What is a healthy way to respond?
Finding the balance between compassion (our gentle response to suffering) and equanimity (that place in us that accepts what is occurring without resentment, worry, etc) is vital.
The renowned Buddhist teacher Pema Chodrin uses the term “idiot compassion” to define making excuses for hurtful and abusive behavior. This is not compassion. Rather it is reacting in ignorant and foolish ways. Being safe is more important.
Or perhaps it’s approval we value. Maybe we hope for some reward, a favor or promotion for example. Or we attempt to ward off some hurtful behavior. We want to avoid what looks dangerous.
Yet underneath this behavior lurks hurt and resentment which end up in the cells of our body.
For many years I could only confront another when my anger reached the boiling point—and then watch out! Those around me suffered.
Reacting in anger or fear does not create harmony.
One day the cost of keeping the lid on my despair became too high to pay and I began to break apart—to give up. I fell into severe depression which eventually led to me to probe more deeply into my unconscious beliefs that were causing my behavior.
For many years I stumbled rather blindly until I found truly qualified teachers and counselors. I began to ask the right questions which led me to the source of the problem. It wasn’t others or the world. My despair and anxiety arose from my view of life.
Expectations cause suffering—and I had many. I had an ideal self to which I must conform. Also I was expecting others to understand my needs without expressing them clearly, nonviolently.
I saw life as a battle between what I hoped for and what I got. I was working so hard, all the time fighting uphill. But the time came when I was too weary to continue the struggle. I slowly realized I had a hole in my heart where compassion needed to be. Not learning it as a child I had to develop it.
I began to slowly and more gently navigate the storms of life.
I learned how to dialogue with others rather than confront. I learned the four simple—not easy— steps of non-violent communication. (I highly recommend Non-Violent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg for a thorough explanation of them.)
Skillful communication is an art—not a science. It requires not only compassion, but acceptance of what is.
Acceptance comes with a mind that is equanimous.
Equanimity is not indifference or apathy. It is not resignation or giving up in helplessness. Rather it moves us into a new way of seeing life that brings a sense of peace, of acceptance.
Equanimity takes courage. It is an ancient method of living the serenity prayer:
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
Equanimity teaches us to let go of our expectations and demands. We begin to accept and trust life to do just what is truly needed each moment—though we may not see why. And we know we don’t need to.
Another path to acceptance comes from Elizabeth Kubler Ross. The following are her five stages of letting go, of dying into total surrender and trust:
We become aware of what our mind is doing and what our attitudes and expectations are. We begin to wake up to the awesome power of our mind.
Each of these stages takes compassion, equanimity, time and patience. When we think we’ve finished one stage it pops back up unexpectedly, and there we are again.
Take bargaining for instance. I am amazed at how much unconscious bargaining I do each day. For instance as I investigate my true motives for taking supplements I find that I have the hope that they will bring health. I take this and expect that, rather than just doing the right thing and leaving the outcome to God. Instead I find I’m really hoping for a specific outcome. I make a silent bargain for it.
Depression comes next when my expectations aren’t met. I still suffer and get ill. And dying takes place each day.
I finally realize the universe doesn’t bargain. That’s a kick in the pants! Instead it gives us the consequence of exactly what we think, believe and feel. It doesn’t much care what we expect. Perhaps you find this a little depressing, as I did.
The path to acceptance is arduous and takes as long as it takes. It won’t be rushed.
We must walk each step and can’t fly around or over them. It may take an entire life. However we gain momentum with each new action. New neural pathways are developed which lead to new habits.
Habits mean less work, as they are automatic, and life becomes easier.
It’s important to bring compassion to ourselves as we continually investigate our motives. Are we trying to make something happen? Are we trying to measure up to some ideal of how we should be?
What are our stories? What is our inner dialogue? This takes a quiet and listening heart. Meditation, journaling and wise therapy are great aids.
With this comes change. We eventually come to trust life. We learn that joy and sorrow arise and pass away and that we each have equal parts of both! It’s all part of the journey.
We come to realize how much compassion we all need and that there is no lack of it anywhere, except what we refuse to give.