March 30, 2020

Action Letters, Compassion

041 Wrestling with Compassion

 

“But out of such persistence arose turtles, rivers, mitochondria, figs – all this resinous, unretractable earth.

From the poem Optimism by Jane Hirshfield

 

Aliza Nisenbaum, La Talaverita, Sunday Morning NY Times, 2016

 

A light bulb went off over my head when a friend said at dinner, “I realized I can get crushed, pinned down under a person twice my size and be totally okay. I can adjust, accept and move on.”

Now that was a paradigm shift I could use.

We were chatting about Jiu Jitsu. My husband, Ben, and my daughter, Anju, started classes last year. The topics of sweat, grounding our bodies and the point differences between a takedown and a submission have been regular fodder for dining room table talk ever since.

While I don’t see myself trying out Jiu Jitsu in the future, I have tested out a few moves with our fam–and started to reflect on the practice.

The children’s book linked to above gave me a framework. Bonbon the Poodle teaches Leo the Shih Tzu that Jiu Jitsu is not about aggressive attacking. It’s about self-defense through submission. It’s about how we stand when words fail us.

  • Before you seek to submit someone, you aim to de-escalate a conflict with words.
  • If that doesn’t work, you seek to submit them as quickly as possible with the least damage. Seeing Anju’s teacher tell two lil classmates, “No punching, ever.” really drove that point home.
  • Once submitted, you find a way to peace. 

One of the core components of Jiu Jitsu is the ability to be able to sustain an uncomfortable sensation in the pursuit of an ultimate goal.

From what I’ve observed, the road to mastering that tenet is paved with failure. When you start out, you spend way more time getting crushed and submitted than you do on top–and that’s actually a real gift. As Ben shared over dinner last week, one of the reasons more folks don’t get hurt in Jiu Jitsu is because everyone spends time on both sides, being submitted and submitting. You have to get comfortable losing in order to stay in the game long enough to learn how to win.

This is a lesson I’ve been missing.

In my community organizing and in my professional work life, I used to take those uncomfortable sensations–failure, embarrassment, missed opportunities–as a sign of my inadequacy and as a reason to quit. I took it as confirmation that I was a fraud and not meant to be where I was. Reflecting on Jiu Jitsu has helped me to depersonalize these observations. The blows are going to come, it’s what I do after them that counts.

These reflections have led me to compassion. I used to avoid books and articles about compassion at all costs. They felt sugary, unrealistic and ignorant of the realities of fighting for people’s lives.

Then I met the book A Fearless Heart by Thupten Jinpa, a work about living the practices of compassion.I gathered a few insights from his work that have changed how I approach the discomfort and struggle of learning.

 

“Broadly defined, compassion is a sense of concern that arises when we are confronted with another’s suffering and feel motivated to see that suffering relieved… At its core, compassion is a response to the inevitable reality of our human condition – our experience of pain and sorrow…. Compassion offers the possibility of responding to suffering with understanding, patience, and kindness rather than say, fear and repulsion.” (Introduction xxii.)

“Empathy is feeling for (or with) other people and understanding their feelings. When we witness another person suffering, in particular, compassion arises from empathy, adding the dimensions of wishing to see the relief of suffering and wanting to do something about it.” (Page 11.)

The path to all compassion starts with self-compassion, and this was the clincher for me:

“Kirstin Neff developed a questionnaire aimed at measuring what she sees as the three main components of self-compassion: self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness.”

The path to all compassion starts with self-compassion, and this was the clincher for me:

“Kirstin Neff developed a questionnaire aimed at measuring what she sees as the three main components of self-compassion: self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness.”

  • Self-kindness as relating to our shortcomings and difficulties with kindness, understanding and acceptance rather than negative judgement.
  • Common humanity as how we perceive our problems and suffering within the context of the shared human experience.
  • And mindfulness has the ability to hold painful experiences in awareness, instead of overidentifying with them through obsessive thinking or desperately trying to fix them. (Page 35.)

Self-compassion is what helps us stay in the game long enough to learn. This isn’t some pie-in-the-sky vision of only thinking positive thoughts about myself. This is about rooting in our shared humanity–pain and hope, suffering and glory–and being so rooted in the present moment that I don’t allow my internal habits of self-hate to take over and take me out of the game.

Pema Chodron has helped me understand this approach to compassion more fully. Here is an excerpt from one of her recent newsletters (you can sign up for that newsletter here):

“ENEMY OF COMPASSION?

