I had it on my calendar to produce a blog on the deep work of pruning our lives, and being pruned as we are molded and formed into living our true purpose. It is still coming at some point—but where I’ve been living in the last several weeks is in great need of reminders to love myself and be compassionate towards myself. In that vein, I am re-sharing a blog from two years ago, Self-Compassion, with a few tweaks and updates.
I consider myself to be a patient and understanding person, and it takes quite the accumulation of frustrations or irritations to upset me when dealing with fellow humans. I will forgive mistakes and offenses, and will gladly intervene with compassion in a work or personal setting. I tell people all the time, “We are all human, and none of us is perfect! Be gentler with yourself!”
In the midst of growing stress, I have been carrying more concern with the developing hospital situation and our very sick little patients. And you betcha I have been beating myself up for not being perfect as I work! I hold myself to the standard of perfection, though I would never hold another person to that standard. I am willing to understand, forgive, encourage, and be gentle with others. Why is it so terribly difficult to do so with myself?
In the human body, the first muscle filled with blood rich in oxygen (which receives this blood before the remaining vessels and organs), is the heart. Think about that—the heart circulates to itself before it sends blood to the rest of the body! If the heart were to save itself for last in the flow of nutrients and crucial life-giving capacity, there would be nothing left to nourish it. It would die, and the rest of the body would die.
In Tibet, the word “compassion” is not considered complete if it does not include ourselves. If you are doing something kind for someone else, but it is harming you, then it is not a compassionate act. I heard this from a friend years ago, and have had it on repeat in my brain numerous times. It is relevant nearly every day, in our work, our family lives, in relationships, and within ourselves. It is easy to become lost in the service of others, in our career or vocation, and in our families.
Many of us are facing an almost constant stage of change due to this evolving new “normal” we are learning to embrace (or at least accept). We may not feel—particularly those with spouses, children or in essential jobs—that we have any time to care for ourselves in these days. Burnout is rampant in the health care professions, more than with any other sector of job. With the ongoing pandemic, there is evidence that this burnout continues to increase, and we wonder where the ceiling is.
Isaiah 54 is one of my favorite passages of Scripture. In it, the author relates a message from our creator, filled with compassion and promises to rebuild us, though we may be ravaged by storms and afflicted. I go to this passage when I am discouraged, lonely, burdened with my anxieties, and when I have not cared for myself. Pampering is an element of this, but a pedicure will not cure our hearts of their grief and pain. Taking external steps to care for ourselves is vital, and doing so will require more creativity for many of us with our limited availability of resources. But a critical part of making these external efforts is that we find a place of solace for our hearts and souls to partake in nourishment.
When we experience stress or exhaustion, our circles will become smaller. I retreat within myself and become quiet, not communicating well with friends. The noise in my head becomes so loud that I cannot give voice to it or verbalize it. I will find myself hiding for days, instead of reaching out and asking for compassion from trusted friends. I will offer prayer and encouragement to others, but will not ask for it myself.
We each have our ways of coping, but we are not often willing to check ourselves and ask, “What do I need? What does my body need? What does my soul need?” We try to plow through, continuing to adopt an “autopilot” mode instead of stopping and realizing that we are not including ourselves in the membership of humans needing compassion.
One of the most important parts of mindfulness, defined as the ability to experience the present and focus on it, is recognizing the value of taking care of ourselves. If we are truly going to be a benefit to others, then we must recognize and absorb that caring for ourselves is not selfish. No one deserves care less than anyone else. Caring for ourselves is the best way to prepare ourselves to actually give back. We cannot be genuine when we are masking the caverns of pain within us, or when we are refusing to face our own needs. The wisdom of the body knows this. The heart and mind know this. They may become tangled, but they speak to us and ask us to rest. We have grown accustomed to ignoring them, but they continue to ask.
Albert Einstein once made this observation:
A human being is part of the whole, called by us, universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences self, his thoughts, his feelings, as something separate from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, limiting ourselves to personal desires and to a few people nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”
We place ourselves into prisons of a sort, removing ourselves from the circle of humanity and keeping ourselves from receiving compassion. We bury our needs and desires, and we consider ourselves beyond reach. We “tough it out” while becoming colder and less caring. If we are not separate from each other, then our well-being is not any different from, or any less worthy than, anyone else’s! We forget easily, because we are going against culture. We are choosing to press the brake on life, take a pause, and ask for peace.