The alchemy of compassion

“Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It’s a relationship between equals. Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness in others. Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity.” Pema Chodron

In my over 20 years of work with others, as well as my own personal journey, I have found that compassion, perhaps, more than any other single thing, has been the most powerful conduit to healing and transformation. Interestingly, what made me start thinking of this was my recent foray onto a local therapist group on Facebook. I have given some attention to the thoughts that came up for me as I read new posts by different therapists offering yet another new cutting-edge therapy, each promising to be the next new elixir promising to put an end to suffering.

I found myself wondering if I could really be a good enough therapist without learning this next new training, educational series, or therapeutic model? I asked myself if we can begin to compulsively seek out ever more training because deep down we want to believe desperately in the newest therapeutic model and it’s promise to give us the tools and techniques to “fix” all of our problems. You are probably thinking to yourself, well of course, you should want to find the “fix” those problems, isn’t that your job as a therapist? Having years now in the field, I have been around long enough to see many new clinical interventions come and go. Some perhaps are a bit more helpful than others for particular issues, but, by in large, the data does not bear out that a particular modality is qualitatively better than any other.

Now please don’t get me wrong, I am not downplaying in any way the importance of education and ongoing training in our field. I have trained in somatic based therapy, trauma, and other evidenced based therapies to name just a few. All have been extremely helpful in my journey to be a more skilled and effective therapist. But none have effectively inoculated me from the feeling of helplessness that can sometimes sneak up on me when sitting with someone and really being present to their very personal story, one that is often laden with incredible trauma and suffering.

Many years ago, as a new therapist who had not yet touched the edges of her own sorrow, I needed to believe that I had the ability to pull out some words or a set of techniques that would keep me from having to go with others into their darkness for too long because it forced me to confront my own darkness. And perhaps because of my own unresolved trauma, I held on to a naïve hope that if I could fix this woundedness in you, well, then I could work the same magic for myself. Somehow circumvent revisiting a past that left its indelible imprint in the dark recesses of my body. But here is the thing about trauma, it needs…no demands to be heard. Period. There is no quick fix, there is no shortcut. I mean, we can try drinking, using drugs, or engage in any of our other various addictions to temporarily avoid this truth, but in the end, there is no running from it.

Daily panic attacks in graduate school were my first inkling my past was bubbling up and this precipitated a trip to see a therapist of my own. I learned something important from that therapist. Like many trauma survivors, my nervous system was finely attuned to my environment and everyone in it. I soon learned, through her subtle cues that she was deeply uncomfortable with my strong emotions, so I quickly stitched everything back up and tucked it all away again. The short time I spent with her only served to reinforce what I already believed, that what I felt was too scary and too much.

Thankfully, I found many other therapists on my journey who were far more comfortable visiting the places where shadow resides. Places where pieces of my soul had been left behind, protected by my body and waiting for my return. These therapists came from various backgrounds, utilized different modalities but the commonality I found across therapists with whom I was able to do my deepest healing, was the felt sense that I was in the company of someone who felt deep and abiding compassion. I could see it in their eyes, the slight tearing up when I would share a tender sadness. A protective demeanor when I revealed the terror I endured as a small child. They met me in this place I could not bear to go alone. They never once promised me they could change the past or do anything to diminish the acuity of the sharp edges of my present experience. They simply reassured me with their gentle presence that they would stay with me and not abandon me to my darkness.

I have learned much from my desire to cultivate more compassion in my life. Part of the alchemy of compassion comes from its ability to connect us to one another through our shared stories. When we fully and completely share in another person’s pain, we are able to open our hearts and connect in a way that transcends all of our superficial differences. Simply, we become joined by our shared humanity.
And here’s the thing, it is not that we are fundamentally incapable of facing our places of pain and suffering, in fact, human beings are incredibly courageous and brave. It’s just that we were never designed to face them alone. From the day we are born until the day we die we are hard-wired for deep connection. When our caregivers are healthy enough to soothe our fears and extend their regulated nervous system to bring comfort to our own, we learn to love and trust and come to believe that we are safe in the world. When this doesn’t happen, our brains make desperate adaptations for our survival that often leave us disconnected from the comfort of deep and meaningful relationships. Alone.

