.”
4. After several minutes, move on to yourself. Your inner critic may resist. Yet in spite of all your seeming mistakes, you have the same rights as anyone: “May I be happy. May I be healthy. May I feel safe. May I live my life with ease.” Without any sort of demand, offer yourself the some wishes for well-being you extended to your child.
5. After several minutes, imagine a close friend or someone unconditionally supportive, a person for whom you have almost entirely positive feelings. This person also desires happiness, whether going through a stretch of relative ease or more acutely in need of your emotional support. If no one comes to mind, that’s fine and quite common; just continue with the practice for yourself.
6. After a few minutes have passed, move on to a neutral person, a stranger, someone you see around but don’t really know—maybe someone at a local store or gas station, or who works nearby. Extend the some wishes to this neutral person without judging whatever you actually feel or aiming to push yourself. You’re simply paying attention in this way.
7. Now think of a difficult person—not the most difficult, but someone you’ve disagreed with in a smaller way. Your perspectives differ and you must firmly take care of yourself, yet this difficult person’s actions are also driven by a wish for happiness. If this person found relief from his own suffering, it’s likely that his behavior would change. If it’s easier, include yourself: “May we both be happy. May we both be healthy. May we both feel safe. May we both live our lives with ease.”
8. Next, picture your entire family for a while: “May all of us be happy. May all of us be healthy. May all of us feel safe. May we all live our lives with ease.”
9. Finally, if you like, extend the some wishes to everyone in this world. In an unforced way, send this compassionate wish for well-being to anyone you imagine, anywhere.
10. As this practice becomes comfortable for you, you can use it to combat everyday stress. If you feel unmoored, lost, or pulled in different directions, take a moment to wish yourself peace, just as you’d comfort a friend. If your child frustrates you and you lose your temper, briefly practice this meditation for his sake and your own. Remind yourself of your child’s desire for happiness and your own wishes for the same, whatever he may have done.