To be honest, writing about the subject of compassion seems a little daunting to me. Here's what I'm thinking, "What could I possibly have to say about this that hasn't been said before? I'm no Dalai Lama or Mother Theresa."
I come from a typical middle-class, mid-western family. Bottom line is, my parents did a great job of raising me. They were the quintessential rugged individualists. They firmly believed that life was what you made of it, that there was no "big man in the sky" that they were going to supplicate themselves to. They rejected organized religion, believing it to be the "opiate of the masses." Both were hard working, achievement-oriented people and their goal was to teach their children to be self-reliant, strong, capable adults.
As I said, they were good people, honest and hard working. However, they were a little flinty in their approach to life. In their minds I was "overly sensitive." I started questioning the approach to living life from the intellect alone when I was quite young. I felt like an alien in my family. You see, I believed. I believed there had to be something more going on here, that the randomness of the universe had to be held together by a force greater than what could be seen or verified scientifically. I yearned for someone to tell my innermost secret to.
My spiritual quest began in my teen years when I started attending churches in my community, shopping around for a spiritual home. Of course, this annoyed my mother, who expected teen rebellion to come in the form of smoking pot and skipping classes. (Which was rather ironic to me later as I see that I picked the perfect way to rebel against my pot-smoking atheist mother!) This began the long debate between us about belief, and her judgment of me as a weak person for using the "crutch of faith to prop myself up with."
Being a newcomer to the religious scene, I felt comforted, yet not called to the liturgy of the Catholic mass and turned off by the rest. I came to the conclusion that going to church was not for me. I wanted something more personal.
I was drawn to the feminine expressions of Spirit. I was fascinated by the story of Guan Yin, the goddess of compassion revered by the ancient Chinese (and later adopted by most of the spiritual traditions of Asia). What she represented to me was the compassionate and loving Divine mother, as contrasted with my own emotionally unapproachable one.
She filled a void in my heart. I bought a statue of Guan Yin and placed her on my dresser. It was she that I told my secret to, to whom I looked for guidance in those early days of being a closet mystic.
Fast forward to today. I still have that statue. While I have not gone further with embracing a Buddhist philosophy or spiritual path, I still revere Guan Yin and what she represents to me. She started me on my path of living an authentic life of heart, of service.
I have regarded the quality of Compassion as a spiritual ideal. I, like so many other women, feel compassion for others. I cry at the drop of a hat. You should see the waterworks generated by those SPCA commercials and sappy movies.
Where I sometimes struggle is being compassionate with myself. I have an internalized critical voice that still pops up in my consciousness that tells me I'm not good enough, not smart enough, etc. When I become aware that I'm being heartless to myself, I extend the compassion and loving grace inwardly and tell myself a new message. "You're doing great. Stop being so hard on yourself."
Many of us who are compassionate by nature express this by giving to others in service, being a caregiver, a parent, a nurturer. I hear the stories of my clients who have had the heart-wrenching experience of being caregivers for their partners as they succumbed to the illness that eventually took their lives. This may even be you. You have poured your heart out, and perhaps you feel there is little left to give to yourself at this time of loss and great pain.
I offer this encouragement to you, which is to step back from the habit of only giving compassion to others. Ask yourself the following questions: "How can I bring 5 percent more compassion to myself today than I did yesterday? What would that look like?"
When I ask myself these questions, the answer comes. I can appreciate myself more, forgive more, have more patience for myself when I'm learning something new, be kind to myself, etc. When I give to myself first from the wellspring of loving in my heart, I have the capacity to give to others from the overflow.
When I was younger and exploring spiritually, I needed to put a human face on the concept of compassion to make it real for me. My little statue of Guan Yin did that for me. I could look at her face and the feeling of compassion would wash over me.
I now know that compassion has many faces. Compassion looks like Kindness, Forgiveness, Patience, Empathy, Generosity, Respect, Service. Compassion grants us a sense of belonging, a feeling of connection to all life. It is a practice of mindfulness and gratitude. When in the presence of pain and suffering, Compassion is the face of Love.