Practicing Compassion

I had just returned from presenting at the FACES conference on The Art and Science of Mindfulness and Counseling in Seattle. A wonderful opportunity to meet with and talk deeply with Kristin Neff, author of Self-Compassion, about the necessity of self-compassion practice, as therapists, as human beings, particularly as mindfulness practices are becoming more integrated into a Western culture full of self-judgment and inner critics.

As I was traveling to and from the conference, I read the entire book Taking the Leap: Freeing Ourselves from Old Habits and Fears by Pema Chodron.  Chapter 9, “The Importance of Pain” prompted me to practice compassion, as Chodron suggests, at the airport flying home. 

I had made a mistake, was at the wrong gate, realized that as it was actually the time for my flight to start boarding.  Self-compassion practice right there – “Uh, oh.  This is a problem.  Slow down, breathe.  Oh, sweetheart.  Be kind to yourself; stay open; you’ll get through this,” even as I geared up to deal. 

There was one other man at the same gate, same mistake, so I could extend my compassion to him, too; we were in the same boat facing the same anxieties about making our flight on time.  His agitation was completely understandable, me offering reassurance and comfort to him, too.  “Yup, this is a pickle.  Let’s try to get through this pickle together.” 

I introduced myself and began to hear Dave’s story of his work on the North Slope of Alaska as we navigated three train shuttles from one terminal to another to another to find the right gate.  As we arrived at the gate, 50 people were already lined up to get on the flight.  I walk over to the end of the line, then discovered Dave has “premier access,” whatever that is, that allows him to jump to the head of the line.  He invited me along and when we got to the check-in, he simply said, “She’s with me.” And I got on board the flight with him immediately.  A brief 12-minute full-circle experience of spontaneously extending and receiving compassion and care.

Chodron suggests practicing compassion for our fellow human beings, caught in the inevitable pickles of being human, in situations where we don’t even know the people or their stories, simply that we’re in the same plane of existence at the same time.  Waiting in airports, or at a medical clinic, or at the social security office. 

As Kristin Neff would suggest:

1.  Simply notice and resonate what’s going on, within ourselves or others, empathizing with any reactions of worry, impatience, frustration.  “Ouch, this is a moment of suffering.  This hurts.” A moment of awareness and tolerance, for ourselves or in empathy with others,  rather than denying what’s going on or rushing to fix it to get over the feeling.

2.  Open our awareness to the realization that “our” pain is “the” pain of the human condition.  Stress, struggle, suffering, are an integral part of life; they are even a gateway to realizing that we and all other people are so alike in our vulnerabilities and fragilities.

3.  Intentionally be kind and caring first in our responses, to ourselves or to others, before doing anything.  The kindness, the tenderness, the wish for comfort and reassurance, helps create the state of mind and heart that allows us to see our situation clearly and respond to it wisely.

4.   Allow the kindness and caring to guide the next steps of action, or to send wishes for compassion to others: “May you be kind and caring to yourself in your suffering.  May your suffering ease.  May you be free of suffering, and from all causes of suffering, and from causing any suffering.”  Keep the self-compassion and compassion (putting on your own oxygen mask first, then helping others) in the forefront as you move to deal.

5.  Reflect on how this practice changes your state of being in the moment; notice any ease in dealing with the situation, or feelings that the situation evokes.  Take in and savor any moment of ease or well-being, even in the midst of difficulty.