How to Develop a Passion for Compassion

When I decided that I was going to write about compassion, my first thought was that I couldn’t believe that I had allowed my blog exist this long without writing about compassion.  My second thought was that I have to get this entry right because compassion is such an important topic.  That’s when I launched into my spiral of self-doubt and second guessing myself to the point of frozen deer-in-headlights-inaction. Generally speaking, I had no compassion for myself.

I taught my Reiki Level 1 class last weekend.  Again, the difficultly we all have with having compassion for ourselves was demonstrated for me.  This is a serious problem.  I’m sure that you’ve heard that old adage, “You need to love yourself before you can love someone else.”  The same goes for compassion and this is true for a couple of reasons.

The first: Without compassion for ourselves, we abuse ourselves to the point of exhaustion with negative self-talk and judgment.  We have learned to navigate this world by teaching ourselves about what not to do in any given situation.  When we do the thing we’ve told ourselves not to do, we come down hard on ourselves.  This is a form of self-preservation, but left unchecked it can easily become a form of self-destruction.  When we exhaust ourselves like this, we have nothing left to give to anyone else.

The second is this yummy¹ quote that I found in The Buddha’s Satori: “Compassion means the elevation of all that exists, including the grass, stones, animals, humans, to buddhahood, to the state of emancipation.”²  The important word here is “all.”  That means everyone.  In case you didn’t get the picture, he included rocks and plants, too.  “All” does not mean “everyone except you.”  The second important word here is “emancipation.”  This implies that no one is free (from suffering) until everyone is free (from suffering).  This is a basic Buddhist idea.  We are all one entity,³ and if any part of that entity is suffering, then we are all suffering.  If you don’t take care of yourself, you’re not just letting yourself down, but you’re letting all of us down.

Hopefully, you’re now sold on the idea that it is important that you have compassion for yourself.  Even so, I know that having an intellectual understanding of something and feeling that thing in your bones is not the same thing.  This is the reason that your life has not been transformed, yet, despite the number of uplifting bumper stickers you have read, lately.

Cultivating long-term compassion for oneself is a difficult and complex issue.  Often, this requires the healing of many, many layers of wounds.  However, that doesn’t mean you can’t have one magical moment of true compassion for yourself.  Having this type of experience will move you much further along the path of self-compassion because you’ll finally see what it looks like.

I can’t tell you how to manufacture this moment, but I can tell you what it contains.  It contains the third person perspective.  This means that you stop experiencing the world as you, and you start experiencing the world as your observer.  This is something that happens naturally with enough meditation, and it is not as outlandish as it sounds.  Most of us have people in our lives that we love unconditionally, flaws and all—friends, family members, pets, etc.  If you can shift your perspective enough to see yourself in the same way that you see them, you will start getting glimpses of what it is like to truly have compassion for yourself.  This is not about self-indulgence.  It’s a balanced mixture that includes love, understanding and acceptance, which opens the door to emancipation—and truly thrive.  This is a balance that only you know because that scale is internal.

I have only fully experienced this while in a meditative state, but those glimpses have informed all of the subsequent conversations I have had with myself.

If getting into a meditative state isn’t for you, you can start by talking to yourself in the way that would be the most soothing to you.  You know yourself well enough, so you know what would make you feel good.  Even if it sounds cheesy, canned and forced, no one else is going to hear it, so why not?

Give it a shot, folks, and don’t be afraid to comment on how it goes!

¹I’m using this word because Rita Fierro taught me how to use this in a non-food context, and I like it.
² Motoyama, H. (n.d.). Buddha’s Satori (1ST edition.). CIHS Press. Page 52.
³ My nit-picky Buddhist scholar boyfriend wants you all to know: “It’s worth at least footnoting that this ‘all one entity’ can be misconstrued. It would be more accurate, in many Buddhist contexts, to say that phenomena are connected in a way where all phenomena can be seen in any one particular phenomenon—yourself, for example—and that in all phenomena any one particular phenomenon (eg, yourself) can be seen. This is the notion that One is All and All is One, which can be seen in lots of Mahayana Buddhist traditions. Therefore, there is a sense in which we are all one entity, but a sense in which we are all separate but interdependent entities.”

Locating and Dissolving Energy Blockages

Last week, I talked about self-care systems in the context of psychology. This week, I’m going to talk about them in the context of subtle energy. In terms of energy, anything that registers emotionally also shows up in our energetic bodies.

