Empty chairs at St. Peter's Square depicting this strange moment in history, pandemic and need for compassion

Compassion and spiritual bypassing in the time of COVID-19

By | Compassion, Spirituality

Wow, it’s a strange time we’re living in! 

I hope you and your loved ones are safe and healthy.

As we continue to learn about and experience upheaval, suffering, illness and disruption due to the global pandemic of Coronavirus, you may be feeling deep sadness, fear and anxiety. That’s what’s happening for me. These emotions come and go like waves. Here are a few resources that I’ve appreciated lately, that you might find helpful, too:

  • Eckhart Tolle and his partner Kim Eng have been sharing free video and meditation resources to address the fears arising in response to the pandemic.
  • Guided meditation with Byron Katie. And this “I complain about…” exercise.
  • Adyashanti’s beautiful letter.
  • This TED talk by Kelly McGonical is fantastic to watch/listen to/revisit in high stress times.
  • The Grief Recovery Method is an excellent book and program that busts common myths about grief and provides tools for dealing with it. Check out this article on dealing with grief due to Coronavirus.

What is compassion asking of us at this difficult moment in history?

Compassion is an awareness of suffering coupled with a willingness to relieve it.

Unlike related emotions and experiences like empathy and love, compassion is always and only a response to suffering. Therefore, at times of increased suffering, compassion gets activated in a big way.

Through my work at Compassion Institute, it’s been inspiring to see a rallying of the troops, if you will. CCT teachers are ready and responding to the pain occurring in their communities with compassion practices that can help deal with grief, illness, loneliness, and anxiety. It’s been heartening to meet with so many amazing and brave people in live online gatherings recently. (Click here for upcoming online gatherings.)

I believe compassion is asking us to honor and attend to our own pain, fears and anxiety right now. And to take great care of ourselves and our communities by staying home. To reach out and take advantage of all the ways we can connect without being physically together.

Spiritual bypassing

Spiritual bypassing is also getting activated in response to Covid-19.

I’ve seen quite a few articles and posts on social media since the pandemic hit that encourage spiritual bypassing. As I understand it, spiritual bypassing is a kind of coping strategy that includes downplaying or dismissing the suffering people are experiencing with “spiritual” ideas or explanations — even to the point of expressing gratitude to the virus for the “global awakening” it’s bringing us (I’ll spare you the link to that one). I find this response to what’s happening so troubling I almost don’t know where to start to address it.

There’s nothing good about suffering in itself, even though we may learn and grow through of our experiences of suffering.

Rather than meeting fear and anxiety with awareness, compassion and understanding, the spiritual bypass is a denial or cover up of suffering and fear (and other negative emotions) with positive thinking, and “high vibrations.” It can be subtle. It can sound nice, helpful and innocent.

James and I have been talking about spiritual bypassing quite a bit this week so we decided to record a video of him describing what it is and why it’s a problem.

Sometimes suffering is so big and overwhelming that it’s too much to look at in the moment. Just “staying positive” may feel like a good option. However, if we’re not willing to look at and integrate the difficult, dark and painful — if we think spirituality is simply a matter of transcending our humanity — our spiritual understanding is, at best, half-baked.

We recently watched this documentary about the 1918 flu epidemic in the US. At that time, there were those who suggested only “sinners” would get the disease. There were people selling cures, gadgets, remedies and contraptions that didn’t help. What I’ve seen lately are messages that look like shunning public health guidelines, and shaming others for reacting to this pandemic with fear — cuz that’s “low vibration” and such a bummer for the rest of us.

Messages like that don’t help.

It’s ok to be impacted by what’s happening. It’s ok to feel upset and afraid.

Have you been seeing spiritual bypassing lately too? Is this a new term for you? Drop me an email or message me on social, I’d love to hear your thoughts!

And please take excellent care of yourself and those around you in this challenging time.

💕

Let's walk through this time of pandemic arm in arm together

Central Oregon compassion calls: Free online pandemic support

By | Compassion

I’m happy to invite you to join me and my friend and colleague Ruth Williamson for weekly Central Oregon Compassion Calls, live online on Wednesdays at 12pm Pacific Time, to provide support and a place to pause for compassion during this time of pandemic.

Ruth is a trained teacher of the Mindful Self Compassion (MSC) course, based on the research of Dr. Kristin Neff and Dr. Chris Germer. She’ll bring insights from the MSC course, and I’ll share insights from CCT and my compassion practice.

