Backing into Compassion

At a recent support group for bereaved parents, the facilitator, whose son died at least five years ago, said that in her experience the loss of a child allows us to feel more compassion for others. I then asked her whether it is harder to feel compassion for ourselves or for others. She responded without hesitation: “It’s hardest to feel compassion for ourselves.” And a murmur of agreement ran through the circle of parents.

I find myself continuing to think about this; especially since I’ve been reading Buddhist books that seem to say we can’t really feel compassion for anyone else if we don’t feel compassion for ourselves.

Perhaps both perspectives are true: that it’s hardest to forgive ourselves–to accept that we intended no harm–because we live inside a mind that has been swept out of its comfort zone by events and now must pick up the pieces. And, while we are trying to pick up the pieces, like Humpty Dumpty sitting at the bottom of the wall, we notice others around us, staring at pieces of egg shell as if they can hardly remember that they were once part of themselves. And our hearts immediately recognize what they are feeling and wish them well.

This could be a time to finally learn that we’re all in this world together, joined in ways we can’t fully understand; that we’re all orphans who can’t recognize our family because we have forgotten our own birth; and that we’re already moving toward the exit gate, along with everyone we care for and everyone we do our best to avoid.

It seems part of feeling compassion toward ourselves is to notice that, like everyone else, we don’t have much control over the most important aspects of our lives in this world. And once we notice that, we may want to pay more attention to the unfolding of our lives, and to how everyone around us seems to be waiting for their hearts to be broken.

A path to the opening of our hearts, and to the recognition that our hearts are just like all the hearts around us, may open when we allow ourselves to really see our own lives: to see that we are like children trying on clothes we have found lying by the wayside and that none of them really fit; to see that we yearn, from the depths of our being, to be the person that our world so desperately needs us to be.

If we feel that deeply enough, we will finally open, and compassion will start to fall from the sky, compassion will flow up through the cracked surfaces of the earth, and we will feel, with great relief, that none of us are really sure of very much. So we might as well listen and look around at the world we have somehow not seen clearly all these years.

Perhaps there are three faces of a single truth: we can understand our own lives to be an opportunity to never close down our hearts; we can allow ourselves to notice other people and how their lives are difficult too; and we can recognize that kindness towards ourselves and towards others is the healing nectar for which we have always yearned.

5 comments to “Backing into Compassion”
  1. My five years of working with grief support groups has taught me much and bears the truth in what you have written above..

  2. Dang, Brother Michael, does you write well!

    This is a minor classic, written so simply and so accessibly thatyou almost slide by, until you are hit with the elegance of profoundly deep feeling.

  3. My son passed 11 years ago. In my book, “”Fierce Illumination” I share how my grief journey helped me to arrive at the very understandings you write about, plus many more. It is a gift (and responsibility) I cherish for the rest of my days and beyond.

  4. To feel compassion for another is the beginning of compassion for ourselves. I think, in part, it’s a safety net. We are isolated by our grief and so understanding that we are not alone is a step toward understanding our own pain . It’s more than that of course as you have so beautifully expressed.

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