When we talk about spiritual skills, mindfulness is often mentioned but what should also be mentioned is compassion. The idea of compassion or having a moment of compassion offers us two parts: how we offer it to ourselves and how, in turn we offer it others.
Can you remember an experience where someone responded compassionately to you? How did you know it was compassion? How did it make you feel? Where did your thoughts turn when you had that brief experience?
The components of the compassion experience include perception, emotional connection, and cultivation. Perception is the attempt or experience of perceiving pain in yourself or others. Similar to empathy, it is developing awareness around those moments that call you to feel that experience. Who is suffering? What are they experiencing? This is a mindful and courageous exercise, to take time to get into that moment of suffering and feel it.
Having an emotional connection relates to the suffering directly. It is the willingness to be moved by others and to move others. You first have to be open and willing to sit with suffering. Not easy to do. Then to move into that space to deeply feel and relate to yourself or others. Relating to yourself is allowing yourself to fully be present in those moments, not pushing it away or defending against it. This is also a key piece of good leadership and emotional intelligence. It’s the ability to drop down to a deeper emotional level when needed in a genuinely authentic way.
And then there is the act of compassion, learning how to cultivate it, and truly experience things without judgement. Being mindful here allows you to be moved by suffering. And in that process, open yourself up to an authentic deeper connection with yourself and with others as a general practice. This is a great life skill.
Compassion can be incredibly helpful when grieving. I’ll speak in the realms of what I have experienced, loss and tragic loss.
In the case of tragic loss, you can find yourself sifting through the wreckage, reviewing events, asking questions and reliving (so to speak) experiences that were related to or led up to the loss. It’s hard terrain to maneuver through. Discoveries, often, not so great can lay around the corner in wait, springing your mind onto a new path of questions and worries. Sometimes realizations are painful. It can also be a general review of events, with your mind running through things to make sense or tie things together. Even that can carry an emotional burden, as the weight of the loss comes into full view along with the repeated reminder that you will never see your loved one again. Moments are reminders, conversations are reminders and images are reminders. And they can feel never-ending.
There can also be moments when others say things about the deceased person, without any thought to how it might make you feel. Compassion offers us a gentler way of experiencing these moments. Not by denying them or saying you should not think that or feel whatever it is you are feeling, but more so acknowledging that that is the space you are in that moment, and it’s ok to be there. That space may feel unsettled, you may be restless, anxious, or angry. It may not feel resolved. Your instinct may be to defend yourself or someone else. Or go to battle with another. Or you may simply have a deep desire for a different outcome and be sitting with the futility of that. Those are the hardest moments to bear. And that’s when you can be compassionate with yourself, reminding yourself that you are your own friend, that it’s normal to feel and think these things, and that it won’t always be like that moment. The self-talk is not judgement, but rather a reminder that this is a really tough thing to go through, and you are doing it your way, the best you can. These are the moments to be compassionate with yourself.
Sometimes it helps to offer compassion for others. It’s good to remember, that as much as we need support in times of great loss and pain and misery, others will be struggling with it also, even if they aren’t showing it. Compassion offers a gentler response to those that offer divisive, unsupportive comments or insensitive responses in a moment when the opposite is so needed. People can say disappointing or hurtful things. As humans we naturally defend against things we haven’t dealt with or don’t know how to respond to. Sometimes our pride makes us want to be experts even though we are not. Pride is also a great defense against an existential threat that seems foreboding. Some people haven’t had the true experience of empathy or compassion. No one can be an expert in your life and with your experience except you. As my father would say “you know yourself better than anyone”. You know what you need, and when someone isn’t giving you what you need, you can disconnect from them in a compassionate way. You can say “thank you for your suggestion” or “I appreciate you offering your support”. Perhaps it's “I can’t talk to you right now”. Or “I can’t talk to you about this.” During a time of tragedy and immense loss, we are all raw. We each show it differently. Perhaps instead of blaming, disconnecting gently is easier for both of you. This act is making a conscious choice to disconnect in a caring mindful way instead of adding another battle to your list. Don’t go to war. Instead disconnect and take a mental note that they are not the person you should go to when you need to share those deep moments of loss. Maybe you need to pivot in that relationship. Perhaps there are other things you can talk with them about. The one thing I do know is that loss changes people. So maybe you have a new role with them now, to just listen and not respond. Excuse yourself when the time seems right. Relationships change and they start over, and they end all the time. Take inventory of what is in front of you now for future engagements.
And then pat yourself on the back for not going to war.
Compassion offers us wisdom, and a connection to heart. It offers the ability to support and love ourself and others in a positive way. In a peaceful way. And it feels really good.