That’s what Rocky the dog said to Fury the cat. And he continued: “It feels like compassion, and I could use some compassion about now.” In this way two pets became my teachers. Letting others have compassion for us, which helps us cultivate self-compassion, seems like a great spiritual practice to add to our repertoire. And according to some extensive research found through the Compassion Institute at Stanford University, self-compassion is at the heart of sustaining compassion for others.
You can read all about the art of cultivating compassion in a recent book, A Fearless Heart: How the Courage to Be Compassionate Can Transform Our Lives, by Dr. Thupten Jinpa, translator for the Dalai Lama. And that is where I first found a Great Truth verified by research, that self-compassion sources compassion for others. Dr. Jinpa shares extensive research on compassion cultivation in a very readable way. He points to the work of a wide variety of experts, like Dr. Kristen Neff, who focuses on self-compassion. They seem to agree with Jesus when he called us to “love your neighbor as yourself.”
One of the biggest turning points of my life was discovering how out of balance I can get in trying to give out compassion without sufficiently sourcing myself in compassion. I spent ten times more energy serving the world after Hurricane Katrina than I did in cultivating self-compassion. That pattern broke something in me. When I awakened to how out of balance my life had become, I felt ashamed, embarrassed, and a bit shocked that I seemed to know so little about self-care.
Sure, I could talk a good game. I could make presentations to rooms full of therapists about the importance of daily self-care for caregivers. But seeing the state I was in after the big storm proved it was more theory than reality in my own life. Like a man walking in a fog, I could not see where I was heading as I said “yes” to most every person who came to me for counseling in those days. And continuing a second full-time job in pastoral care for a church on top of that was downright insane. I was oblivious to the insanity of it all. I had no idea that I needed my own neck licked.
“Okay, I will let you lean into me because I feel the love when you do that,” said Rocky the dog to Sam the boy. “Good, because I feel loved when we lean on each other,” said Sam the boy to Rocky the dog.
Sam and Rocky, boy and dog, are also my teachers. The need to lean on each other seems so simple and obvious for loving relationships, but for decades I just practiced letting others lean on me. To this day I am still barely a beginner at asking others to let me lean on them. I expect it is a pride thing, a lesson I should have mastered a long time ago. Letting myself lean is a form of self-compassion, a recognition of my normal human needs, a way of caring for myself. I just didn’t get that at all for way too long.
Eleven months after the big storm I finally awakened and realized I needed to slow down, listen to my life, lean on others, let myself be loved, and find a new way to live. I slowly discovered my need to sit in meditation and contemplation with others each day. I needed their presence, their intention, to help support my own. And I needed that unique form of leaning every day.
Sure, I could spend my private time in meditation each morning, but that was clearly not nearly enough. I needed to lean on others every day. I needed to form small contemplative communities who wanted what I wanted.
At first I wasn’t even sure what I wanted, but I knew I needed to be in small groups who were seeking to find Home Base together. I mostly began to birth a School for Contemplative Living ten years ago out of this simple need to silently come Home together.
Slowly, over a lot of years, I began to learn how much I needed others. Still do. And so giving myself what I needed most every day of the week became a new form of self-compassion. Fancy that: contemplation with others as self-compassion.
There are lots of other ways I try to have compassion for myself these days. I am beginning to accept that my needs matter. Though I have so very far to go, I do give myself little things as a form of self-care, like: a bottled Frappuccino and some mini cinnamon rolls each morning, a Gatorade after working outside in the summer heat, white cheddar popcorn or sweet onion potato chips for a snack, and lots of chocolate candy. (Are you beginning to see a pattern here?) Maybe someday the self-care with food will even be healthy!
If I want a hug for myself, I walk up to my wife or friends and offer a hug. Since I love to share mindfulness meditation and contemplative practices, I am building my life around sharing those things and asking people to pay or donate as my form of making a living.
I look for places to share mutual compassion, a kind of leaning on each other at the same time like I learned from Sam and Rocky. Volunteering by sharing a meditation each week at a residential community for people with HIV/AIDS called Project Lazarus, or at a senior center called Mercy Endeavors, or at a weekly feeding ministry with street friends called the Open Table, are all examples of my new learning about leaning on each other.
Compassion cultivation, including self-compassion, has become so very important to me. So I took an eight-week course in Compassion Cultivation Training with Lara Naughton, who is a certified teacher with the Compassion Institute. Then I offered to join Lara for one of the eight sessions she is currently teaching at Angola Prison. Then I applied and was accepted to receive that same year-long teacher certification, which begins this fall. And now it seems right to add this training to the core curriculum in our School for Contemplative Living, once I complete my own training.
Here is a part where I lean toward you. Our School is raising the $5200 for the course tuition of the Compassion Institute at Stanford University. Meanwhile, I am paying for the flights to California and the extra room and board and ground transportation. You can help us by making a tax-deductible donation to the School for the course tuition. That donation will become the vehicle through which we can train people in compassion cultivation through the School.
If you can help the School financially, you can donate to our church sponsor, Rayne United Methodist Church, adding “SCL Compassion Donation” to the lower memo line of your check. Mail the check to the church at 3900 St. Charles Ave. New Orleans, LA 70115. Add “Attention: SCL” to the envelope.
If you have questions or further interest in compassion cultivation, you can contact me at the church office 504-899-3431, or by email at William.firstname.lastname@example.org, or you can go to the website for the Compassion Institute here: https://www.compassioninstitute.com/.