Let's talk doubts (re: compassion)

Let's talk doubts. In particular, let's talk about the doubts that usually come up for folks when they start doing these compassion practices. Here's the top three, as far as I've heard so far:

1. I'll get flooded
2. This helps nobody but me
3. I don't have time

I'll get flooded
A lot of people working with the suffering of others worry about what's called, in the professional parlance, vicarious trauma. In other words, you start to feel as if you're traumatized by all the horrible stories you hear. (Or if you're a paramedic or a cop, by all the horrible things you see.)

There's good reason for this. Stories are powerful. And there's something that happens in a room when someone tells you their pain. It's like the air bends. Like this week, a woman told me about the moment her granddaughter was run over by a car. I doubt I'll ever forget that story.

The question is: what do we do with it? Some professionals - and I've known a lot of these - turn into armored tanks. They stop feeling others' pain. They just plow through and do the job. Others let the stories stick, fall into sustained empathic distress, and burnout.

Compassion practice is a middle way. We don't armor. But we learn to keep the floods at bay. It took me a couple years to learn this, and a lot of meditation practice. But what it comes down to is regulation. As Matthieu Ricard describes in his book, Altruism, we let just enough of the pain in to allow resonance, and then flip the switch into the uplifted, dynamic compassion that I described in my last post. We go from empathy to engagement.

How? Practice it on the cushion first. Then bring it into real life.

Put simply, you can think of it like exercise. I've always hated running. But when I turned 40 this year, I decided I needed to finally get in shape. At first, running felt impossible. But, day by day, as I ran through my dizziness and nausea, it got easier. And now I run on the beach every morning, and it feels beautiful.

Compassion practice is like that. At first, you can't find the balance. You get flooded. Then you get numb. Then you fall asleep. Or whatever your version is. But as you practice, more and more, you get the hang of it, and at some point you can take it on the road.

Also, when you're starting to feel flooded, take a break.

This point cannot be emphasized enough. A lot of helpers, myself included, seem to think breaks are contraindicated. Or just not possible. It's true it takes a lot of discipline to step away from your desk during lunch and go meditate, or to end your session on time and then lie down on the floor for three minutes before taking your next client. But I have come to believe this is a great act of service, as I yammered on about in a previous post.

And if you’re looking for some guided compassion meditations for these recommended breaks, you can check out a few great intros from Devon. Take a look at Compassionate Presence to Feelings on our 10-minute meditations page. Or Being a Caring Figure on the 20-minute meditations page. Or if you’ve got 30 minutes, why not try Circle of Benefactors? That’s a beautiful one.

Okay, I got a little carried away here. Take homes:

  • You don’t need to get flooded

  • Practice on the cushion and then take it on the road

  • Breaks are beautiful

Next time we’ll tackle doesn't help anybody and don't have time.

Until then,

Craig Hase