As I write this, I am sitting in the waiting room of the Cleveland Clinic Neurological Center for Pain. (I am here for a consultation regarding my migraines.) It is a sobering thought to realize that the others sitting here with me are suffering from some affliction, some pain.
Perhaps more sobering though was a sight seen by random chance during the drive here. I was stopped at a traffic light when I saw an older man with a cane in each hand step off the curb ahead. He was wearing a dark trench coat against the wind and snow and had a stubble of a beard. Using the canes to steady himself, he patiently inched his way across the street in front of the waiting traffic. I could not imagine that he would reach the other side before the light changed – but he did. I sense that this slow, laborious movement was a fact of his life. He was not a patient waiting hopefully to see a specialist at a world class medical facility. He was just an old man making his way across the street.It is not hard to feel compassion when, like this, we are in full view of the suffering of others. We can relate to their visible pain and struggle and wish for their relief as we might wish for our own. However, some sufferings are harder to relate to. Many kinds of pain are hidden from view. Behind the indifference, rudeness or anger of another may hide a hurting heart. Yet when we see someone being unkind, dismissive or worse, compassion for the perpetrator is not likely to arise easily, if at all.
Oddly, even more challenging for many of us is to find compassion for our own hurting selves. So many times I have heard people blame themselves, sometimes viciously, for things over which they have no control. I encounter many people who experience motor or cognitive impairments or physical pain brought on by random accidents or diseases. So many of them are angry – so often, with themselves – because they are the way they are. They feel they should be stronger and more able to overcome the suffering that holds them captive.
When it comes to mental and emotional pain, we seem to be even less tolerant of our suffering selves. It is not uncommon for me to encounter people who hate themselves because of things done to them when they were small children. They blame themselves for not having stopped it, as though a 4 year old could stop molestation or a 5 year old could be “good” enough to prevent a beating. Our adult minds can view another’s childhood suffering with compassion, but somehow our views of ourselves are much harsher, as though our child bodies had adult minds that should have known better.
And then there’s the big one. This is where our capacity for compassion almost always fails us: when we have done something we believe or know to be wrong. “How could I possibly have compassion for myself when I’ve done that?” we think.
Let me share a story. Recently I was corresponding with an online friend, also a therapist, and we were sharing some experiences from our pasts. As a result of this, I was drawn to reflect on an incident from my young adult days that had triggered much guilt and anxiety at the time. While this event had long since been worked through, re-opening it caused an old familiar twinge of discomfort. What happened next though was something entirely new: in this process of reflecting, I had been digging through a box of memorabilia and come across a photo. A photo of me when I was about the age I was when I did “the awful thing”. I looked at the photo and thought: “My God. How young I was.” I could see my youthfulness in my fresh skin and hair. But I could also see it in my soul. I was so young and knew so little about living. I found within me a deep compassion for this young woman, barely out of her teens… and a new level of healing started to unfold. I had always expected myself to do the right thing and to know what the right thing was. “How absurd”, I now realized, “how absurd to have expected that of myself.”
You too have a younger self. Many younger selves. Selves who did not know as much as you do now when they struggled to survive and meet your needs. And if your younger self was hurt or damaged by abuse or neglect, that self may have remained “young”, i.e. it may not have developed properly with regard to judgments or choices, causing more pain and sorrow. May there not be compassion for these selves too?
With compassion comes Mercy, the great healer of all souls.
I invite you now, if you care to, to join me in a short meditation practice called a "metta" (or lovingkindness) meditation. While the concept is borrowed from Buddhism, it is religiously neutral, ie.g. not likely to be offensive to any formal religion or to those without a religion.
[While this meditation is often done with the eyes closed and the words said to oneself, I have set it up here with some photos taken on a recent walk and with my voice saying some words. I set it up this way for a couple of reasons. First, it helps to demonstrate the idea. Secondly, some people who have suffered trauma, may find themselves flooded with unpleasant thoughts or images when they close their eyes. Thus, if you find yourself in that position, you can use the photos and my voice to help you stay grounded. (If you are one of my patients, please keep me informed of any problems.) You may also change the words to make them more relevant for yourself - I chose the words I did as part of my own meditation. However, you may wish for other things - e.g. to be well, to be calm, to be free of suffering, etc. It is generally good for us to go through the 3 cycles as demonstrated as that can help us cultivate compassion more generally.]