How Compassion Makes Life Much Easier
by Paul Garrigan
The word ‘compassion’ is derived from the Latin word ‘compati’ which means to ‘suffer with’. It refers to our willingness to be with discomfort rather than try to ignore it or escape it. Compassion towards our own suffering is a key component for a happy life, and it is often our inability to self-soothe that drives us towards addictive behaviors.
“It is sometimes said that a quarter of the suffering we experience is born of uncontrollable events, and three-quarters is born of trying to avoid the first quarter.”
Christina Feldman – Compassion: Listening to the Cries of the World
Hearing the Cries of Your Baby
The Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh compared our inner discomfort as like a baby crying for our attention. We may be able to temporarily escape these cries by distracting ourselves, but nothing can be resolved until we actually deal with the problem – we need to tend to our crying baby. Sometimes this inner-discomfort can indicate that we need to make a change in our life but most of the time the pain just wants to be acknowledged.
The Price We Pay for Closing Our Hearts
Lack of self-compassion most often originates from childhood. We get hurt and we swear to ourselves that we will never let it happen again. So, we develop coping strategies to protect our ego not realizing that we are building a prison around our hearts. Closing our hearts doesn’t just protect us from the bad stuff, it also makes it much harder to appreciate the good stuff.
As young kids, our hearts are naturally open, but lack of wisdom leaves us vulnerable to exploitation. It may seem to us that our only safe option is to close our hearts, but doing this means life feels far less satisfying. The work we need to do to ‘stay safe’ leads us to spending more and more time living in our heads rather than actually experiencing the world. By the time we hit our teens, it is obvious something is missing from our life, and alcohol and drugs can seem like a good way to escape this loss.
Developing Compassion in Recovery
“If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” Dalai Lama
In recovery, we have the opportunity to develop compassion alongside wisdom, and it is this that leads us to real happiness and serenity. We begin this process by learning to self-soothe which means we open up to our own pain as this is how we heal. We discover sitting with our pain is nowhere near as hard as trying to avoid it – it is like finding out that you have spent just years running away from a monster only to find that it was a boisterous puppy chasing you.
Mindfulness is a practice that makes it possible for us to begin opening our hearts again. We learn to feel safe in the present moment, and this gives us the confidence to begin lowering our defenses. Metta (loving-kindness) meditation teaches us to feel compassion for first ourselves and then for other people.
Once we can open up to our own pain, it then becomes easier to be there for other people. Protecting our ego from threats no longer needs to be a full-time occupation, and the fact that we feel safe in the world means our attention more naturally focuses on the needs of other. It is then we start to experience a joy we never even realized was possible before.
5 Tips for Developing Compassion in Recovery
- Practice metta (loving-kindness) meditation
- Choose entertainment that opens your heart – e.g. inspiring movies, books, and music
- Learn to be your own best friend
- Run towards your pain rather than trying to avoid it
- Getting into the habit of mentally wishing other people well as you go about your day
Compassion and Happiness in Addiction Recovery by Paul G