'The practice of compassion towards ourselves can be like the cultivation of an inner parent who is unconditional and accepting. This can enable a softening and letting go…so that we inhabit a more caring inner landscape.' –Rob Preece (p. 43)
Cultivating a caring inner landscape is challenging for many of us. When we experience deep shame, jealousy, a strong sense of worthlessness, we feel like orphaned children, abandoned to our suffering. In those bleak moments, we become so identified with our experience that holding ourselves in kindness often doesn’t occur to us. We might find momentary solace in making a connection on Facebook or talking with a supportive friend, but those perfectly useful strategies likely won’t create lasting shifts in the relationship we have with ourselves.
Lasting shifts occur when we start relating to our ourselves with compassion and to our experience with wisdom. Buddhist practitioners consider those qualities “the two wings of the bird of awakening” because, working in concert, they have the potential to lift us out of the grooved patterns of our suffering. Both qualities are available to us in the essence of our nature, under the burdens of our conditioning, but often require us to exert some effort in bringing them back into use, like muscles we haven’t exercised in a while. Exercising those muscles starts when in moments of distress we remember to step out of our identification with our experience and relate to ourselves differently: maybe with acceptance, kindness, compassion, or humor. Like any exercise regimen, we start with what is manageable, practicing dis-identifying from our experience when we are irritated in traffic, say, or growing impatient in a bank line. Instead of being held captive by our anger, we could notice how it is making us suffer, elevating our heartrate and blood pressure, causing us to bite our nails, making us feed the story of our chronic bad luck. Who is this person caught in this drama? What might comfort her?
Compassion literally translates as “feeling together.” When we are compassionate with ourselves, our expansive, essential self is comforting the self who is suffering, and we are feeling together in a tender attunement that soothes us and eases our distress. Being compassionate with ourselves is comparable to a mother comforting her child; we are both the mother (our essential self) and the suffering child (a part of ourselves that has been wounded by experience). In Buddhism, the classic image of loving-kindness is a mother bird taking care of her chicks. Pema Chodron, a renown Western teacher of Tantric Buddhism, reflects that what is poignant in the image is that the mother bird takes care of all the chicks: the ugliest, the loudest, the most difficult to be with... She takes care of all the chicks without preferring one over another. Just so, the compassionate mother in us says to each of our parts: Come as you are. You are welcome.
And yet, while we practice loving the parts of ourselves who have been wounded, we also understand that the wounding they carry can cause us to act harmfully, to ourselves and others. That is when our wisdom comes in. If compassion is like our nurturing mother, then wisdom is like our protective father. His mandate is to protect the “caring inner landscape” cultivated by our compassionate mother by arresting the momentum of reactivity. He sees the hurt that has been awakened, understands how feeling the pain of that hurt triggers an impulse to escape, and sees that the means of that escape is typically harmful. He sees the whole destructive pattern, feels the seductive pull to follow that pattern, and, understanding the suffering it causes, out of love, asserts a strong, protective no. He says no to an afternoon of negative self-talk that follows a recent embarrassment; he says no to eating a frosted cake to avoid feeling overwhelming grief; he says no to letting ourselves get walked all over; he says no to lashing out in anger or getting high or self-harming. And he says yes to skillful, in-the-moment responses: a time-out, a walk around the block, a good cry, a hot shower, a silly movie, a talk with a close friend… And he says yes to a whole host of conditions that promote good mental health: being with people who nourish; sleeping and eating well; avoiding hot spots and trigger points; creating a practicable balance between work, family, friends, and rest; starting a contemplative practice; resourcing in texts, teachings, and discussions that inspire wakeful living…
Cultivating compassion and wisdom is a practice, a work-in-progress, and falls from grace are inevitable, occurring in mild and painful ways many times a day. But even in those lapses, in those moments of disappointment, there are opportunities to practice compassion and wisdom. So many opportunities and so often! Oh, the wealth!