Listen and Live with a Compassionate Heart

"Compassion, a sense of universal responsibility, thinking of others as your brothers and sisters and all human beings as one family -- that is the antidote for fear, hate and jealousy." – Dalai Lama

As a parent, counselor, and human I feel strongly about cultivating and practicing compassion.  I believe this most strongly when I feel cut off from my compassion instinct and overwhelmed and swept away by the enormity of the pain in this world.  I feel empowered knowing that through mindfulness practices I can access it again.   We have the ability to tune in to others in a deep way during times of not just love, but also pain.  Fred Rogers believes the inability to feel, talk about, and manage feelings (ingredients of compassion) disable us;

“Part of the problem with the word 'disabilities' is that it immediately suggests an inability to see or hear or walk or do other things that many of us take for granted. But what of people who can't feel? Or talk about their feelings? Or manage their feelings in constructive ways? What of people who aren't able to form close and strong relationships? And people who cannot find fulfillment in their lives, or those who have lost hope, who live in disappointment and bitterness and find in life no joy, no love? These, it seems to me, are the real disabilities.” 
― Fred Rogers, The World According to Mister Rogers: Important Things to Remember

The value of getting in touch with our feelings and others and forming close and strong relationships is an ability we all have.  Empathy and compassion are the skills to do this.  Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese zen monk, points out that, “Compassion is a verb.”  It is not a thought or a sentimental feeling but is rather a movement of the heart, an action.  As classically defined in Pali, compassion is “the trembling or the quivering of the heart.”  How do we get our hearts to do that?  How do we “do” compassion? And what gets in the way of being compassionate?

Compassion has been said to be hardwired, innate in both the evolutionary and neurobiological arenas.  It is an instinctual habit that triggers our reward system.  Compassion can get blocked in an increasingly anxiety and fear-provoking world.  We become hijacked by our limbic system and we can get stuck in a protective state of fight, flight, freeze and cut off from our compassion.  Tara Brach describes this beautifully in her talk “What’s It Like Being You?”.

Compassion is a courageous act, it asks you to be with others pain.  Sometimes we can go into a flight response because we don’t want to feel that pain, it is too much.   We reach a point of empathic distress.  We are a sponge about to burst from absorbing others pain and not knowing what to do with it, so we turn or run away.  We can also have a freeze response to this sense of overwhelm and move into a protective numbing or freeze space and we cut off.  Lastly, you can go into a fight response, you have a defensive reaction, judgement, or a anger toward the situation or person.  It is not uncommon to be able to relate to all three of these states.  I saw these responses a lot in my work in the schools.   The inequities and social justice issues provoked anger, sadness, and burnout.  Well-meaning compassionate individuals got trapped in the dilemma of it is not fair, it is too much, and it is.  However, we have to move beyond that pain and transform it into care and connection.  The cost not to is too great and is as Fred Rogers described, a real disability.

I’d see educators experience empathy fatigue.  They’d get stuck in the unpleasantness, they were that sponge with no space to absorb anymore.  The work was to move them to a mindful place, release the pain, create space, and unblock the compassion. I love the metaphor of be the ocean, not the waves.  When we practice mindfulness our body is relaxed and present and our mindset is expansive or larger and we have room for the pain (the waves).  We are then the ocean influencing the waves.  

So, how do we do this?

Practice caring connection.  This can be as simple as building community.  Saying “Hello, how are you?” to our neighbors, shop keepers, mail people, teachers, and truly wanting to know the answer, pushing past the “I’m fine” response.  Or even simpler, smile and make eye contact, see all people as human beings worthy of being seen and treated with kindness even if it is not returned or received, that may be their hurt or cut off from compassion. 

Be curious and inquisitive.  Learn to listen wholeheartedly with your mind, body, and heart.  Hear not only the words, but sense the emotions, and name empathize and validate other people’s experiences.  I teach my parents and couples about the skill of attunement to build trust.

A – Awareness of partner’s negative emotion 

T – Turning toward partner 

T – Tolerance 

U – Understanding 

N – Non-defensive responding 

E – Empathy

Source: John Gottman

Practice mindfulness; pay attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.   It is natural for our mind to wander and be preoccupied with our own stuff, step out of that endless thought stream and engage with the world around you.  And my favorite, Tara Brach’s RAIN. The acronym RAIN is an easy-to-remember tool for practicing mindfulness and compassion using the following four steps:

R- Recognize what is going on;

A – Allow the experience to be there, just as it is;

I – Investigate with interest and care;

N – Nourish with self-compassion.

Release, renew and reenergize; wring out and release that sponge I mentioned earlier.  Move your body; run, bike, walk, dance, dig in the dirt (garden), practice yoga.  Create art, music, poetry.  Play and be silly! Sing, Laugh, Cry, Yell, whatever you do, let it out!

May we all find the courage to listen and live with a compassionate heart.  Namaste

Main Source: Tara Brach https://www.tarabrach.com/what-is-it-like-being-you/