This week, I have felt gratitude for the wisdom I have received from the many teachers who have imparted for me a respect for the fundamental strengths and resilience at the heart of each person. Teachings that emphasize, moreover, that each part of us has value and worth.
We may find parts of self to be painful, distracting, self-sabotaging, or any number of negative experiences. There is a part of me that may react to any lapse in attention from another person as a slight, an insult, that causes me to withdraw and avoid the very thing I wanted—connection. I may begin spinning my wheels caught in an inner battle, between the overwhelming urge to withdraw and spite the other, and the part of myself that attempts to rise above, to rationalize the other’s behavior, to argue that I am being unreasonable. At times, even this battle might be occurring wholly beneath the surface. I may just “blank out” and find suddenly that I can’t seem to think or speak clearly, and my energy feels off. This is why it is transformative to bring attention to those moments, to begin to listen for what is happening beneath the conscious layer.
Each part is communicating something important for the whole self. One part feels activated, perhaps by old wounds or previous relationships in which one could never tell what the other thought or felt. Another part feels activated by the longing to connect, the urge to feel happy and cultivate harmony. I may become paralyzed through this battle and act out angrily against people who may have no idea what’s going on inside me. Depending on my mood, beliefs, or inclinations, I may think one side is better than the other. I may think, “I’m tired of being a doormat! I’m going to just stop dealing with these people!” Or I may think, “I hate how I always just jump ship whenever I feel uncomfortable. I’m so tired of being reactive! I’m just going to pretend everything’s fine and act happy for once.”
Engaging in these inner battles can drain energy and vitality. Over time, it is rare for one side to win. If I choose withdrawal, I feel lonely and hurt. If I choose to pretend I am fine, it turns out, others may realize quite clearly that I’m note fine but feel utterly perplexed as to why.
Here is where compassion offers a possibility for moving beyond the deadlock. I’ve begun suspecting that compassion can be an intellectual exercise and an emotional practice. Over time, we may be able to bridge the two. For me, compassionate thinking begins with the assumption that we are all doing what we think is best with the resources and information we have. Stated thus, it seems rather simplistic, but can become a challenging practice if I choose to treat others according to this baseline assumption. Heart-centered compassion moves that intellectual practice into an emotional connection, a willingness to feel your emotions with you in the moment.
I can think compassionately about others when I encounter behavior that feels problematic, upsetting, manipulative, or willfully exploitative. To think compassionately is not to say any of these behaviors are okay, or that their consequences for me are unimportant. What it does is shift my experience of these behaviors. If the clerk seems rude to me, I can consider that I do not know what his day has been like, or what his life circumstances are, and perhaps I am missing information that would help me to understand this behavior is not personal. If a close friend behaves in way I find manipulative, I might become curious as to why she sees this as the best way to meet her needs. Perhaps I may try communicating the impact of her behavior and realize she feels mortified and never realized it before. Perhaps I may learn that she seems to have no regard for her impact and recognize that I need to take better care of myself by setting clearer boundaries.
If I can offer this compassion to others, I may also offer it to myself. I can look at these inner battles and offer the awareness that even the parts of me that feel small, petty, and unclean came to exist for a reason. I can become curious as to what need this part of me is trying to fulfill, what old wound it’s trying to heal or avoid healing. With time I can say, “I get why this is coming up for me now. This is an old pattern that I want to shift.” I can listen for what it wants to say and then make a choice.
With the example of the inner battle above, I might honor the part of me that feels hurt and wanting to withdraw by saying to the other person—“Just now, I said something and I felt dismissed, and I feel hurt by that.” Then I honor the part of me that is hurt and the part of me that wants connection. Then I open the possibility for deeper harmony in my relationship, one that includes discord and pain.