by Teresa Johnson
I recently heard the mother of a toddler recall a situation when her toddler was upset. For the first time ever as a parent, rather than trying to suppress or change her daughter’s feelings, she had allowed them to just be. And then went one step further, opening herself up to experience her daughter’s feelings.
By being mindful, this mom was able to first notice her historical pattern of resistance to her toddler’s emotional upset, and in that moment of noticing, to choose a different path and engage compassionately not only with her toddler but with herself. She said, in a semi-serious tone, “It was hard to do that.” But when asked what was hard about it, unexpectedly, like the sun breaking free of a cloud, she beamed and chuckled a bit, “Because it was painful!” It seemed that what had been hard and painful then was now a source of happiness – she had chosen to act on her awareness, even when it was uncomfortable at the time, and the outcome of this experience for her as a parent? Feelings of greater closeness to her child.
Compassion in life
Touching another person’s suffering, and then going a step further to alleviate it through kind and heart-full intention or action is a compassion practice that can be done anywhere and with anyone. I sometimes sense distress or depression in individuals of our apartment building or neighborhood but rarely think about doing anything in the moment with those subtle impressions.
One day, though, after reading about compassion practices, I thought about what happens when I distract myself away from or ignore those sensed conditions of suffering. It occurred to me that maybe the awareness of suffering, no matter how brief, works in the background of our hearts and minds, a kind of low-level hum, akin to a splinter just below the surface of the skin, not throbbing for my attention, but there nonetheless.
Compassion practices allow us to engage with the hum or the splinter, to perceive its significance and the value of responding right away. So often we wait until the hum or splinter becomes a loud and obvious pain, but paying attention to suffering earlier makes alleviating it much easier.
Compassion with children
As a parent, offering myself compassion and sending it out to our children, has been an essential practice. One day, I found myself feeling caught in anxiety about one of our children and the choices she was making out of ignorance. I was aware of my thoughts of judgement, “Why, why was she making choices that might lead to even greater suffering?” Then I paused and chose to sit with and breathe in my own suffering, suffering arising from the judgement and the fear underneath it. Then I could meet the suffering of my child that was driving her decisions. Breathing all of that in, the anxiety fell away as I felt my stomach soften. I could sit with this, breathing in our suffering, and breathing out hope and trust for my child to find a path out of her suffering. I could continue to support that each night with a loving-kindness meditation.
These many months later, I’m watching this same grown child make some thoughtful, healthy decisions, and noticing that our connection is strong. Would all of this be the same without these practices? Maybe, but there’s evidence that we doaffect each other with the thoughts and feelings we practice.
I believe that, for us to survive and thrive as a human family, we need to recognize each other’s and our own suffering and respond to it with compassion. In doing so, we will feel more connected. It doesn’t take a lot.
And it works
The other day, out walking, I passed a woman I’ve often seen passing by our window – looking down, without expression. Tugged internally to turn around, I smiled and called out, “Good morning!” What happened then astounded me. Her face came to life, animated by a beautiful smile, and a musical “Good morning!” floating my way. I don’t think I’ve ever been more surprised – happiness boomeranging back to me. Who was uplifting whom?
As a beloved teacher said, mindfulness and compassion practices are simple but not easy. Lifting our hearts and minds from a net of busyness, preoccupation, or self-involvement can be like lifting heavy weights, but the potential benefits for all of us, are great.
“If you want others to be happy, practice compassion.
If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”
The Dalai Lama