Sessions will include meditation, facilitated inquiry, group discussion and brief lessons in the practices of mindfulness and compassion.

Here’s the link to see the schedule and feel free to share this with others you think may enjoy!

You don’t have to be in Central Oregon to join us, all are welcome!

Image of a fire burning over logs to help visualize during Tonglen Practice.

How to do Tonglen Practice

By | Compassion, Spirituality

Tonglen is an incredibly powerful Tibetan Buddhist compassion practice that increases our capacity to stay resourceful when confronted with the negativity or suffering of others.

Here’s how to do it:

Find a quiet place to sit and notice your breathing for a while with your eyes closed. Next, imagine someone you care about who is suffering. (Maybe you think of a friend who is grieving a loss or a colleague who is sick. Don’t worry about picking the ‘right’ person. You’ll benefit from the practice regardless of who you visualize.)

As you picture this person in front of you, imagine their suffering surrounds them like a cloud of smoke or a thick smog.

Then breathe in the smoke, allow it to enter your heart, imagining your heart as a bright light that purifies and transforms the suffering into ease, peace, relief and comfort. Breathe in the suffering, breathe out relief, light and peace.

Breathe in and breathe out, allowing the visualization to match your breath. Breathe in the person’s pain, allowing it to be transformed, breathe out compassion and ease. Practice for a few minutes with three targets – a loved one, a stranger and a person who is difficult for you.

Here’s another description of the practice from Ten Paths to Freedom:

“Tonglen is a Tibetan Buddhist practice of taking on others’ negativity willingly and purifying it for them for the benefit of all beings. The basic practice consists of becoming mindfully relaxed, visualizing another’s negativity as black smoke (or some other dark material), breathing it into your own Being (visualized as brilliant golden-white light in and around your body), purifying it, then breathing it back out as pure brightness and blessing for that person. This helps the world more than you could imagine, and it helps you awaken more powerfully than just about anything else. This visualization is compassion in action. Do it first with your loved ones and friends, then your enemies, if you have any. If you have no enemies, do it with public figures (such as politicians) who anger you. Do it with those you hate or perceive as ignorant or evil. Breathing in others’ negativity in this way cannot harm you , but can only help you and others. Because of the sacred tradition of Tonglen practice, by doing it you cannot take on more negativity than you can safely handle. Fifteen minutes of this practice daily is enough to give you full benefit.” – James Wood, Ten Paths to Freedom

And a few more tips

Tonglen is like a furnace, not a water water filter. It’s about transforming suffering, not collecting it. So when you breathe in the smog or smoke, it doesn’t stay with you. 

Letting go of outcome is essential. This practice is not about trying to get the person you’re visualizing to change or be different. Notice if you’re more interested in outcome than the moment. Bring enjoyment to the practice itself, for its own sake. 

Tonglen activates our spiritual nature as compassionate beings. It has been described to me as an ‘ego-reducing medicine,’ because it diminishes the narrow focus on self.

Rather than adding to the negativity on the planet, scattering it around like litter, with Tonglen we’re picking it up and transforming it into blessing and ease.

Tonglen can build courage, strength, and resilience. The way an athlete visualizes their race before running it, in Tonglen we’re rehearsing our readiness to help others when confronted with suffering. 

Enjoy!

river flowing through the forest.

All That We Share

By | Compassion

 

One of the great things about working with a bunch of compassion educators is getting to check out and share inspiring resources for our Compassion Cultivation Training classes. One of my mentor/colleagues at Compassion Institute shared this video with her class today. A few seconds into watching, the tears started.
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It’s amazing how a short little video can deliver such a huge compassion boost! ⠀⠀
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And experiencing compassion can be simple like that…⠀⠀
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What happens when we take a second to really look at the other humans around us – in the store, in a yoga class – with kind curiosity? What’s under the surface?⠀⠀
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We share so much.⠀

 

Image of the Dalai Lama with the quote "Compassion is the radicalism of our time"

An alternative to breathing out the bad stuff

By | Compassion

Tonglen is one of my favorite compassion practices. I started practicing it in 2005 and have been teaching it as part of CCT since 2013. 

