Complaining – A Cue for Compassion

Complaining – A Cue for Compassion

Complaining – A Cue for Compassion

A simple new practice, in the larger framework of:

Compassion – caring for and acting to relieve suffering – is one of the two wings of the dharma in the Buddhist contemplative tradition.  Wisdom and compassion – seeing clearly and responding with loving concern and wise action – are the practices that allow us to face, hold, deal with anything we will ever experience in a human life, anything at all.

I teach compassion – care and concern for ourselves, for others – as foundational to our resilience and well-being, whether we’re dealing with small annoyances and daily frustrations – we lose our car keys and our wallet minutes before having to drop the kids off to school on our way to an important appointment. Or we’re struggling with the troubles and tragedies that break our hears and sometimes break our spirits – being the victim of a violent crime of navigating a hostile divorce. Even the utter catastrophes that change our lives forever – we or a family member gets a diagnosis of lung cancer or Parkinson’s disease.  Or we face the daily harassment and fear of violence being at the effect of systems and societal forces that seem to have a death grip on our lives.

Cultivating compassion is a BIG lifelong practice, giving us a stable grounding to meet the inevitable losses and heartaches of our lives. And just the other day, I discovered a small, simple practice that reliably cues my practice of compassion.  


Not just the big things, the genuine dramas and traumas. Complaining about the littlest things. Needing to blow my nose and there are no tissues around. The toilet didn’t fully flush the first time and I have to flush again. I picked the slowest line at the grocery store. My sister-in-law didn’t answer the phone at the time I said I would call. The cat pooped outside the litter box…again.

LITTLE things.  And I hear myself complaining, over nothing. And catching that complaining is my cue. Complain? Oh! Compassion!  Catching the inner griping, instantly choosing to shift to a more loving awareness of my habitual over-reactivity. I do complain a lot these days, I’m noticing. This practice reminds me that some days it is truly hard being a human being. 

There is something about noticing the complaining as a cue that is so instant. Complaint? Ah! Find the compassion. The compassion breathes some space into the reactivity and allows a moment to regain some clarity about what a wise, caring action would be.


1.  It does help (wisdom) to practice mindful awareness in a general way as we go through the day.  Noticing – what state of mind or mood am I in right now?  Peaceful? Stressed? Bored? Resentful?  Noticing the changes in our inner experience as it shifts throughout the day makes it far easier to catch that moment when a complaint shows up.

2. Noticing the bodily felt emotional signals of complaining – a new tightness or rigidity – as well as the mental contents – gripe, gripe – as soon as they arise. 

3. Labeling – complaint! – to shift the focus from the content (no tissues, sister-in-law) to the process – whatever the content is, I’m complaining about it.

4. Training my mind to pair the words “complaint-compassion” so that they become one word. Saying complaint triggers saying compassion. 

5. In the pause that “Compassion!” creates, I can do any number of compassion practices – self-compassion break, hand on the heart, evoking the compassionate friend – to expand the experience of loving awareness, care and concern

6. Sometimes the first wise action is to simply let go of the complaint. A bump on a pickle, no need to stress about it or hang on to it.  Or the first wise action could be getting curious about what would actually be wise action in this situation.  

7. Wise action will always be to honor the learning to use any life event as a cue to practice compassion. This exercise is one small, effective step in that direction.

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