This barrier to compassion is very basic and universal. I have alluded to it in other posts, but it deserves fuller attention. Being compassionate requires being open to hurt and pain. There is no avoiding it. Yes, compassionate mind states create a sense of well being. This is true. But in order to be compassionate in the first place, we have to be open to the other’s pain and need for compassionate contact. We have to see the hurt and pain of the other, allow our hearts to be touched by it, at least enough to evoke a response. Compassion is not a head thing, it’s a heart thing. Once our hearts are touched we can then get into the heady space of action and plan a response. But the heart has to be touched first.
This is frightening to most people. I think this is because once we go into feeling, into the heart space, we are less practiced at regulating ourselves. We can easily get swept up, lose perspective, feel overwhelmed. Like being thrown into the deep end of the pool, we worry we will drown in feelings.
It’s ok to take time to learn to swim. It’s perfectly fine to start out in the kiddie pool. In fact, it is necessary. This is why compassion training starts with meditating on compassion for a loved one. We start with people who do not challenge us, with whom we feel safe and loving. We gradually, over weeks or longer, take on the compassionate contemplation of more challenging others. If we did otherwise, if we threw ourselves into the emotional deep end without the nurturing practice of self compassion, we would be missing its sustaining buoyancy, and risk sinking under the weight of the pain of the world.
Compassion cultivation teaches us how to swim confidently in the waters of life and to drink deeply, slaking our thirst for meaning and connection.