Tonglen is quite radical and counterintuitive at the beginning, and it feels amazing! Here’s an example of what I mean when I say it’s counterintuitive: I love attending group fitness classes, specifically Barre3, yoga, and CrossFit. At the end of many Barre3 and yoga classes, the teacher will suggest everyone ‘breathe out stress’ or ‘breathe out something you don’t want.’ 

Have you experienced this? While the motivation behind it is understandable, I often imagine everyone is breathing a cloud of smog into the room. It’s like being asked to litter sludge into the room. Where does it go? Who has to deal with it now that I’ve breathed out my stress and the things I don’t want?

In Tonglen, we learn to breathe in negativity, stress and pain and transform them into compassion and strength that we send out to others. It sounds dangerous, but with good instruction and training it’s incredibly powerful.

Tonglen is an ancient practice for reducing the tendency to self protect, scramble after comforting experiences and avoid negativity. It reinforces the desire to be a force for good in the world and boosts our courage, power, resilience and resourcefulness.

The Two Wheels on the Compassion Bicycle

By | Compassion

When I ventured into academic study of compassion (after practicing compassion meditation for several years), I was confused and frankly disturbed by the term ‘self-compassion.’ 

Practicing compassion for others felt really good to me. It shifted focus away from me and my problems. It clicked things into perspective and helped me tap into deeper meaning. It was energizing and inspiring. I was feeling the benefits and that was plenty; I didn’t see the need to add in a ‘self’ component.

At the time (and still!) conversations with my partner James were incredibly clarifying. Those early conversations continue to inform how I experience and describe compassion practice. His take on the self component of compassion is key:

From the perspective of consciousness (or awareness), the self – the collection of thoughts, memories and ideas about who ‘I’ am – is the primary other. 

With this in mind, consider the definition of compassion — compassion is an awareness of others’ suffering coupled with a willingness to help ease their suffering. Compassion is sometimes offered to the primary other, sometimes to other others. 

Compassion is a bike with two wheels

Here’s another way to think about it. Compassion is like a bike with two wheels – self and other. You need both the self wheel and the other wheel to be well functioning, filled up with air and in alignment in order to move down the road. It’s best not to separate them. 

Over-emphasizing the self component of compassion invites the potential for narcissistic self-focus. Over-emphasizing compassion for others invites the potential for co-dependent other-focus and ‘helpism.’ Usually we’re out of balance in focus on self or focus on others. This can definitely be rebalanced with practice.

For whom suffering arises (self or other) is not really that important. What’s important is the willingness to help ease it. 

The two wheels of the bike can also be imagined as giving and receiving. Eventually — just as the distinction between ‘my’ suffering and ‘your’ suffering becomes less relevant — the distinction between giving and receiving also becomes less relevant.

Compassion encourages us to ‘give the gift of receiving’ and ‘receive the gift of giving.’

Enjoy the ride! 

The Role of The Teacher in Compassion Training

By | Compassion

One of the responses to the last blog post was from a dear fellow CCT teacher. She asked what I think about the role of the teacher, if compassion can’t be taught. It’s such a great question!

Here’s an analogy:

We can’t teach water how to flow, but we can create a pathway, a channel for it to flow.

Compassion is like water: It flows naturally when unobstructed. 

A good teacher can point out what gets in the way of the current of compassion, revealing her own experience of resistance, barriers and objections. That’s what I aim to do. I introduce a perspective, tools, exercises and practices. I share my experience of creating the conditions for compassion to flow, and what I’ve noticed as a result. 

In compassion education we gather to explore this phenomena called compassion. Teacher is a role I play for discrete periods of time. In the role, I facilitate a conversation where compassion can reveal itself through stories and examples. I remind us of what we already know, what we want to live. At other times, you may remind me.  

The real learning in compassion education is in noticing (without judgement) what gets in the way (negativity, judgement, self centeredness), and training the mind and heart to open pathways for compassion to be more and more our default, go-to response.

When we strip away our stress, busy-ness, self doubt and distraction, compassion is there. When we commit time to really listening to another, or reflecting on what life might be like for them, compassion is there.

We invite compassion in and then we notice what happens when it takes its natural course.

Do you feel less isolated when you’re struggling? Do situations that used to bother you bother you less?

fog in the forest to help inspire your 10 min meditation

What does it mean to teach and learn compassion?

By | Compassion

Compassion can’t be taught.

