This post on compassion is the first of a two-part installment drawn from principles shared in my book, Choose Your Energy: Change Your Life!
Compassion is not sympathy. Sympathy is laced with judging because it involves feeling sorry for someone. However well intentioned, sympathy is a form of judging based in determining that whatever is happening to you or someone else shouldn’t be happening. Yet some of the greatest growth opportunities in life come through very painful experiences.
Compassion is feeling with someone. Being a loving, respectful, fully present, nondirective, nonjudging companion who holds a sacred space in which the pained one can be present and completely authentic. True compassion is a rare experience. So often, sharing our pain with another person results in them trying to
- get us to deny it (implying it’s not real);
- convince us to ignore it (implying it’s not that bad);
- focus our attention on something else (implying it’s not worth it); or
- fix it for us (implying it’s so bad, it needs to stop right now, and you’re so inept, I’ll have to do it for you).
Compassion, on the other hand, is grounded in believing with every fiber of your being that we are each doing the best we can in every moment with the love and light we are able to access at that time, given the blocks resulting from whatever fears we still choose to carry.
If any of you are still harboring the illusion that those of us in the “helping professions” are able to help others because we are totally self-actualized; always have it all together; never get confused, sad, angry, frustrated, needy, or pushy; and never sink into bottomless despair, then you need to reread the previous sections.
Those of us in the helping professions are able to help others precisely because we have grappled with similar challenges in our own lives. We are able to help because we have
- been overwhelmed by the associated pain (rage, frustration, confusion, doubt, anxiety, depression, etc.);
- not prevailed immediately (flopped around in the mire of despair more than a few times for more than a few minutes); and
- had amazing grace dawn yet again.
I have come to understand that, in many cases, when I think I’m demonstrating empathy for someone, it’s really sympathy. When I demonstrate empathy, I feel sorry with the other person. My ability to put myself in that person’s place is directly proportional to my ability to feel and identify the full range of my own emotions. With sympathy, because I’m not aware of having ever felt anything like what that person is feeling, the most I can do is feel sorry for her. Sorry she had to go through whatever trial was currently beating her face-first into the dirt. Sometimes in the throes of sympathy, when I was feeling a bit too smug about my own more highly evolved consciousness (come on, you’ve all been there), I would say to myself (or heaven help me, say aloud), “Gee, it’s a shame Susie doesn’t know all that I know. Then she wouldn’t still be grieving her husband’s death or abandonment by her seventeen-year life partner or the potential loss of her home or the death of her beloved animal companion or the promotion she didn’t get at work or whatever. If Susie was as wise as I am, it wouldn’t have hit her so hard to begin with, she’d certainly be over it by now, and she would be returned to the perpetually happy fold of the incredibly enlightened.”
There’s a reason Pema Chödrön warns against “spiritual arrogance”—becoming too comfortable with how well we are doing on the path to enlightenment. The point of enlightenment is not to become superior and feel no pain. It is to open your heart wider to your own pain and, through that experience, to the pain of others. It’s to help you develop deeper love and true empathy for yourself and everyone else. It’s so you can finally connect to all of humankind on the most profound level by understanding we are one.
Many of us in the helping professions are referred to as wounded healers because what we have chosen to do with our healed wounds is dedicate our lives to helping others heal and grow. The most inspiring healers and teachers, certainly the ones nearest and dearest to me, are comfortable being candid concerning their particular wounds (abandonment, burnout, addiction, depression, and more). By sharing openly their struggles, defeats, and victories, wounded healers help others open to the possibility that if one of us can prevail, maybe all of us can. In the movie Leap of Faith, Liam Neeson (the local sheriff) is exposing Steve Martin (traveling revivalist extraordinaire) as a fraud, based on evidence of Martin’s criminal record from a young age. Neeson thinks this disqualifies Martin to lead others to a better life. Martin replies that, au contraire, herein lies his chief qualification. Who are you going to trust to lead you out of the mess you’ve made of your life? The upright guy who has always walked the straight and narrow or the man who found redemption after wallowing in the muck and mire?
The one thing we can be certain of—in addition to death and taxes—is that, no matter what, we are all human. Whenever we start to forget that, start to get just the least bit clueless or cocky, the Universe has a not-so-funny way of reminding us—through yet another spectacular crash and burn—that we still have much left to learn about compassion.
Our reactions to our own pain are no exception. Here the full range of our most uncompassionate responses gets regular exercise. While it can be difficult to just be with another who is in pain, learning to do so is key to healthy processing of the many forms of grieving we encounter in life. The ability to hold sacred space is as vital to unconditional self-love as it is to loving another.
While understanding these concepts intellectually is a necessary starting point, it’s not sufficient to deliver substantial, sustainable results. For these lessons to have a lasting impact, they must go from something you think sounds logical and interesting to something you live at all times as your own personal truth. If you stop with respect and curiosity, you will miss the full potential impact of unconditional love. Without compassion, love cannot be fully expressed. Fear will retain a foothold. Curiosity without compassion can quickly shift to judging that leads directly back to fear-based disrespect. Whether that judging takes the form of sympathy or trying to fix it, judging will pull you out of unconditional love and plant you firmly back in the land of fear.
Noticing and embracing all of our emotions is essential to finding flow and making it a way of life. It is nearly impossible to know how to nurture ourselves optimally if we are not willing to go inside, root around a bit, and discover what makes us tick.
I know that when you are going through something painful you might feel you can’t bear the added anguish that might result from additional data. The opposite is actually the case; the fear festers and grows in the dark, taking over our lives precisely because we refuse to look at it closely. When we expose it to light and air by examining it with love, respect, curiosity, compassion, and gratitude rather than judging, the fear immediately begins to lose some of its power.
Emotions are important messengers. They help us notice the implications of what is happening and gain the maximum benefit from everything we experience. They are powerful indicators of where fear may still have a stronghold and be blocking our growth. They point the way to where we might go exploring for untapped veins of developmental gold.
Knowing how to recognize, process, express, and release emotions is essential to our well-being. When we don’t do so, the resulting buildup of fear-based emotional toxins can be energetically lethal. Our systems bog down from the poison, and we become stuck in an endless loop of replaying past pain, injuring and crippling ourselves even more.
The next post will provide additional insights on cultivating compassion.
Excerpt from “Choose Your Energy: Change Your Life!” © Copyright 2013-2018 DJW Life Coach LLC. All rights reserved.
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