June 15, 2021

Compassion isn’t Passive. Compassion requires we go directly Inside the Pit of the Pain.


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Sometimes we Need to go Emotionally Bankrupt

There is a story I learned in a yin yoga teacher training with Sarah Powers back in 2008.

I can no longer source it, but I remember it being one of those stories that woke me up from a self-induced slumber. Here’s my best recollection:

A master had three students whom he taught for many years. When they were ready, he sent them out into the world.

After some time, he sent his assistant out to discover what each of them had been doing since they left.

The assistant returned weeks later with information. The first student was teaching right in town, he relayed, and was building up a following. And the second had moved a bit farther away, had settled into family life, and was modeling the teachings in his daily life.

The master was pleased, but wondered about the third student.

The assistant said that after much searching, he heard a rumor that she was living alone, and that people saw her in her window each day with a handkerchief tied around her eyes.

“What is she doing?” the master inquired gently.

The assistant said, “She is practicing the sacred art of Tonglen meditation. The handkerchief is in place to catch her tears so they do not distract her.”

The master bowed down in her direction, as a sign of respect.

Here is the way I taught Tonglen meditation:

>> Think of a pain you’ve experienced in your life, and hold it lovingly inside you. Allow it to open and spread. Give yourself permission to feel it in its entirety—no justifications, no qualifications. Breathe in the pain, exhale relief for yourself.

>> Begin to let the event(s) that caused the feeling go, and focus only on the feeling itself. Is it anger? Shame? Sadness? Betrayal? Loss? Grief? Now, imagine one other person comes to sit across from you—someone who has felt the same way, even if for entirely different circumstances. This can be someone you know or a stranger in your mind’s eye. Now, breathe in the pain for both of you. Feel it as though it has doubled within you. And then, send relief and healing to both of you, feeling this doubled as well.

>> Take this to the next step and imagine all beings have felt these emotions. As your practice deepens, invite more and more people into this circle of healing. Continue to breathe in the pain of the collective, and breathe out the relief.

It is said that there are people like this third student all over the world, processing the pain of the collective, else the pain would’ve destroyed us by now. These people recognize that there is no greater human power than being able to sit intimately inside pain and transmute it into connection and healing. They recognize that connection and healing are far more potent, energetically speaking, than pain and trauma could ever be.

I share this story and the practice of Tonglen to demonstrate that radical compassion and deep feeling are possible for us as human beings. That we won’t break. And that we don’t need to be superhuman—just human.

The student in the story grows stronger through her devotion to feeling the world’s pain, not weaker. We’re not all called to transmute pain into healing in such an active way, however, and that’s not my position.

Rather, I want to posit that we are stronger than we give ourselves credit for. That we can hold more than we think we can. And that our fear of feeling pain, and the subsequent act of removing ourselves from situations where we might feel it, is just as costly to this world as the pain itself.

Like the master in the story, I bow down to this student and the profound impact the power of compassion can make in the world.

It is this story I think about when I get pushback for writing about the importance of being more vocal and more active in our world right now, even if it means we go energetically bankrupt. I hear:

“Not now, we have to pick our battles wisely.”

“I can’t; I have to conserve my energy.”

“You’ve heard of compassion fatigue, right?”

“It’s irresponsible of you as a spiritual leader to push people into more pain.”

First, yes, I have heard of compassion fatigue.

According to the Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project website: “Compassion Fatigue is a state experienced by those helping people or animals in distress; it is an extreme state of tension and preoccupation with the suffering of those being helped to the degree it can create a secondary traumatic stress for the helper.”

And yes, I take my responsibility as a leader in the spiritual world seriously. In the name of that responsibility, let me say for the record that not everyone is ready to push the boundaries of their compassion and risk going into an energy deficit. If it is causing unceasing, needless suffering, then we do need to drop into self-care first. If our emotional bankruptcy causes lasting physical symptoms, then stepping back for a time is called for.

I’m not trying to induce guilt or defensiveness either. Rather, I’m writing to remind us of our power and our gifts and to suggest that we are far stronger than we believe we are. If you feel guilty, could it be because you know you have so much more to offer than you let on? If you feel defensive, could it be because your excuses have thus far been impenetrable?