You can test this theory out. Sit quietly for a minute and think about about where in your body you feel anger, grief, love, happiness and any other potent and clearly defined emotion. These physical sensations are considered to be a part of your energetic framework.

An energetic blockage works in the same way a scab works on the skin. It forms as a result of some trauma in order to protect us from further damage. Unlike scabs, they don’t always leave once they have outlived their usefulness. These blockages show up in our psychologies as self-care systems, and as stagnant energy in our bodies. This stagnant energy eventually leads to muscle tension or a physical weakness in that area.

If you read last week’s entry, you probably have somewhat of an idea of your self-care systems. Through energy work, you can start to locate and dissolve them. Even if you don’t believe in subtle energy, these exercises can be useful merely as a visualization techniques.

This is a thing that takes practice, but it will reveal itself to you with consistent effort.

Locating Your Own Energy Blockages

  1. Find a quiet place where you can sit undisturbed for several minutes.
  2. Concentrate on your breath until you reach a relaxed state.
  3. Stay alert and become aware of your bodily sensations.
  4. Think about a situation where you personally feel stuck.
  5. Try to turn off the stream of thoughts surrounding that situation; such as, “X, Y and Z are stopping me from doing this,” and tune into your emotions about the situation.
  6. Locate the places where those emotions seem to be residing in your body.
  7. Note the sight, sound, texture or other visceral aspects of these emotions.

Clearing Energy Blockages

Now that you have located your blockages, you can try to clear them. I know you’re thinking, “What? No way!”

I’m here to tell you: Way.

When it comes to energy healing, you are your own best healer.

In many cases, especially if you are new to your subtle energy body, merely acknowledging your emotions will be enough. They will dissipate as soon as you recognize them. The tricky thing here is that you can’t force them to dissipate. Trying to force an emotion to dissipate can cause it to repress itself and move to a place where you can’t consciously access it. Remember, blockages were installed to protect you. They’re programmed to stay in place and protect you forever, even if it’s long after you no longer need protecting.

Instead of forcing an emotion to dissipate, get to know it, learn to accept it, and even love it (it was created to protect you, after all), breath through it, stay focused on it, and something will change.

When you recall your situation, chances are that you are going to be tempted to get stuck on the story of it.  You’ll repeat incidents over and over to yourself and maybe even start daydreaming about how those incidents could have turned out better.  If this happens, it is not a big deal, but recognize that you’re doing a different exercise at the moment and give yourself the space for it.

Once you’ve located your blockages, and you’ve gotten familiar with them, you can try different approaches to working them out:

  1. If you feel the need to move around and mull it over while you’re doing other things, you can do that, too. I often find that while doing light housework, I can simultaneously try to work through blockages. Try to avoid anything that is too stimulating or distracting.
  2. If you are very visual, sometimes it helps to draw while accessing those feelings. Allow yourself free reign on the paper, but stay focused on your feelings.
  3. If you are musical, but having trouble really getting in touch with your emotion, think of a song that exemplifies that feeling. Sing the song yourself, put it on and sing along with the song, or just listen to it.  Allow that to help you get in touch with your emotions. If you’re more of a physical person, try dancing to it (even if it is really sad and slow).
  4. If you are most comfortable with words, try writing about your feelings. Try not to get too sucked into writing about the analytical details of the situation. Focus on your feelings.
  5. If there is something else that you think that may work for you; such as a long walk alone, then do that.

If you’ve reached the point of activity where you can no longer feel your body, then you have gone too far. You can’t locate your blockages if you can’t feel your body.If you find your mind wandering or you keep getting sucked into the story of the situation, recognize that it’s a normal response, and refocus on your emotions.  If you really can’t give up the story, promise yourself that after you’re done with your energy exercise, you will allow yourself time to think about your story.

Give this process time. It may help to put yourself on a schedule where you spend 20 minutes on it a few times a week. If you do this a lot, then you’re going to relieve a lot of blockages. Once these blockages are gone, the results will manifest in your life. They may not necessarily manifest in your life in the ways that you expect, but there will be changes.

Eventually, you’re going to be left with only the more stubborn-hard-to-break blockages. By this time, you’ll be an old pro, and you will have a better idea of how to deal with them. However, there is no end to healing. Even if you get to a point where you recognize that your remaining blockages are too stuck for you to handle on your own, don’t discount the new blockages that will continually emerge merely from the daily grind of living. The earlier you catch them, the easier it is to release them.

