In my last post I outlined Tania Singer's very helpful distinction between empathy and compassion. While knowing that distinction is an important first step, it's not enough, obviously, to actually make the jump from an overwhelmed state of empathic distress to a dynamic flow of stable compassion. So how do we actually do this?
Well, you could try these four steps:
1. Remember the Distinction.
The first step in making the transition from empathic distress to stable compassion is to remember that the transition can - and should - be made. A lot of us helpers get stuck in a mindset of distress. We take for granted that caring means suffering. We might start to wear our weariness or outrage like a scout's badge, a status symbol. I've even heard myself, at times, try to out-suffer others, as if the more I'm carrying the horrors of the world, the greater my moral compass.
This is nuts. It's bad for me, and it's bad for clients. Nobody wants to walk into an office with someone weighed down by their work. Our job as helpers is to listen deeply, of course, and then offer hope, energy, creativity. If we are genuinely uplifted by the work of helping, hope becomes a natural outgrowth of the helping encounter. And for that, we need to . . .
2. Recognize Empathic Distress
Here's a simple way to notice you're lost in empathic distress: you feel bad. You either can't feel your heart at all, or when you feel your heart it's like a hornet's nest. You don't know what the point of all this is anymore. Everything is overwhelming. You have a hard time recognizing your contribution. And it seems like all those people you're trying to help are too far gone, or their situation is totally impossible, or the world is horrible and unfair. Something like that. Insert your version here _________.
Once you notice you've slipped into empathic distress - and we all do, if we're doing anything meaningful in the world - you should definitely . . .
3. Rest a Bit
Here I'm going to get a little feisty. Because I'm tired of people telling me they engaged in a weekend's worth of self-care by binge watching Netflix. That is not what I call rest. What I call rest is zero input. Lying on a floor. Looking at the ceiling. Maybe meditating. But rest, just rest. And keep resting until you actually feel rested. (See here for my full two cents on rest.) Then, once you're rested . . .
4. Cultivate Uplifted Compassion
Once you've rested, you're ready to start cultivating uplifted compassion. How?
Take some minutes to settle the mind in the body (See our meditations page)
Then call up an image of someone you're helping
See where it hurts. Feel their struggles
Understand the specific ways they want to be free of their suffering
Wish that for them
Imagine them becoming slowly, step-by-step, free of their pain
Notice their body relax
Notice their face brighten
Notice their body heal
Gradually see and feel them become lighter, brighter
And then relax your mind in this uplifted state
Okay, that's the basic meditation to cultivate uplifted compassion. Try it out. See how it goes. And next post, I'll write a bit about how to deal with doubts.