I believe in serendipity. If you’re reading this post, I’m going to say that the message definitely is for you. Not only are you stronger than you believe, but your capacity for compassion is far deeper than you imagine it to be.

I believe in serendipity, in fact, more than I believe in compassion fatigue. I believe in the rejuvenating power of compassion, which I define as the authentic attempt to wholly grasp another’s situation and resulting emotional state. Compassion is the willingness to feel with passion (“com”=with, “passion”=suffer)   alongside another individual or group from a place of oneness and solidarity.

And I believe that through concepts such as picking our battles and compassion fatigue, we’re placing false limits on ourselves.

Staying “out of it” for the sake of conserving our energy is the path of spiritual bypassing, not the path of Krisha, the brave warrior in the Bhagavad Gita who dives into battle not because he feels strong enough or good enough or is certain of success, but because it’s what he’s here to do.

“Pick your battles” is too often used as a blanket excuse to not fight for anything that’s difficult, challenging, nuanced, or uphill. It’s also a statement of privilege—if you have the opportunity to pick your battles, then you’re not someone who must fight battles every day just to survive, regardless of whether or not you have the energy.

What are we earmarking all this conserved energy for? If we’re conserving it for dire times, well, newsflash—these times are dire times.

If we’re saving up energy for battles that really need to be fought—such as democracy, a planet that can sustain human life, or human rights—we’re there, too.

If there was ever a time in recorded human history where we could say that all that saved up energy could be put to some use, well, we’ve arrived.

When people claim they are stepping back in the interest of conserving energy, I suggest what they’re actually doing is squandering it.

Because we’re energy depleted, we let ourselves turn off the events of the world.

Because we’re energy depleted, we close our eyes to the pain and suffering in our neighborhoods.

Because we’re energy depleted, we give up our place as co-creators and co-conspirators in building a better world.

In the name of picking our battles, we’re relinquishing the power of our voices and our platforms in ways that really matter. I don’t think we realize, particularly in America, what a fine line we’re walking between democracy (what’s left of it) and fascism. We might decide, in the name of sanity and peace, that we’ll just stop listening to things that upset us or draw down our energy.

And yet, that act of turning away in the name of sanity and peace is also turning a blind eye to the destruction of the earth.

It is difficult to act or speak out about things we feel we have no true power to change. We, humans, are good at adjusting and adapting to changing surroundings, like the proverbial frog in boiling water. But it’s not full-bodied compassion if we’re only doing it with the promise of positive results or for feeling good. The deepest act of compassion is to move into places and issues that matter for the sake of the issues—regardless of any expected result.

Compassion is not passive. Compassion requires we go directly inside the pit of the pain, hold it inside us, and use it to fuel our activism and our voice in the world.

Too many of us, believing in the idea of conserving our energy, help create a void in which more destruction, violence, and lies can take foment.

Acts stemming from radical compassion have a natural rejuvenating, rebounding effect. The belief that compassion depletes us is a belief designed to keep us complacent and quiet and unfeeling.

When we invest in compassion, we get a return on our investment in the form of more energy. But, we have to take the risk first. We have to spend energy to make energy. Change won’t just happen. “Someone else” is not better equipped or more right for the job than we are. We have to put our energy where our passions are if we expect the kind of radical change our world needs and deserves right now.

You might say I’m idealistic, and I’ll take that as a compliment. But, there is also real-life truth in the power of the people. As long as we all focus only on taking care of our own selves and families, as long as we’ve tightened our circles until we can barely see out, we continue to allow tyrannical forces such as fascism, climate change, the loss of reproductive and voting rights to keep marching on with little to no challenge.

I suspect that Paxton Smith, the valedictorian who gave a passionate speech against the heartbeat abortion law in Texas, was energy depleted afterward. I also suspect that it didn’t matter to her, that she decided the positive impact she could make outweighed the cost.

We need to start asking ourselves what would happen if we stopped using energy depletion as a reason to not use our gifts and voices in the world. We need to find out what would happen if we trusted the power of compassion to restore our energy ten-fold.

I am willing to go energetically bankrupt from time to time, because I know I’ll get refueled. I’ll get stronger and more capable with each passing day, just like Smith, and just like the master’s third student.

It’s worth it. We need you. You can do this.


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