Still need help?  Come see me, and I will work on your blockages with you.

In a later post I will talk about how to address those stubborn-hard-to-break blockages.

Self-Care Systems – An Introduction

Have you ever heard of self-care systems? Most people who work in subtle energy have some familiarity with self-care systems because in our experience, they manifest themselves as energetic blockages. In psychology, these are called “self-sabotage,” “limiting beliefs, “conflicting parts,” and “self-care systems.”

According to Daniella Sief’s article in Psychological Perspectives: A Quarterly Journal of Jungian Thought, “The psyche’s internal response to trauma sets up a ‘self-care system’ designed to ensure the person’s survival, but that this defensive system ultimately re-traumatizes the person from within, cutting off life-saving attachments to others and eclipsing all possibilities of true-self living in the real world.”¹

Imagine a little girl wandering near a pool. Her mother sees her, and out of fear, screams at her.

After that, the little girl avoids going near any pool again. That little girl has set up a “self-care system.”

It’s like installing a piece of software on your computer that prevents one particular event from ever happening.

Her mother told her that water is dangerous, and so she automatically installed a behavior to protect herself. Now imagine the little girl as an adult woman. Times have changed, she has learned to swim, and the thing that was dangerous in the past is not as dangerous in the present.

The little girl who once wisely protected herself from drowning in pools is now a grown woman who feels anxious swimming, and never feels totally comfortable on a boat. She even turns down opportunities that will put her near water because of the associated anxiety. We leave self-care systems in place long after they have outlived their usefulness.

This is a part of life. Things happen. We create self-care systems out of love for ourselves and the instinct to survive. They are like over-protective parents that follow us around and don’t want us to do anything that might potentially cause us pain or discomfort.

Maybe we fear public speaking because we’ve been embarrassed in front of a crowd. Maybe we fear commitment because we over-committed ourselves once, and that caused problems. We don’t even have to suffer the consequences ourselves. Merely seeing someone else suffer is enough to make us modify our behavior. As a result, we truncate our lives in unnecessary ways, and we suffer from anxiety.

It’s much easier to see self-care systems in other people than it is to see it in ourselves. Part of the self-care system is to run underneath your personal radar, so you don’t dislodge it and expose yourself to danger. If you are not sure how to identify a self-care system, try looking at situations that seem stuck, or think in terms of it’s other name—self-sabotage.

Think about the people in your life who come to you with the same complaints over and over, yet, nothing seems to change. Maybe one friend doesn’t get along with his spouse, maybe another hates her job, another has a never-ending string of failed relationships, and another has a phobia or habit that he can’t conquer.

They try to fix their situations, but they don’t make any progress. They repeatedly use the same few approaches, and they continually fail.

To identify your own self-care systems, start looking for patterns. It doesn’t have to be a big dramatic thing, like hating your spouse, your job or your life. It can be a simple thing, like weight loss or not getting enough recognition at work.

If there is an area where you have been trying to make progress, but you feel like you are spinning your wheels, then chances are that this is the result of a self-care system. A good way to identify these things is first to identify the place where you are stuck (that’s the easy part), then start to journal, or talk it out with yourself (yes, you can talk to yourself, I won’t tell!).

How do those situations make you feel? How do you feel about the risks involved with making a real change? Where did that start? It may help to think about the advantages of keeping your patterns and the disadvantages of changing them. This will help you be completely honest with yourself and drill down to your self-care system.

Next week, I will be talking about self-care systems in terms of energy blockages, and I will post some subtle energy exercises to help you identify them and remove them. It’s going to be good, so stay tuned!

¹Sieff, Daniella. (2008). Unlocking the Secrets of the Wounded Psyche: Interview with Donald Kalsched. Psychological Perspectives: A Quarterly Journal of Jungian Thought. 51:2, 190-207.

Stress: The Wellness Killer?

At the bottom of this post is a Ted Talk given by Kelly McGonigal.

In the first half, McGonigal talks about a study that was done on stress. This study found a correlation between stress related death and the belief that stress is bad for you. The conclusion is that stress itself is not unhealthy. It is the belief that stress is unhealthy that is unhealthy. People who believed stress is helpful did not suffer from stress related death.

