Monday, November 07, 2011

Radical Compassion

Transforming Hurt Into Humanity

I've met a fair number of emotionally troubled people recently.  They live with powerful emotions of shame, guilt, and anxiety, often in a private world of victimization, dissociated from their own body.  Many, like me, have attempted to apply psychology to master this private world.  Every mood is labelled with a street sign, every emotional pathway mapped with a set of directions with precise timings for how long it takes to get from here to there.  However, with each proceeding day, it becomes clear that the map sucks, and the world itself isn't really all that fun.  It gets really crowded in the world of your head, no matter how well you've mapped it.  How do you get out?  Can you transform the darkest corners of your psyche into a deeper connection with your humanity?

The noblest psychology
In my opinion, one of the noblest aims of psychology is studying and normalizing what most people think is abnormal.  Unable to directly compare with other minds, we can believe that our failings are uniquely ours, something shameful we can't share with even our friends or family.  You might say to yourself, "If they really knew what I did or what I REALLY thought, they would be disgusted."  We experience hurt in a variety of ways.  We can minimize "Oh, I've heard of far worse, this is nothing, I've been sad too long." or maximize "Noone has EVER been through what I have."   Lonely and inflexible in our harshness, we seek out confirming experiences in the world, feeding the cycle of victimization.   We find new lovely people to hurt, new situations in which we get hurt in a familiar way.  Our severest critiques defend against feeling the hurt of being let down by a cruel and evil self, or a cruel and evil world.  Psychotherapists can provide a safe place to re-experience and mourn the hurt.  Through listening and their study of human behavior, therapists create a normalizing context for the most heinous behaviors, allowing feelings to exist, unjudged, ripe for processing.  We can thereby re-write the story and self-talk, heal, and break the cycle.  

Dissolve evil
Even sharing with a single person, we can understand the innate universality of our actions and feelings.  We can start to feel normal again, despite the evil lurking in ourselves and the world.  Be careful, though, lest your compassion bring you closer to evil, in the company of the thieves crucified next to Jesus.  I love this quote from Solzhenitsyn:

If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

Far from excusing evil or condoning it, compassion demands that you step up and own the evil latent within yourself.  It means seeing your own pain, confusion, and flaws in all of humanity, exchanging duality for compainsion.  Can you mourn for all of humanity?

Size your hurt
It's one thing to believe, intellectually, that we are connected to each other's pain.  It's another thing to practice connection doggedly until our common sense changes, our body heals, and we can see ourselves in every human walking down the street.  Is your hurt too big or too small?  If too big, is it really bigger than anyone has ever faced before?  If too small, is it really smaller than anyone has ever  obsessed on?  Or too weird?  Is it really that different than any of the billions that have gone before you?  That's one major theme of this blog: universalizing the particular.  Reclaiming pieces of your past or discarded psyche, reconnecting them to your body and your humanity, you might experience a healing that you may never have known.

Practice compassion
Let's imagine you were crazy enough to believe all of this, and wanted to practice as you meditate on your hurt.  Over time, maybe thoughts like these can replace the self-talk of shame, anxiety or guilt.  Maybe they can help you get deeper in mourning, create a basis for feeling more normal, a way of instilling compassion in the every day.  Maybe even a larger purpose for your suffering.  Here's a starting point:
  • Let me mourn the pain of everyone who has ever felt disappointed in themselves.  Let my mourning be deep that I may help redeem mankind's confidence in itself.
  • My pain is your pain.  Neither is more important or much different.
  • Let me feel in my loneliness the loneliness of the old and weak, the loneliness of youth, and our inescapable mortality.
  • May I learn to accept and heal my anxiety, then help the world to heal it's anxieties.  
  • Let me find in myself the roots of manipulation in the world, so we can dissolve it.
  • In my sadness, I bear the weight of the entire world's unmet expectations.

Receive acceptance
Can you see yourself in each person that you come across?  Can you see your aggression in the guy that cut you off on the highway?  Can you see the enlightenment that you crave in the smile of the gas station clerk?  Can you see your helplessness in the bum you just passed?  Can you see your sadness in the baby crying on the airplane?  Can you imagine what the world would be like if everybody had such compassion?  Bring it on.  As Lao Tzu said,
If you want to awaken all of humanity, then awaken all of yourself, if you want to eliminate the suffering in the world, then eliminate all that is dark and negative in yourself.  Truly, the greatest gift you have to give is that of your own self-transformation.
As you connect yourself to humanity, accepting it for what it is, you will receive the best gift of all in return: a deeper acceptance of yourself.


Diane said...

I question the necessity to connect with all of humanity to counteract one's dark emotions. K sometimes thinks I am in denial, but I don’t always believe that talking things out help. There’s a time when you just have to say “Life effin’ sucks. Move on.” For instance, from my own years in pain and depression, I have come to believe people, as a whole, are inherently self-centered and really couldn't care less about me. However, what CAN I do? What is the next step? Well, the one thing I CAN do is do that one nice thing for one person next to me, even if that person wouldn't do the same for me. One does not need to understand that person inherently in order to do something good.

eudae said...

@Diane, I'd agree that you can help without understanding another person, although sometimes this is counterproductive (e.g. international development). I'd also say at times "move on" is appropriate.

That said, while the "move on" strategy has gotten me to a 'functional' state in life, it left me with lingering repression, neck pain, and disconnection. So I'm not satisfied with "move on" as anything more than a temporary measure. I want out.

You say that you've come to believe that people are inherently self-centered. I'd agree, but I'd phrase it differently, with compassion in mind. People are confused. Their true nature is infinite love (as you mentioned before) but their expression of this love is stunted, limited, stingy. This is because they have experienced love in this limited way from their parents, their friends, and their lovers. They have defensively created busy lives where they are too busy to give. They schedule themselves out 30 minutes at a time, so as not to be asked to give something unexpected.

When I see it happening to me, I feel frustrated too. But then I love the humanity that produces my frustration, and love the person that I experienced as self-centered, as if their mistake is mine. It sounds terribly hippie, but it's been immensely practical for me :)