When I was around 9 or 10, I vandalized my best friend’s locker.
Girls can be really mean to other girls, and I was not immune. It was kind of that classic mean girl story you see in a lot of teen movies; we started as best friends when we were younger, but as we grew up our interests diverged. I was trying to separate from her and show my loyalty to another newer friend, and she was trying to hold on. I came to my locker that day to get my PE bag and the handle of my bag was stuck in her locker door. I thought she had done it on purpose. I was going to be late to class as a result and I got upset and scratched a foul word onto the door of her locker.
I got called into my home room teacher’s office but didn’t get punished. I think because my teacher saw that act as completely out of character for me. I was usually a very quiet & shy student who got good grades and never got into trouble. A good girl. He also saw how remorseful I was, so I guess he decided to give me a chance. I didn’t get punished but until today, I still feel sorry and ashamed. It taught me something really important though; we are all capable of good or bad acts towards other human beings.
I have the capacity for both good and bad, and with each step I get to choose whether I do what is positive or negative for others. How I see the world, my attitudes, my values & goals at each moment will determine what I choose.
We are all human, we each have the capacity for good and bad (if we say otherwise, we are lying or deluding ourselves), and with each step we get to choose whether we will do what is positive or negative for others.
How Do We Choose Good? How Do We Choose Compassion?
Many define compassion as “the willingness to see and be sensitive to the suffering of others, and also a deep commitment to do something about it.”
According to Roshi Joan Halifax, a Zen Buddhist priest best known for sitting at the bedside of terminally ill patients and pioneering the “being with Dying” project,
“compassion is that capacity to see clearly into the nature of suffering. That ability to really stand strong and to recognize also that I am not separate from this suffering. But that is not enough, because compassion that activates the motor cortex, means we actually aspire to transform suffering, and if we are so blessed, we engage in activities that transform suffering. But compassion has another component that is really essential. That component is that we cannot be attached to outcome; any attachment to outcome would distort deeply my own capacity to be fully present to the whole catastrophe.“
The broader picture of being attached to certain outcomes, means there is an “I” in that showing of compassion; it is about what I want or need. True compassion, however, requires removing our own needs from the equation.
Removing The “I” From Compassion
We are all born with compassion. It is an innate gift.
Compassion is an inherent human quality. It is there within every human being, but we do not always choose it.
When we think about choosing good, choosing kindness, choosing compassion, I believe there is one mortal enemy; lack of self-love, self-compassion.
It is quite simple, we have to inhale to exhale. Without taking in the nurturing breath, the oxygen, we cannot offer it outward to others.
Halifax’s concept of “Strong Back, Soft front” can also be useful here:
[Strong back, soft front] "is about the relationship between equanimity and compassion. ‘Strong Back’ is equanimity we need and our capacity to really uphold ourselves. ‘Soft front’ is opening to things as they are.”
Halifax further states,
“All too often our so-called strength comes from fear, not love. Instead of having a strong back, many of us have a defended front shielding a weak spine. In other words, we walk around brittle and defensive, trying to conceal our lack of confidence. If we strengthen our backs, metaphorically speaking, and develop a spine that is flexible but sturdy, then we can risk having a front that’s soft and open. How can we give and accept care with strong-back, soft-front compassion, moving past fear into a place of genuine tenderness? I believe it comes when we can be truly transparent, seeing the world clearly – and letting the world see into us.”
To have a front made of love and kindness, we need a back made of fierce courage. And that kind of courage, heart courage, requires us to accept and love ourselves. Self-compassion is how we train the vulnerability muscle and build a strength that allows us to stay open rather than self-protect.
I recently listened to a BEAUTIFUL and POWERFUL masterclass on the Calm App by Tara Brach, who is responsible for the term “radical self-compassion” and creator of the Self-Compassion practice called R.A.I.N. which we referred to in an earlier blog.
When we lack a sense of worthiness, we tend to create ways of protecting ourselves and our ego. We build walls around our vulnerability, which Brené brown brilliantly refers to as our "Armor". Among other things, this armor takes the form of seeking approval, perfectionism, being preoccupied, blaming or otherwise defended, or perhaps just feeling numb and closed.
Brach notes, “When we get stressed our receptivity and availability to others gets very very small. We get very self-centered and less attuned.” So “we regress, we get reactive, small minded, un-attuned and sometimes even hurtful to others; old patterns of controlling come up again, we treat each other as unreal others; we forget their goodness, their vulnerabilities, their sensitivities.”
The practice of radical self-compassion is an antidote; the oxygen that can helps connect us with our capacity for “open heartedness” and vulnerability.
“just noticing what’s happening [within us] and offering [ourselves] kindness… enables to have the sensitivity to others. If we are in touch with own vulnerability, then we are able to perceive another’s vulnerability. Once we bring self-compassion in, we begin to recognize and allow what another person is going through without judgement. We investigate, further attuning, trying to feel into their experience: “What is it like being you?” “What does that hurting part most need.” And then we nurture and respond to whatever need we sense.”
Once we are able to sit into our own vulnerability and give ourselves the nurturing we need, Tara provides 2 Key practices of radical compassion we can engage in (these woke my heart even just listening to her speak about them): 1. Seeing and responding to another’s goodness. 2. Seeing and responding to another’s vulnerability. Here is a summary.
1. Seeing and responding to goodness: This is a practice of seeing the good in the other person AND letting them know, sharing with them what you see. Or remind yourself of the good in the other before you engage with them. Seeing the good is the most powerful gift we offer each other. Brach offered this quote that touched me do deeply:
“To love a person is to learn the song that is in their heart and to sing it to them when they have forgotten.”
― Arne Garborg
2. Seeing and responding to vulnerability: This is seeing the vulnerability that is in everyone. Everybody is struggling or has struggled in some way. To be able to see another’s vulnerability softens our own armor against feeling compassion toward them, but it takes practice to develop this ability. If you are interested, Tara offers a compassion practice for others called “Widening the circles” which can be found at calm.calm/tarabrach.
These seem to me to be two powerful practices we can adopt if we want to live a life of radical compassion. If you would like to dive deeper and hear about some other methods of increasing compassion, please tune in to our podcast tomorrow.
To end, remember we all have the capacity for good and for bad. If we want to live true to our nature, we must do the work of building a self-awareness, looking into ourselves, our reactions, our armor, and we must “LOVE OURSELVES INTO HEALING.”
When we heal, we will be able to help others heal too.
And here is my favorite: