Compassion: noun- sympathetic awareness of one’s own or others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it.
If you’ve found this post you are most likely someone who seeks to alleviate distress. Maybe today, you see a need to lessen your own a bit, to seek some self-care. How can we use mindfulness in difficult situations like caregiving? How can we find compassion in these moments?
I’m writing about facing difficulties, but I have to start with a moment of appreciation for this basic goodness we all share. Today, I’m pausing to consider my intention to put some words together that have some benefit, to help my daughter have a better day today, to help a friend move, to heal a little ailment I’ve been nursing all week.
I’m reflecting that you are likely setting similar intentions.
I realize that each day we are driven by this incredible basic goodness, this sincere desire to relieve suffering in those that we care for.
Meditation is not about conjuring up happy and peaceful feelings. It’s practicing, over and over again, curiosity, acceptance and non-judgment for who we actually are, messy parts and all. The more familiar and friendly we are towards our experiences when we, as my British friend says, “lose the plot” or get frustrated, or overwhelmed, the greater the contact we have with this basic goodness.
Stress and Fear: Calm and Caring
In addition to having this basic goodness, we all face difficult situations, painful thoughts, emotions, and a whole range of discomforts, both of the everyday variety, and those that break our hearts open. As I shared with my daughter when she navigated middle school, every kid in that building feels insecure, even if their way of reacting to it plays out differently.
If all kinds of difficulty are inevitable, can we have some choice in how we respond to it?
Our stress response is deeply wired into our neural pathways. All kinds of things happen in the body in the face of a stressful event or a stressful thought. Our bodies grip, our heart quickens, our breath becomes shallow. We scan for threats and are more inclined to ruminate over worst-case scenarios. Over time, we become increasingly vulnerable to all sorts of stress related diseases, to depression, anxiety, and burnout.
Rick Hanson describes this stress reaction as the ‘Red Zone’ and its counterbalance, the ‘Green Zone’. In the Red, we might feel all sorts of frantic fixing needs to be done in the spirit of being helpful, but in this zone we cannot easily connect to others. Time in the Red wears down our bodies, making our minds more organized around negativity bias (we see what’s wrong, rather than what is, actually, pretty okay.) We are in fight or flight and cortisol is the hormone driving the bus.
The Green Zone, when we activate our parasympathetic nervous system, is the one in which we experience positive emotion, caring, compassion, and our bodies heal, restore and take in the good around us. Oxytocin, the ‘tend and befriend’ neurotransmitter, is our hormone helper. In this zone, we see more broadly and find creative solutions.
On a tough day, I experience a mind/body that is all tight, that is likely to fall into this Red Zone of activation. But I don’t have to stay there. When the alarms go off, I can pay attention with awareness and start to practice compassion.
Mindfulness has become a bit of a buzzword. “Be here now” is on bumper stickers along with images of peaceful yogis sitting on beaches. Meditation is not about making every moment a day on the beach. It’s about finding the kindest way to relate to what is actually happening, which is likely an anxious, busy mind, a wrenched back, maybe anger or impatience. If there is anything ‘beach-like’ about it, it’s that we learn to surf… we learn to stay on our own body raft through the small and the big turbulent waves of our experience.
We not only train our attention to notice that we are thinking, and having emotions that come and go, and that we have sensations in our body, but to do so with kindness, and without judging what we find. We practice trusting our experience and practice patience to let it be just as it is.
When I face a difficult situation, those many impossible moments when I am tempted to wish things were other than what they are, I practice paying attention and instead of running away, or instead of going all in and drowning in this painful situation, I practice (and that means over and over again) surfing the waves, letting each moment come and go. I practice compassion and being my own best friend, as if I really want to understand what she is going through. I practice holding my own hand, and saying, “ouch” this is really painful, and practice trusting that this person (myself) is up to the task.
Which is just what I want to hold for my daughter, or my dying friend, or when I attended births. This hurts, but we’re up to it.
When I’ve really been the mother my daughter needs, it’s when I’ve stopped fixing and I just love her. I rest that ‘scanning for threats’ vision that I’ve so keenly honed and my eyes soften to see how perfect and funny and smart she is. I stop thinking about what could go wrong and trust that not only this moment is just fine as it is, I trust that the next one and the next one will be okay too. Whatever it holds. Even if it’s filled with difficulty.
When we pick up a crying baby, the first thing we need to do is to settle our own bodies. It is then that we create a resting place.
If we can greet “all the things” with this spirit of compassion, we can not only manage our body’s stress response and live a healthier and happier life, open and fearless, but we can actually be the helpful person we want to be to those we love.
This article was published as an accompaniment to a talk (“Turning Towards the Difficult: Mindfulness and Caregiving) given by Karen Laing at the Third Annual National Caregivers Conference 2018.
If you are interested in learning more about Mindfulness Meditation and ways to practice new ways of responding to life, tune in to our upcoming free webinar, Tools for Mindful Decision Making, and check out our upcoming 28-day online course, Loving Through Difficulty