This morning I sat in my garden thinking about the idea of radical compassion.
This thought came by way of a bee landing on my knee. I'm not fond of bees - they sting. I usually react out of fear, jump up, curse, swat, and run for cover. Generally lose my cool. Yet this time I decided to do something different. I just let it be there. I pushed the pause button, breathed deeply and reminded myself to be curious and open toward this fellow creature. In a matter of seconds the bee gently buzzed away.
That's when the notion of cultivating compassion for all beings (even bees) kicked in.
All beings? Yes, a very tall order and an idea that engenders heated debate. How can we have compassion for all beings - when all beings do not seem to engender compassion? It is a complex topic, which most scholars from all domains have weighed in on with great eloquence. But since I was sitting in my garden on a very hot day, my logy summer mind went in a less scholarly direction.
First I reminded myself my definition of compassion: Fierce, tender caring for the wellbeing of all sentient beings. The wish that all beings be free from suffering. The intention to cause no harm. (Of course all beings even includes ourselves!)
Yes, this is a very Buddhist inspired definition. But after all, I am Buddhist inspired. It's a very nuts and bolts philosophy on how to live in a way that brings me peace in the midst of my own challenges. And anyway - "sentient" - simply means everybody (including bees) even the bodies that bother us, hurt us, and don't offer us compassion; even the parts of ourselves that we think are not worthy of compassion and understanding.
Then I thought of my work with my clients and how the topic of compassion inevitably arises. It certainly arises for me in every moment of sitting with someone who is experiencing emotional suffering. Compassion is my home base as a therapist. Without compassion, I lose sight of the humanity and beauty of the other. Without compassion my heart shuts down. Without compassion I get into fix-it mode.
Compassion also arises as a core healing element for my clients in their process of reducing emotional distress. I always know that the healing process is taking root when I witness true compassion (for self and other) breaking open in my clients. Whatever the specific concerns being explored - compassion has a way of opening us to new and freeing ways of being, feeling, thinking, and acting. It's kind of fool proof. It's like a portal into happiness.
But the rub is that compassion for self; compassion for others is, without a doubt, the number one most difficult quality to summon when strong emotions kick in. Suspending judgment, opening our hearts, softening, listening with an open mind, when in the clutches of inner or outer conflict, is butt-kicking difficult. This is where the radical part of compassion comes in. It takes a radical shift in perspective to summon compassion when we feel a natural impulse to close our heart toward ourselves and others.
I've come to the conclusion that FEAR is what makes compassion so difficult to access. I suspect that we all fear that if we soften and really open our hearts in a fiercely caring way, we are letting down our shield of self-protection. We convince ourselves that self-protection is intelligent. But self-protection is not as smart as we think it is. It is certainly not a comfortable and safe place to be. Not really. It doesn't truly protect us from anything or anyone - it just generates more hardening of the heart and emotional distress. Don't get me wrong - I celebrate personal boundaries, advocating for our needs, not allowing others to harm us. These all represent radical self-compassion in action. Self-protection is another beast. Self-protection closes us off to ourselves and others and produces more judgment, more fear, and most importantly - disconnects us from true intimacy with ourselves and others.
Radical compassion is not for the faint of heart. It does require courage. Perhaps it is the most essential quality for living a life of meaning, purpose, and happiness. As the Dalai Lama says: "Compassion is not a luxury, it is essential for our own peace and mental stability; it is essential for human survival."
So I invite you to ponder the theme of radical compassion. Check out for yourself if compassion is all that I'm beefing it up to be. Experiment with softening when hardening, judgment and fear kick in. Let down the shield of self-protection in small moments. See what happens. Let me know what you find out.
Resources for your pondering:
Neuroscience and Compassion
More From the Dalai Lama on Compassion
Sharon Salzberg on Compassion and Wisdom
Jack Kornfield on Forgiveness and Compassion
Pema Chodron on Awakening Compassion