Thursday, March 13, 2014

Compassion practice & our common humanity on this shared planet

"Real compassion kicks butt and takes names, and it is not pleasant on certain days." Ken Wilber

A dearly beloved person gave me the
Quan Yin figure in the top right photo
as a symbol of compassion,
it's helpful to have the reminders. 
There are times when compassion feels effortless, and times when it take real work. In graduate school I had a longer version of the Ken Wilber quote above on a piece of paper taped to my desk to remind me the hard days were okay. It was at least a dozen years ago and I had just begun a more conscious relationship with compassion, particularly with self-compassion, largely as a result of needing some help getting through my doctoral qualifying exams with what I came to understand later was a severe case of impostor syndrome. Seriously, every first year graduate school seminar should start with this topic just to get it out of the way early since so many of us encounter it unexpectedly.

My particular version came from feeling out of place at a major research university as a female, working class kid in a body that didn't and still doesn't fit the mold, combined with a lifelong family struggle that came to a head at the same time as an utterly confusing and identity-shifting personal relationship developed. I am grateful that instead of the many other ways it could have gone, this confluence of events started me on a complex and ultimately healing journey, with compassion as one of its main ingredients.

In its most basic form, compassion invites us to "suffer with." It may be an emotion, it may not be, nobody is quite sure yet. It is often linked with empathy, a term that, as it becomes more and more ubiquitous, I find more and more confusing; I still go back to the basic idea that it is the capacity see the world through the lens of another. In recent years, there has been a lot of discussion about empathy and its limits, both in terms what we can truly understand about the experience of another, and its tendency to lead us toward "empathetic distress" (once thought of as "compassion fatigue"), where we can become overly identified with another perspective and lose ourselves. I feel these things less as limits than as things to be aware of, and find practices aimed at cultivating both empathy and compassion, along with many other contemplative practices, to be invaluable. And sometimes more complicated than they appear on the surface.

This year, I'm grateful to have had the opportunity to do a deep dive on compassion in a course developed by Stanford's Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education that I've had my eye on for a few years. It has been really interesting to intertwine my own experiential learning over many years with a more formalized curriculum on compassion. And while challenging at times, I found myself pretty optimistic as I sat in room of folks who made the trek from all over the Bay Area after long, full days at work or caring for small children to talk about and practice compassion for a couple of hours. There's something powerful just in the fact that we all showed up.

Although there was a lot of content to digest, what stuck with me most was a self-compassion practice focused on recognizing "our common humanity," which is generally about transforming your relationship with your own suffering around things that can make us feel different or "other" into things that help us feel more connected. An example might be that if I am feeling lonely, instead of telling myself it's because everybody is more likable than me or the million other stories I can make up, I can instead recognize that feeling lonely is something most everybody encounters at some point and rather than making me different, it actually connects me with multitudes of people who do or have felt similarly.

As the drought in California continues (and I continue to "live tweet" it), I find myself extending this practice beyond one of self-compassion to feeling my way into the shared humanity of all of us impacted by this natural disaster. (I also find myself wanting to extend beyond humanity into "being-ness" that includes the rest of planet, but it gets so anthropomorphic so quickly that I get uncomfortable.) And, I have to say that on some days, it does indeed kick my ass. While there are many times when I see compassion expressed or received by myself or others with such ease and grace that it is totally exhilarating, there are other times where I work and work to find it and still can only maintain it in moments. I have been experiencing a lot more challenge than grace over the past couple weeks as voices and agendas swoop in from every direction to "clarify" what it is we are really supposed to understand about the drought, whether it be how foolish it is to value "fish over people" or whether the drought is linked to climate change.

As I hold the tensions of my experiences of being talked at alongside some beautiful expressions of cooperation, I am sitting a lot with what a "common humanity" perspective has to offer on the environmental issues I work on. For example, the concept of "denial" is thrown around frequently when it comes to climate change. I've never been quite clear what the science community means by it, as opposed to its more clear psychological meaning and root self-protective function. Regardless, as I practice looking at denial through a lens of compassion, I keep going back to a recognition that we all suffer with denial, that denial is part of our common humanity. Denial is not something that other people do, it is something we all do, something we all share. To deny *that* is to deny our common humanity, which in turn dehumanizes us, and only perpetuates suffering instead of alleviating it.

Owning my own denial or any other number of shadowy, uncomfortable feelings, emotions, and behaviors in this way can be really uncomfortable. But, when I am able to access that sense of shared humanity, really getting that these are also shared experiences changes things. Compassion truly is more fierce than it first appears, and even a "simple" practice can be transformative.

Related posts:

No comments:

Post a Comment