“The two parts of genuine acceptance — seeing clearly and holding our experience with compassion —are as interdependent as the two wings of a great bird. Together, they enable us to fly and be free.”
It is said that mindfulness is like a bird; it needs two wings to fly. The two wings are clear seeing or wisdom and compassion.
In our meditation circle, we spoke about this and why cultivating compassion is such an important part of the practice. It is like the image of the bird, both wings need to be in balance in order for the bird to soar. When compassion isn’t informed by wisdom it turns into pity. Too much wisdom and it turns into intellectualization. So there must be a balance between compassion and wisdom to help us stay present with the challenges we face in life and to learn from them. For the purposes of this post I want to focus on the wing of compassion/self-compassion.
It’s important to begin with self-compassion…
As a therapist, I counsel others who are facing challenges in their lives. So compassion towards their suffering is an important part of the healing process. It is also important to have self compassion, as a compassionate witness. Compassion and self-compassion are powerful healing antidotes to pain. It’s powerful medicine when we can meet the pain of life in this healing way. It is, during those times that we need to stay grounded. This helps us slow the chain of reactivity and come into connection with what is happening in the moment. We become aware of our moment to moment experience, meeting it with curiosity and kindness. With this present moment awareness, we can attend and befriend that which is in need of kind attention. This is the opposite of what we usually do when we are hurt, angry or grieving. Our habitual reactive response to hurt, is to defend ourselves. This isn’t helpful, as it just takes us further away from the healing power of the heart. And this where self-compassion is needed.
Rumi speaks to this in the poem below:
The Guest House
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
— Jellaludin Rumi,
With mindfulness, we become aware of how we are paying attention to what is happening in our moment to moment experience. When we pause and slow down the reactive mind, wisdom can arise and with wisdom, a moment of choice. This moment is a pivotal choice point; continue down the road of reactivity/suffering or shift towards a more healing response. This is the power of self compassion. We shift from needing to find the villian in the story (others, ourselves), to helping ourselves tend to what is happening in the moment. There isn’t a need to go after, or punish anybody. That just escalates the hurt, and anger. Instead we turn towards the pain and recognize that this is a moment of suffering. With that recognition, self compassion arises and we can then be with what’s happening bringing kindness and compassion to it. So what does that look like?
Turning towards pain
It’s not an easy practice, this turning towards pain. Especially when we’ve been conditioned to respond to pain with reactivity. So, it is important to be patient with yourself when practicing self compassion. I’ve found that what helps, is to shift from the story about what happened/is happening to what is being felt in the body. I’ll experience anger as a burning feeling in my stomach, so when I am attuned to the body, when I feel that, I place my hand on my stomach as a symbol of care and compassion. This instantly brings me into contact with what is happening in the present moment. I feel the pain that is beneath the anger and if I stay with it, breathing into the area of distress and softening around it, the hurt begins to soften. I want to say that this didn’t happen when I practiced for the first, second or 20th time. It took time to really learn how to shift from feeding the anger with thoughts and stories, to be with the direct painful experience that was happening in the present. A resource that helped me is Kristin Neff’s book Self Compassion; The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself.
It also helps to belong to a Mindfulness Meditation Circle that focuses on exploring the practices that help us cultivate wisdom and compassion. Our Sangha, has definitely helped me to deepen my own pratice and understanding of these healing practices. However, if you don’t have a local group, there are many groups that practice together online. And with the state of our world today, there is truly a need for all of us to learn how to be a healing presence in the world. This helps us and when we are more compassionate towards ourselves, we in turn have more compassion towards others.
Want to learn more? Join us at our weekly meditation circle, RSVP at Meetup.com or at our upcoming 5 Day Residential Mindfulness Retreat at Casa San Carlos Retreat Center. To register go to our Event Registration page.
If you would like more information on this practice, please feel free to contact me here.