Mindful Psychotherapy - developing the art of living in the here and now


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Compassion is not co-dependency

I was preparing for a difficult meeting the other day and I kept noticing how my mind would very quickly turn to thoughts of anger and defensiveness.  I was well prepared, fairly equanimous (I thought) and confident that I had something of value to contribute to the conversation.  But somehow, my nervous system kept reacting as if I needed to "do" something to protect myself.   My body was tensing up, my heart rate quickened and I felt the world getting smaller.  I was out for a walk on this beautiful, warm and sunny day but as soon as this attitude came into my mind the feelings of expansiveness that come when I am nature vanished.  My mind was operating from the perspective that I was actually in danger. I was activating my fight or flight response and kicking the sympathetic nervous system into high alert.  But why?  I was clear about my position.  I was safe.  No one was going to harm me. Feeling perplexed, I decided to use the practice of  R.A.I.N. to bring mindfulness to my present moment experience: 

R = recognize... this was my initial recognition that I was tensing up.

A = allow... I opened up to the fight or flight response and noticed all of the sensory and perceptual impacts on my body and mind.

I = investigate... What I was able to recognize was that my habitual tendency has been to be accommodating and collaborative.  Two qualities that I have come to deeply value, but at times like this I had the tendency to give into pressure instead of maintaining a balanced approach.   My concerns would quickly become one-sided (their side) and then my point of view (and my needs) were not equally valued (by me).  I needed to remember that compassion is a circle that encompasses all beings, including myself!  I began to recognize my sense of needing to "protect" and "defend" my position was the direct result of my own personal neglect.  It had nothing to do with the other party and everything to do with how I tended to be off balance. The physiological reactions were my bodies (including my heart and mind) way of warning me to value my own perspective with wisdom and clarity.   

N = non-identification...I recognized the fleeting nature of this experience and how just brining attention to what was happening affected how I felt.  I knew that I was able to respond differently, without neglecting my perspective as one of equal value.  I decided to meet my experience with compassion and to remind myself that I could keep my heart open AND say no.  It felt so much better to approach this challenge with a simple attitude of  balanced caring.

Jack Kornfield, in The Wise Heart,  writes this about compassion:

"Living with compassion does not mean we have to give away all of our possessions, take in eery homeless person we meet, and fix every difficulty in our extended family and community.  Compassion is not co-dependence.  It does not mean we lose our self-respect or sacrifice ourself blindly for others.  In the West we are confused about this point.  We mistakenly fear that if we become too compassionate we will be overwhelmed by the suffering of others... 
Compassion is not foolish.  It doesn't just go along with what others want so they don't feel bad.   There is a yes in compassion, and there is also a no, said with the same courage of heart.  No to abuse, not to racism, no to violence, both personal and worldwide.  The no is said not out of hate but out of an unwavering care.  Buddhist call this the fierce sword of compassion.  It is the powerful no of leaving a destructive family, the agonizing no of allowing an addict to experience the consequences of his acts."