I am continuously in awe by the resilience of the human spirit. How when we are able to create a place that allows for deep compassion- organically and authentically, our story will begin to gently unfold and create the necessary space for something magical to happen. The healing balm of understanding from another human being softens those sharp edges in a way that invites the return of hope into our life. A hope so big that even if we cannot fix all the wounds of our past, surely we can lovingly hold them in connection with one another. That is the true power in therapy, how the alchemy of compassion and connection make our suffering become part of the beautiful mosaic of our life- rich and colorful, jarring and discordant- all woven together in our beautifully broken story that connects us all.

Finding your way back to hope

As a therapist my currency is hope. I would argue that it is perhaps the most potent gift we have to offer to one another. The unwavering belief that change is possible and no matter our circumstances, things can and do get better. Far too many days I check the news only to see another high profile, tragic suicide in the headlines. People with seemingly everything to live for- money, power, prestige, the things we believe make us invulnerable to the kind of unhappiness that leads to the gut-wrenching decision that life has simply become too much to bear. I am haunted by the countless nameless other suicides that we never even hear about, but for those they loved, their lives have been irrevocably changed forever.

Suicide is one of the top ten causes of death in the United States right now and between 1999 and 2016 there was a 25% rise in the rate of suicide. As a person whose own life has been touched by suicide, I can’t help but believe that the act of taking one’s life means we have somehow found ourselves living within a world marked by the absence of all hope. We have come to a crossroad and are shaken by a belief that no matter what we do, no matter how hard we try, we will never feel any different than we do in this moment right now. We reside in the vastness of the encroaching darkness, leaving us only with the echoes of our own deafening hopelessness.
I sometimes wish I had a simple prescription or masterful four step plan to combat this growing public health crisis that would help others find their way back to hope. But if I did, maybe in some way that would diminish the collective sense of hopelessness that we have all experienced at one time or another. Certainly, teachings from countless scholars, authors and spiritual leaders speak to us of the importance of our human need to search for meaning and the existential angst we experience when we have lost our way. It is why we seek out places of refuge, whether it be therapy, time with friends, family, sangha, or places of worship. A lifeline to this thing we call hope when we find ourselves with none. Somewhere, someone, something we can reach out to, temporarily leaning on, borrowing hope until we can once again find our way back home to our own.

Almost 30 years ago now I walked into a self help meeting, myself bankrupt of all hope. I carried with me the heaviness of a young women who no longer believed that life was worth living or worth fighting for. I don’t remember much of what was said at that meeting, but what I do remember, and what very likely saved my life was the hope I found in that room. It did not belong to me yet, but I had found a place to go where I could experience the shimmering, beautiful, almost palpable feeling of hope, so ripe with possibility that I believed them when they told me that things would get better.

I am forever thankful that during this time in my life, I had a tiny crack in my armor, an infinitesimally small opening that allowed for a molecule of light to find its way into the darkness. Not everyone is as fortunate. Many have found themselves in a place so dark, even the light of hope has difficulty penetrating. I imagine if we lived in a world that readied us for the inevitably of suffering each one of us will face at some point in our lives that we would be better prepared when the shadow does come. How might our lives be different if from a very young age we were taught the necessary skills to tap into our innate human capacity for resiliency and we learned the steps to take to gently hold our pain and suffering as readily as we learn reading and mathematics.

Sadly, instead, we are bombarded with images of happiness on social media that perpetuate the illusion that we have somehow failed if our life isn’t Instagram ready. We continually compare our insides to the manufactured outsides of a culture uncomfortable with embracing the full range of all of who we are, including the places that feel dark and uncomfortable. We hide these parts away in the deep recesses of our bodies, walled in by our wounds and layers of defenses and wonder why the light can’t find it’s way in.

I want to live in a world that welcomes it all, the good the bad, the beautiful the ugly, all of it! I want to let the sun shine down on my broken bits, experience the warmth and comfort in those places that hurt and need attention. Invite it all in without judgment, extending kindness, letting it touch the edges of sadness and allow it to be the bridge that connects us to one another. Refuse to let shame relegate us back to the prison of our aloneness. By destigmatizing and welcoming the dark night of the soul we defy shame by fearlessly allowing the sweetness of companionship into our deepest sorrows. Our most meaningful relationships were never designed to make this pain go away, instead, they offer the transformative and magical alchemy of connection to soothe and soften our pain and hold us close until once again, we can find our way back to hope.