Pema Chodron says that one of the enemies of compassion “is idiot compassion”. This is when we avoid conflict and protect our good image by being kind when we should definitely say ‘no.’

“Compassion doesn’t only imply trying to be good. When we find ourselves in an aggressive relationship, we need to set clear boundaries. The kindest thing we can do for everyone concerned is to know when to say ‘enough.’ Many people use Buddhist ideals to justify self-debasement. In the name of not shutting our heart, we let people walk all over us.

“It is said that in order not to break our vow of compassion we have to learn when to stop aggression and draw the line. There are times when the only way to bring down barriers is to set boundaries.” Pema Chodron, “The Places That Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times”

In this time of the Covid-19 pandemic, I am wrestling with failure, fear, disappointment, frustration. Empathy and the self-compassion that springs from it are my path forward, and I believe our path forward–with mindfulness, boundaries and deep connection. We need to care for others while setting boundaries with those seeking to harm our communities in this moment of crisis. Many failures, embarrassments and missed opportunities will come. And we will continue.

Today, I’ll leave you with the full text of the poem I opened this letter with.

More and more I have come to admire resilience.
Not the simple resistance of a pillow, whose foam
returns over and over to the same shape, but the sinuous
tenacity of a tree: finding the light newly blocked on one side,
it turns in another. A blind intelligence, true.
But out of such persistence arose turtles, rivers,
mitochondria, figs—all this resinous, unretractable earth.

“Optimism” by Jane Hirshfield, from Given Sugar, Given Salt. © Harper Collins, 2002.

 

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“Empathy is feeling for (or with) other people and understanding their feelings. When we witness another person suffering, in particular, compassion arises from empathy, adding the dimensions of wishing to see the relief of suffering and wanting to do something about it.” (Page 11.)

The path to all compassion starts with self-compassion, and this was the clincher for me:

“Kirstin Neff developed a questionnaire aimed at measuring what she sees as the three main components of self-compassion: self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness.”


The path to all compassion starts with self-compassion, and this was the clincher for me:

“Kirstin Neff developed a questionnaire aimed at measuring what she sees as the three main components of self-compassion: self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness.”

  • Self-kindness as relating to our shortcomings and difficulties with kindness, understanding and acceptance rather than negative judgement.
  • Common humanity as how we perceive our problems and suffering within the context of the shared human experience.
  • And mindfulness has the ability to hold painful experiences in awareness, instead of overidentifying with them through obsessive thinking or desperately trying to fix them. (Page 35.)

Self-compassion is what helps us stay in the game long enough to learn. This isn’t some pie-in-the-sky vision of only thinking positive thoughts about myself. This is about rooting in our shared humanity–pain and hope, suffering and glory–and being so rooted in the present moment that I don’t allow my internal habits of self-hate to take over and take me out of the game.

Pema Chodron has helped me understand this approach to compassion more fully. Here is an excerpt from one of her recent newsletters (you can sign up for that newsletter here):

“ENEMY OF COMPASSION?

Pema Chodron says that one of the enemies of compassion “is idiot compassion”. This is when we avoid conflict and protect our good image by being kind when we should definitely say ‘no.’

“Compassion doesn’t only imply trying to be good. When we find ourselves in an aggressive relationship, we need to set clear boundaries. The kindest thing we can do for everyone concerned is to know when to say ‘enough.’ Many people use Buddhist ideals to justify self-debasement. In the name of not shutting our heart, we let people walk all over us.

“It is said that in order not to break our vow of compassion we have to learn when to stop aggression and draw the line. There are times when the only way to bring down barriers is to set boundaries.” Pema Chodron, “The Places That Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times”

In this time of the Covid-19 pandemic, I am wrestling with failure, fear, disappointment, frustration. Empathy and the self-compassion that springs from it are my path forward, and I believe our path forward–with mindfulness, boundaries and deep connection. We need to care for others while setting boundaries with those seeking to harm our communities in this moment of crisis. Many failures, embarrassments and missed opportunities will come. And we will continue.

Today, I’ll leave you with the full text of the poem I opened this letter with.

More and more I have come to admire resilience.
Not the simple resistance of a pillow, whose foam
returns over and over to the same shape, but the sinuous
tenacity of a tree: finding the light newly blocked on one side,
it turns in another. A blind intelligence, true.
But out of such persistence arose turtles, rivers,
mitochondria, figs—all this resinous, unretractable earth.

“Optimism” by Jane Hirshfield, from Given Sugar, Given Salt. © Harper Collins, 2002.

 

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