Turning Compassion Inward

All of us struggle with our pain to some degree.  Our pain contracts us, folding us over to protect the heart.

It feels right, it feels like the natural path, to become defensive, small and hard. Shutting ourselves off from what we believe to be the source of discomfort, we build walls, erect barriers and summon the guards of anger and indignation. We struggle in this posture, mistaking the pain of our own manufactured separateness and contractedness for the residue of a wrong done to us. And there we sit, reciting the mantra of separation and of sadness, hardening it into seemingly immutable fact, as though this will somehow relieve our distress.

Healing is the art of recognizing that nothing is solid, immutable or permanent – either in ourselves or in others. Nothing is ever quite what it seems to be. Compassion is the yielding strength to be like the earth beneath our feet which accepts our tears and our poisons with equal openness. It is the courage to risk the expansiveness of an open heart, recognizing the power of that openness to relieve the suffering of all of us.

To have compassion for others when their suffering is clear to us is natural and easy. To have compassion for one who injures us from the place of their own suffering is a practice. To look past the acts of hurt and ugliness, to see the whole picture of a person’s life and how they have incarcerated themselves behind the bars of their illusions of who they are, is to give them a dignity that opens a space for understanding.

To have compassion for ourselves in this way is perhaps the most difficult work of all.

The word “forgiveness” is laden with expectations, doubts, and “shoulds”. Compassion means opening a crack, letting a little light in, letting some air circulate, and making a space – even a tiny one – for healing to begin.

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9 Comments on “Turning Compassion Inward

  1. I saw a bumper sticker yesterday that said “forgive everyone everything.” I thought, what a trip to lay on someone who’s feeling wounded and angry. To me what you say is so much kinder.

    • Dan, I understand forgiveness when someone comes to you and says, genuinely, “Hey, I messed up. Bad. I’m sorry. Can you forgive me?” Ok, then I get forgiveness.

      But, “forgive everyone everything” is not necessarily an appropriate option for those who have been traumatized, brutalized, etc. In such cases, (in my own experience) a sweeping, unilateral “forgiveness” is more spiritual bypassing than anything else.

      When we take up the practice of compassion, we can’t hide behind forgiveness or any other slight-of-hand in any form. It’s an unfolding, in the natural course of time, with a clear direction.

      I’ve heard so many times that “Forgiveness is not for the perpetrator, it’s for the one who forgives.” In my experience, compassion is for all of us.

      It’s a steep and tricky path, but the view is spectacular.

  2. Beautifully and wisely written! You make many great, insightful points. My favorite quote from this post is:

    “Compassion is the yielding strength to be like the earth beneath our feet which accepts our tears and our poisons with equal openness. It is the courage to risk the expansiveness of an open heart, recognizing the power of that openness to relieve the suffering of all of us.”

    Thank you for writing this beautiful essay on compassion. I like to share quotes on Facebook and I plan to share the one above today with a link to your blog.

    • I’m so glad you found something in the writing that resonated with you. I’d be delighted for you to share on FB. Be well, ZD

  3. Yes, I think the word forgiveness perhaps comes with too much “baggage” in our culture. Compassion is a much more gentle word — allows us to be more gentle with our selves.
    Thank you for this wonderful post.

      • Would you mind if I quote some from this post? I would be honored if you would allow it but I would understand as well if not. I am preparing a post regarding “the path of peace” and your words came to mind.

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