In mid-December, when my “seasonal stress” looked a lot like clinical anxiety, I found a task force. Christmas was nearing and I’d been trying–not very successfully–to soothe myself with spiritual reflection. The biblical story would soon tell of the Magi, opening their treasure chests to give gold, frankincense, and myrrh to an infant in a barn. And in the meantime, my wise wo(men) opened their webcams to send spiritual treasure to a woman in Philadelphia.
With a splitting headache, I clicked the link to a presentation called “Self-Compassion: Navigating Life’s Challenges Series”. The Saving Lives Taskforce, a non-profit organization addressing substance abuse issues in North Carolina’s Outer Banks hosted the panel. My cousin Louisa is a member.
Louisa is a seasoned healer, deeply committed to the slow, sacred work of regeneration. She’s both an Occupational Therapist for older adults, Coach for recovering addicts and kitesurfing Instructor. I’d put myself in her capable hands any day.
I probably would have skipped it if not for Louisa. I’m wary of compassion talks after seeing so many wellness professionals and self help influencers beat the topic to death with less than insightful articles, TED Talks, and books. Whenever any concept is stripped of its full complexity for easy digestion, the meaning gets rinsed clean. Compassion content had lost its spark.
As the panel jumped into discussion of gratitude and challenges, I felt immediate solace just being in the company of people who have accepted the constancy of pain and its opposing force, love. Effective healers like these know that we rebuild after loss with the raw material of compassion. Full stop.
The presentation was excellent. While discussing boundaries, someone said “make sure when you say yes to someone else, you’re not saying no to yourself”. I loved that–a self care one liner I haven’t seen on Pinterest, Etsy, Instagram or the New York Time’s Best Seller List.
And then the most meaningful experience arrived during Louisa’s guided meditation. I went to the back of my apartment where it’s quiet and sunny in the afternoon. My cousin’s steady, judicious voice moved me as soon as I heard it. How much comfort there is to be found in the sure footed voice of another! How weary I get, always listening to mine!
We were gently directed to close our eyes and find our breath.
Louisa asked us to call up one physical or emotional pain and hold it without fighting back. My head hurt so much that it took enormous strength to not writhe, rub my temples and tense my muscles. My jaw locked with the effort. The pain obliterated all other sensation.
With each breath, Louisa invited us to join her in silent acknowledgement of what we felt.
“This is Suffering”. Deep exhale.
“This is Suffering”. Lungs open to take in breath.
“This is Suffering”.
My eyes filled with tears. There we were, strangers holding our own and each other’s pain in exquisite solidarity. THIS was the feeling I worked so hard to summon in my work as a writer and mental health advocate. I return to it all the time because in the presence of unbearable pain, we find ourselves in dark echo chambers. In those arid spaces, we die. And in the light of community, we survive.
Psychiatrist M. Scott Peck described this paradox well, writing: “How strange that we should ordinarily feel compelled to hide our wounds when we are all wounded!
Community requires the ability to expose our wounds and weaknesses to our fellow creatures. It also requires the ability to be affected by the wounds of others. But even more important is the love that arises among us when we share, both ways, our woundedness.”
In the immediate aftermath of the webinar and now a month later, I hold the “love that arises” close. This love born from a mere 60 seconds of sitting with my suffering in the presence of others fighting the same fight. Think of how everyday when we encounter each other in public, the very same thing is happening but we don’t acknowledge it.
And when I ponder the inherent connection between vulnerability, compassion and strength, I know this is the stuff worthy of all the lectures, articles, books and videos we can produce.