It can be experienced, enjoyed, offered, noticed, studied, shared, remembered, cultivated and practiced.

Compassion can’t be taught because it is what we are. It arises naturally when we’re fully present with another.

Compassion is the awareness of another’s suffering coupled with a willingness to do something to relieve the suffering.

Compassion can’t be planned in advance. Attempting to plan out what I would do in x, y, z situation to enact compassion is a form of suffering. It’s a form of suffering because it takes me out of the moment, which is the only place where compassion can happen.

Compassion is a principle I can commit myself to, allowing it to have its way with me. It can look like saying no, staying still, not doing. It can look like saying yes, moving toward and helping.

Compassion isn’t defined by ‘doing’ at all. It’s better understood as a stance, a motivator and an attitude. I can reflect on compassion, choose it, make myself available to it, get out of the way and allow it to happen. Ideas about what compassion should look like, or how compassionate people do things, are not helpful. Comparing myself to others I see as “more compassionate” doesn’t help.

Learning compassion can be thought of as a process of remembering, practicing, living and being in alignment with our true nature, which is compassionate.

Cover of the newly published book The Power of Compassion, my colleagues and I wrote Chapter Seven

The Power of Compassion – Chapter 7 on Compassion Cultivation Training

By | Compassion, Lifelong learning

So fun to get a sneak peak today at our chapter on Compassion Cultivation Training just published in The Power of Compassion! My colleagues and I wrote Chapter 7 as a review of the CCT program research and implications for health care providers. It was an honor to be published in this book. And isn’t the cover stunning!?

About the book:

“…compassion is indeed based out of a position of power; a personal resource and strength to sustain people in complex and difficult times in their lives but also a concept which is meaningful at an organisational level and to society at large. Compassion has a growing scientific basis, notably within psychology and neuroscience but its application is increasingly evident across a range of health and social care systems.

This book brings together the wisdom of compassionate science through the exposition of work by international experts on the development of evidence in the field of compassion research and training.”

Click here to read Chapter 7 of The Power of Compassion: Compassion Cultivation Training (CCT) Program Description, Research, and Potential Benefit for Health Care and Palliative Care Professionals. Sansó (Ed.) 2019

And here’s an excerpt from the section on Qualitative Research on the Effects of CCT:

“First person reports on the impact of the CCT program. In Waibel’s 2015 qualitative study of CCT, in describing the overall impact of compassion cultivation, participants in interviews noted increased feelings of connection with others, and described compassion as the ability to stay present —physically, emotionally, and mentally — when others are suffering (See Table 2).

One study participant expressed this saying, “In general I’m more often totally present with sombody.” Another participant described compassion as the courage to acknowledge and stay present with suffering:

Part of compassion is being willing to lean in to suffering, so that through the practice you actually cultivate courage. It’s your ability to stay with suffering, and your capacity to be able to do that expands.

Others described the impact of CCT in their lives with comments such as, “I’m not taking all this stuff as seriously as I used to and not getting all stressed out like I used to,” “I’m way less reactive,” “I’m a more calm person,” “there’s less internal distress,” and “gratitude has gone up on the scale tremendously — I feel it more when I do feel it. And I more frequently feel it because of the class.” Another participant explained, “It’s not like it’s a complete 180 for me, but it’s such a contrast to how I grew up and the learned instinct of self-protection.”

The offering of compassion to oneself is especially important for building “immunity” against burnout in fields where caregivers and healthcare providers are continuously confronted with suffering (Burack, Irby, Carline, Root, & Larsen, 1999). One participant, a healthcare provider at an organization where CCT is offered routinely, explained she and her coworkers who have taken CCT are “able to perceive each other as calmer and we’re really able to much more effectively problem solve. We’re also more effective in coming to solutions.”

The perceived benefits of CCT described by Waibel (2015) include examples of interactions with classmates, family members, friends, and strangers that can act as a mirror to let the individual know whether or not the compassionate response is happening. Participants described learning that is open, ambiguous, incomplete, changing, and lived in interactions. Learning is also expressed in comments about shifting from thinking to being, or from thinking to inquiry. In this view, knowledge is not a thing to be attained, but a flexibility: the ability to shift perspectives and points of view in moments of reactivity or difficulty. Findings reveal that in CCT, knowledge emerges in thought and action and is grounded in bodily experience and relationship.”

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