McGonigal then goes on to tell us about another study that showed that training people to believe that stress is helpful made it possible for those people to cope with stress better and this improved their survival rate. While she offers some compelling evidence and some amazing solutions, I’d like to discuss stress from another angle.

I don’t know about you, but no one needed to tell me that stress is unhealthy. Long before I had heard the words “stress” and “anxiety” I knew that how I felt in certain situations was not healthy. I didn’t need to hear, “the thing you are experiencing is stress and it’s a bad for you.” I already knew.

Maybe some people believe stress is unhealthy is because that their life experience has taught them that stress is unhealthy for them. Likewise, maybe some people believe that stress is helpful because it has been helpful for them. Like I mentioned in a previous post, one of the problems with clinical studies is that they often don’t account for individual differences. While generalizations can be helpful, when we’re trying to figure out how to navigate this (stressful) world, generalizations can really put some limiting beliefs on us as individuals.

If you can’t start with generalizations, then where can you start?

The conglomeration that makes up you is the most powerful problem solving entity that human kind has ever seen. You are at the helm of something that is designed to solve problems—not just one or two kinds problems either, all kinds of problems.

Think about it this way: When your body needs food, it tells you. When your brain needs sleep, it tells you. When you very quickly need to get out of the way of a speeding vehicle, that happens before you’ve even realized what has happened. When your body needs to stop and make repairs, it gives you pain to force you to stop and make repairs. I’m venturing to guess that when you in a situation that is causing you unhealthy stress, you have a mechanism that tells you that, too.  After all, not every situation can be solved by being able to run faster, yell louder or think on your feet.  When that happens, what do you do with all of that extra ability?  Try to shut it down?  Ignore it?  Say to yourself, “Stress is really awesome because even though I’m standing in this long-ass line at the bank, I am totally prepared for a robbery.”

I’m venturing to guess that you can identify the times in your life when you have experienced stress in a good way, too. That is the kind of stressful situation where your stress can be put to use.  It helps you rise to a challenge. It helps you find your loud voice when you need to yell. It helps you run faster when you’re getting out of the way of that speeding vehicle. It helps you stay up all night and get a report done that is due the next morning.

Does it make sense to put all stress into one box labeled “healthy” or “unhealthy?”

Here’s an analogy: Imagine that the major stressor in your life (be it your job or a relationship) is a hot stove and the stress you feel is the pain of leaving your hand on the surface of that hot stove.

You notice the searing pain, but you also notice that everyone else is holding their hand to the surface of the stove, too. As a matter of fact, everyone is telling you that hot stoves are great, and there’s nothing better than having your hand burnt by a hot stove. It may suck now, but the rewards in the future will be amazing! Stick with it and like everyone else, you’ll get the rewards that you are due. You desperately want to pull your hand away, but now you’re committed to this stove thing, and you’re worried about what people will think if you stop. You start injecting a numbing agent into your red, blistered, blackened flesh and start training yourself to believe that the pain is a good thing. As a matter of fact, you and all of the other stove people have developed a nightly ritual of injecting a numbing agent into your hands so you can get through the next day.

You probably get the picture. Sure, convincing yourself that the pain is good for you is great for your heart health, but what about your hand health? What about that mechanism that is telling you that you are in a bad situation and that you need to get out of it?

You can’t necessarily use the behavior of others as a guide. In my experience, some people have hands that are built for hot stove tops and some people don’t. For example, I used to work a regular 9-5 job and most of my coworkers were pretty satisfied with that, but I wasn’t.  It doesn’t make sense to hold every person to the same standard.  I guess we can say one person’s hot stove is another person’s pleasantly warm pillow.

One of the other things that I have noticed about this analogy is that causing yourself suffering in order to gain some promised reward in the future is an incredible act of faith. If we must commit daily acts of faith, we probably want to be really careful about exactly where we choose to put that faith.

McGonigal’s talk is certainly very helpful, and it’s a great reminder that our stress mechanism is designed to help us. However, stress doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It’s usually caused by some circumstance, and feeling bad is designed to help us, too.

It’s up to us to recognize our personal patterns of stress. Where do you easily rise to the occasion and where do you usually shut-down and flounder?  In which situations does it make sense to think of stress as helping you, and in which situations does it make sense to use that stress to move yourself into a situation in which you’ll blossom?  You know, that place where your stress becomes your joy.

If you have a hot stove in your life, figure out how you can get your hand off of it.