It's Sunday afternoon on a typical Pacific Northwest spring day - cloudy, rainy and cold for those of you that don't know and are not dangling at the end of the rope of seemingly endless gray. And yet I’m sitting here with this amazingly warm glow of peace, contentment and love. It's like I just returned from a deep joyous meditation, or a powerful spiritual moment in nature or in music. My physical body is not levitating, but I am, and my face expresses a mixture of smiles and tears. This morning I completed a four-day virtual symposium along with 5000 fellow psychotherapists and counselors. It was an incredibly moving experience for me, and although the event is usually a live in-person affair, the vibration of energy through the live digital realm seemed just as powerful as in-person.
All my "heroes" in the field - my teachers - addressed the group live or shared live workshops on their latest research and developments in their respective modalities and fields, and there were deeply moving presentations on diversity and racism. I am overfilled and this energy is bubbling out all over the place.
I bring this up because as I sit here continuing to breathe this in and bask in the energy, I am realizing that what I have just done for myself is self-care. I was not just gaining continuing education requirements. That may seem a bit odd to some who might wonder at the soothing capacity of listening for hours and hours to information, but it was so much more than that. I felt 5000 pairs of arms holding on to each other and not letting go, and that was sorely needed by all. It's been a rough year for therapists, too. We are working, and we know that many people aren't, but the work this year has maxed out the compassion in ways many of us didn't know possible. It's not so much the amount of compassion available to give, but the constant hypervigilance of monitoring the tipping point. The tank can get low, and we can be forgetful about reading the gauge. A huge component of care is compassion, and we must remember that a huge part of self-care is self-compassion. Sometimes, if we are not careful, that can slip our mind. With so many asking for help, perhaps I can give just a little more…
Taking a broader perspective, compassion means offering and giving loving-kindness, unconditionally. And that is the key descriptor, and one that many of us struggle with. Basically, it means no-matter-what. No-matter-what it may be, it cannot exist with any judgment - it just won't work. That's the conundrum most of us find ourselves in much of the time. In our daily lives, we work to demonstrate compassion - but in many instances we have terms, so that makes it conditional. Is it possible to have loving-kindness for Derek Chauvin? How about your bleeding-heart neighbor that wants to open up the border to anyone? Or the doctor who works at the abortion clinic? Or the young man who murdered 8 people in Atlanta? Or your adult daughter who won't leave the abusive man in her life – or the abusive man, for that matter? Loving kindness doesn't mean agreeing with anyone, it means opening your heart to sharing what I call the intimacy of existence. All living things are connected by this intimacy - this energetic thread of life. For many living things it is automatically unconditional, it is just there - a vibrant connection of loving-kindness. For our species, this connection is more complicated as it has to fit in with consciousness. We get to think about compassion and define it for us based on years of programming. This is oftentimes given to us by people that are not connected to that intimacy of existence thread. Judgment becomes a constant companion. It is a part of us, a deeply seated part that we have employed to protect ourselves from emotional damage. But if judgment is our employee, what's to hold us back from terminating that employment and promoting other parts of us to regulate and integrate our bodies and minds? My answer is awareness, or in this case the lack thereof.
If you're familiar with my work, you know that I am focused on emotional connection with others and with ourselves, and attaining this connection through awareness. A significant part of emotional connection is attunement - the reciprocal exchange of sensitivities and awareness. As we participate in this exchange, we discover compassion-offering and giving loving-kindness. Discovering compassion leads us to more awareness of sensitivities in the other, and the attunement grows. I have also found that awareness plays another vital role, one that precedes the attunement. Awareness of the other and their desires and needs of course is key, but that awareness is pretty darned hard to recognize if we don't have self-awareness. And by this, I mean connecting with what is in our mind and in our hearts - what are our thoughts and emotions at any time. This knowing brings attunement within ourselves, and from that we discover compassion for ourselves - self-compassion. When we are attuned with our inner environment, we can be more aware of what self-care means for us - knowing how much is in the tank and keeping an eye on the gauge.
When my wife and I travel on the road, many times in our RV, she is adamant about keeping the gas tank no lower than 1/2 full. This can be an issue for me sometimes, I don't like the more frequent stops and I know the mileage we're getting and where the next stops are located. Until I don't. Not too long ago we experienced one of those panic stricken, harrowing hours of wondering how we were going to make it, and I know we finally found a station gasping on our last bit of fumes. Needless to say, I spent quite some time eating a very large amount of "crow."
Not unlike driving a car down the road, every day we are moving along our own paths. We wish it were easier to keep the self-compassion/self-care tank continuously full, but that is not possible when we are sharing what is in the tank with others. So, we need to keep an eye on the gauge - awareness. And topping off the tank with self-care when we get to around half-full is a good thing, too. "Fuming it" with compassion and self-compassion is not helpful for anyone.
So, fill’er up!