Pausing for Compassion

I had the interesting experience for the last two days of needing to keep my head immobile after physical therapy, for crystals in the inner ear.  The PT therapist instructed me to not look up or down, and since the crystals are in the left ear, not to turn my head to the left either unless I turned my whole body.

I quickly became aware of the question, “What am I not seeing”?  I carried this question into spiritual direction (with my own spiritual director), as I pondered, “What am I not seeing?” in my life, spiritual and mundane. I share this now, as an example of the kinds of conversations one might have in spiritual direction. It is not just the big liminal moments, or the dark nights of the soul.  Spiritual Direction is more often about the still small voice moving through our lives.

What does narrowing my focus look like, in the spiritual realms of my life and the ordinary? We recalled that in last month’s session, I had been feeling a need to hit the pause button after the busy-ness of the last year as caretaker of my family while teaching at seminary, serving clients and seeding spiritual community; the need to pause for self-care or even self-cherishing!  Did I do that? Of course not, and so here is the universe giving me a clearer message to pause, with the PT’s instructions to rest for the two days after the procedure. (But this was going to be my week to get things done!) There is always too much to do.

This invitation to pause and gain a new perspective invited questions of what does self-care look like? What am I not attending to? What happens if I narrow my focus to that which enlivens my spirit? What happens if I let go of those things which are outside a narrowed perspective?

As I sat with these questions, both in the session and during these past two days what came into focus is the need for rest; as Audre Lorde said, “Rest is a radical act of self-care”, (in a world which would have us constantly focused on Doing instead of Being).  My incessant doing, is about being considered (or at least maintaining the illusion of being considered) valuable.  Don’t even ask me about self-cherishing!  Oy! If I am not “valuably” contributing to family and society, (ie caught up in endless striving), how can I possibly find value in myself – to be cherished or cherishable. How can others cherish me for my innate beingness when I don’t constantly produce outcomes that can be monetized?

Taking this to the next level, if I can’t cherish my own innate Being, how can I possibly cherish another? This is the underlying question of the Golden Rule regardless of which tradition’s iteration you use.  And the answer to that question, (and at the heart of the Golden Rule itself) is compassion; compassion for self and compassion for each other.

Compassion seems in short supply right now, regardless of one’s tribal affinities.  I use the word tribal very intentionally and by it I do not mean the indigenous nations whose lands we inhabit.  I am talking about the divisive tribes we collectively find ourselves in at this moment, not only in this country, but in many countries as we struggle between different world views and the looming danger of nationalist fascism.  The battle isn’t really about good versus evil, as we vilify each other it all becomes so subjective. It is not about bathrooms, drag queens nor pronouns.  But it is about fear vs love, and how we react from our places of fear on both the right and the left. 

Fear is the currency of trauma.  The reason I and so many others become workaholics, or alchoholics, or shopaholics is fear that we are not cherishable. And certainly, trans and nonbinary kids are getting a loud message that they are not cherishable, thanks to the repressive legislation being put forth throughout this country.  We live in a culture which trades in the business of fear, and uses it to keep us from not only being compassionate with self, but with each other.  Those in positions of power would much prefer we fear-monger and scape-goat, against trans youth, people seeking abortions and refugees at the border rather than examine the ways voter supression, tax-cuts for the rich, and abdication of responsibility for climate change are benefitting the powerful and undermining democracy (not to mention our common humanity). Fear (and its tribalism) lives in our amygdala’s primitive “lizard” brain.  Compassion lives in our mammalian cortical brain, where our needs for caring, nurturing community invites love to guide the collective ever toward freedom and hope.

Here’s the thing about our busy little lizard brains – they are strictly about survival, so the perspective they encourage is that everyone is a dangerous Other to be feared.  The fearful amygdala is a gatekeeper  who does not allow compassionate thoughts to even form (in our curious and feeling mammalian brains).  Our gatekeepers have been very loud of late creating fear that has fed war abroad and civic discord all around us. Rather than “going back” to a mythical “good ol’ days,” we have escalating Otherizing not just of BIPOC and queer folk, but anyone with a uterus or who lives in a “blue” state. And those of us in our liberal towers are no less Otherizing of the middle American struggling in the rust belt or those left behind in the bible belt. The gatekeepers are not just the strident talking heads on TV or politicians in the halls of government, but the silos and echo-chambers of social media and even members of our own families. The gatekeepers also live within each one of us, as we weigh our worth and devalue our spirits.

We need to stop, breathe, pause, before we can even consider what self-care might look like; how cherishing self, loved ones or community might be expressed. So, what are the ways I can pause for compassion for myself?  What does the still small voice within me whisper?

First, I can pause to really receive the positive feedback I have been given about my gifts. Within my ministry that which feeds me and for which I get positive feedback are the spiritual direction and heart-felt reiki treatments I give to clients. I can also take in the appreciation of my seminary students, that what I teach enriches, in turn, their ministries.  Second, I can be gentle with myself; where striving has not been met by interest, and where it has. So, I will narrow the number of offerings at Shelter For the Spirit to those programs which also feed my spirit; letting go of Being Spirit and reimagining Teaching Tuesdays, but continuing Interspiritual Service, Dwelling in the Luminous Dark and Shabbat Supper and Song, for as long as they feed me and others.  Third, I must recognize what all the busy-work keeps me from.  So, making more concerted space for the contemplation which is needed for the next phase of writing my book.  That one in particular invites me to Be instead of Do, because it requires valuing what I have to say and making space to just Be with my thoughts. It means owning the truth of my journey and asks me to mine how the compassion of others has influenced the thriving of my queer family.

It all must begin with that pause for self-compassion.  If you were to pause, what would the still small voice within you whisper?  If we stepped out of striving, how could radical rest recharge our passions? If we could grow our sense of self-compassion and rest, could we begin once more to value the diversity of our sacred siblings instead of alienating them as Others? Could we recognize the Image of the Divine in the eyes of those who look, worship and act differently than us?

How might we transform our relationship with ourselves and with one another if we took that pause for compassion and realized that we are all trying our best to survive in a culture that places commodifying of our life force above the truth (within all the wisdom traditions) that we are uniquely and beautifully made as part of a richly diverse world. We are all expressions of Divine Light – maybe not when we act as striving, fearful, and divisive tribes – but most definitely when we are self-caring, mutually cherishing multi-faceted expressions of the Breath of Life.  What makes us unique among our animal relatives is our ability to move beyond not only our lizard and mammalian instincts but to embody Beloved Community wherein we each can bring our gifts from a place of joy, where we can recognize the wisdom in every tradition, and when we can celebrate the myriad expressions of humanity as valuable and cherished expressions of hope.

The still small voice moving in our individual lives also informs the undercurrent of our collective experience. When we ask the little and big questions of ourselves, as we are witnessed in spiritual direction, we can feel the collective pulse and touch heart of the Ineffable.  In this moment of trauma, fear, mistrust, and hate, let us stop, pause, breathe and turn away from the god of Fear toward the Divine Source of Love.

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