“If you cannot be compassionate to yourself, you will not be able to be compassionate to others. When we get angry, we have to produce awareness: I am angry. Anger is in me. I am anger. This is the first thing to do” - Thich Naht Hanh
Compassion is mostly explored through a positive lens - ie: compassion is ‘good’ or to be compassionate ‘feels nice’. This is all very well, and serves as a useful social, empathising glue at times - yet, for compassion to represent the whole human experience, it must also contain and describe the process one takes from less desirable states to inner calmness.
Through this process, we’ll explore the three main stages of compassion required for any of us to lead connected and meaningful lives. They are as follows: compassion of awareness, compassion of acceptance and compassion in action.
Compassion of awareness
To be compassionate is to look into suffering with openness, curiosity and humility rather than judgement. In order to get to a place where we can be wholly compassionate, we first must look into ourselves and observe distortions that are causing ourselves, or others, harm. This initial look inward can be a wholly uncomfortable, unforgiving place - particularly for those with strong inner critic scripts. The key to exercising compassion of awareness is in practising detached observation methodologies - such as the body scan, awareness of breathing meditation, yoga or via mindful deep breathing in your morning cold shower.
This first step, the seeing what’s there, is hardest for most for two reasons. First, we’re drawing awareness to sensations which make us feel agitated on some level - this, by nature, is uncomfortable. Second, the longer we’ve neglected looking into these places, the more scary they’re going to seem at first. To be fearful of looking into something momentary, like a spider running across the carpet, is tough - to hold the fear of several decades of negligence is a much larger, tougher obstacle.
Critical to this first stage of development is a subtle blend of courage, grit and focus. We’re unlikely to progress past this first stage of compassion without focused intent and sound support.
Compassion of acceptance
Compassion of acceptance, assuming awareness has been suitably raised, is often a much less painful exercise - and yet often takes longer to embody. Compassion of acceptance is rooted in the non-judgemental attitude held towards the present self - the self currently engaging with its pains. With awareness, we have an idea of what it is that’s causing us discomfort.
The cause of our discomfort may seem trivial or it may seem like a mountain crushing our body. The skill here is in noticing how you relate with your suffering and how your mind plays games with it. Are you overemphasising the suffering, or are you underestimating it’s depth? Whichever it is, the role of you, the one seeking to give compassion to self, leaning into your own learning, is to let go of that judgement.
What happens, for example, when instead of saying, ‘oh that’s not important’, you respond with curiosity and ask, ‘is that something important?’. Instead of saying, ‘that’s a huge task’, we might ask, ’is this manageable?’. Through learning to detach from old scripts of certainty, and inviting in fresh sets of eyes, we regain our ability of choice. This is a liberating place for most.
With choice borne out of compassionate acceptance, we can choose a response to our suffering. In short, we can invite a wholly new dynamic with this rejected part of self. That is ultimately what self-compassion is - integrating and reconnecting with parts of self we’ve previously deemed too dark or painful to hold close and care for. The key is to practice curiosity with your thought patterns.
Compassion of action
With awareness and choice, we have all the capabilities to exercise compassionate action - the bringing together of our psycho-spiritual reality into our physical world. Compassionate action is about the thoughts we hold and emphasise, about the way we speak, move, connect or disconnect. Compassionate action is where our beliefs and subjective realities make roots in the material world. This might look like new acts of love for passers by, or the breaking into smiles for everyone - whatever it is for you, compassionate action shows itself differently for us all.
Thich Naht Hanh suggests the root to holding others compassionately is to first hold oneself with compassion. Through developing the three forms of compassion we’ve explored above, we’re capable of coming that much closer to lives of ease and abundance. Compassion for the self is one of the most powerful self-healing options available to us.
It’s only when we’re ready to take responsibility for the people we want to be that we’ll be the people we want to be.