We all know how it feels to be looked after. When we’re upset and someone offers genuine care for us, we shift from feeling closed off and alone to more safe and open. This is easily observed by parents when comforting their kids, or by anyone who has blown off steam with a close friend. The relief is instant.
What would happen if we were able to offer this same kindness directly to ourselves or even to our worst enemies?
The “two wings” of Radical Acceptance are awareness and compassion, the latter being the focus of the eighth and ninth chapters of Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach (reading as part of my amplify goals this month). While the focus has been on using mindfulness to face fear and desire in the last two chapters, the focus of the next two are on developing compassion for ourselves and others. Here is what stood out for me.
Compassion means “to be with, feel with, suffer with” and, maybe most importantly, to have a willingness to take action to relieve any suffering (as opposed to empathy, which is about feeling what another is feeling).
Why is self-compassion so hard?
Taking action to relieve our own suffering can be challenging because we are often “addicted to judging and mistrusting ourselves”. It’s difficult to envision ever being compassionate from that place.
Additionally, “sometimes extending compassion to ourselves in this way feels downright embarrassing. It can trigger a sense of shame about being needy and undeserving, shame about being self-indulgent.”
The fact that we can’t offer ourselves compassion is the very reason we stay stuck in our old patterns.
When we become the holder of our own sorrows, our old roles as judge, adversary or victim are no longer being fueled. In their place we find not a new role, but a courageous openness and a capacity for genuine tenderness, not only for ourselves but for others as well.
Feeling compassion for ourselves in no way releases us from responsibility for our actions. Rather, it releases us from the self-hatred that prevents us from responding to our life with clarity and balance.
Seeing others as unreal
Because our own self-compassion is often crippled by our constant judging and mistrusting of ourselves, we lose the ability to “see” other people and they become unreal.
When we are caught in our own self-centered drama, everyone else becomes “other” to us, different and unreal. The world becomes a backdrop to our own special experience and everyone in it serves as supporting cast, some as adversaries, some as allies, most as simply irrelevant.
Once someone is an unreal other, we lose sight of how they hurt. Because we don’t experience them as feeling beings, we not only ignore them, we can inflict pain on them without compunction.
Realize you are not alone
One way we can help ourselves open up to self-compassion (and eventually be compassionate to others) is to be reminded that we are all part of something larger. We all experience suffering and with that in mind, it can feel more “acceptable” to say or think a “mindful prayer”, one that could be rooted in a spiritual practice or simply in the understanding that we are not alone.
Although not always highlighted in the West, prayer and devotion are a living stream in Buddhism. The earnest wishes expressed in the practices of lovingkindness and compassion—may I be happy, may I be free from pain and suffering—are forms of prayer.
We might begin our prayer by reaching out, and in that way remember the warmth and safety of connectedness. Yet we ground our prayer by reaching inward to the raw feelings of loneliness and fear. Like a great tree, mindful prayer sinks its roots into the dark depths in order to reach up fully to the light. When the pain is deep, the more fully we touch it, the more fully we release ourselves into boundless, compassionate presence.
Extending compassion to others, even your enemies
The poet Longfellow writes, “If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each man’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.”
It can be difficult to feel compassion for someone who you disagree with or feel anger towards, and just as hard for the “neutral” people we don’t really know but see every day. Contrary to common conception, feeling compassion for your enemies does not mean you are weak or are letting them off the hook. Just the opposite. Being compassionate allows you to respond with “clarity and balance”.
Even if we don’t like someone, seeing their vulnerability allows us to open our heart to them. We might vote against them in an election, we might never invite them to our home, we might even feel they should be imprisoned to protect others. Still, our habitual feelings of attraction and aversion do not have to overrule our basic capacity to see that, like us, they suffer and long to be happy.
Ask yourself “how can I be more kind”?
Unlocking compassion for others is a skill that must be practiced. Across several examples in the book, there are a couple of questions offered that can aid in seeing things from another perspective.
One useful question to ask is “What do they really need?” Asking this question is a good reminder that everyone has something they are struggling with.
Another useful question is to ask “How can I be more kind?”
If we ask ourselves when meeting anyone—friend or stranger—“How can I be more kind?” inevitably we will recognize that every being needs to be listened to, loved and understood. While we might become aware of this first with those in our immediate circle, it is possible to pay attention and care for all living beings. The more fully we offer our attention, the more deeply we realize that what matters most in life is being kind. As we open to the vulnerability of others, the veil of separation falls away, and our natural response is to reach out a helping hand.
I wouldn’t consider myself a person that prays, mindfully or not, but I am surprised by the perspective that prayer can be simply defined as expressing “earnest wishes”.
I think that our experience as humans is determined by what we allow ourselves to think and do. If we operate from a place of negativity and anger, that will be our experience. If, on the other hand, we make “kindness your religion” and live from a place of compassion, our experience will be better.
That sounds like it is worth praying for.
Ask the Friend for love. Ask Him again. For I have learned that every heart will get What it prays for Most. - Hafiz
📖 This chapter builds on the previous, starting with the trance of unworthiness (Chapter 1), how Radical Acceptance can break that trance (Chapter 2), how pausing is the foundation of Radical Acceptance (Chapter 3), how to treat our experience with unconditional friendliness (Chapter 4), the importance of paying attention to physical sensations in the body (Chapter 5), how desires can fool us by being substitutes for our unmet needs (Chapter 6), and the nature of fear and how to accept it (Chapter 7).