This is the best time of year for sitting on the couch in my living room. The two large maples at the front of the house are not yet in leaf and the sun is low enough that the light streams into the room for hours in the afternoon. It’s a peaceful spot (except when the dog is barking madly at the people passing by on the sidewalk!) and a good place to practice self-compassion.
Compassion is, in part, a sympathy of feeling, of experiencing what another is experiencing. While much of the literature on compassion calls for us to act, to serve others selflessly,and a life of service does develop empathy,for those of us who judge ourselves far more than anyone else,perhaps compassion needs to begin at home. By accepting the light and dark within us,we can find our way to compassion for others.
English poet Alexander Pope envisioned compassion as a series of concentric circles rippling outward:
Self-love but serves the virtuous mind to wake,
As the small pebble stirs the peaceful lake;
…Friend, parent, neighbor, first it will embrace;
His country next; and next all human race….
To love ourselves requires an internal shift, letting go of the inner condemnation that sits beside our self-praise, as said in the reading. Taking ourselves whole – as we are – leads us to compassion.
A couple of years ago I had to complete a Clinical Pastoral Education unit, learning chaplaincy in a hospital setting. I was very anxious about doing this placement. The unit was run by a nun who was reputed to be a tough cookie. Hospitals make me nervous. I would have to talk to strangers. Everyday. Rumours swirled about how the unit was difficult and intense. There would be tears. And drama. Now I am a low key kind of person and happy to leave the drama to the Stratford Festival. This was the one part of my ministry education that I was dreading.
There were seven of us in the unit. Two Lutherans, an Anglican, a Baptist, a Catholic priest and a Pentecostal. And me. Two of them felt that hospital chaplaincy was their calling, one was doing an advanced unit, the others were excited to be there and seemed like naturals. I compared myself constantly and came up short. Their words, their presence, their attitude, their clothes even, all seemed more appropriate to the work. The first couple of weeks were spent in an on-going anxiety. I tried to take care of myself. I spent time with friends. I walked the dog. I ate chocolate.
As part of the unit, we went to the seminary once a week for a class. I could sit in my favourite seat by the window which got the morning sun. These were good days. But my anxiety, despite my awareness of it, and my attempts to calm it, still stood tall. In the third week, in the class at the seminary, a fellow student gave a presentation. This being a seminary, she asked us to begin with a hymn and handed out copies of the music. It was Come and Find the Quiet Centre, which is the song First Toronto uses to enter into a meditation time. I love this song and its words. It reminds us to “be at peace and simply be”. I sat in my favourite spot, sunshine pouring in the window,surrounded by beautiful voices. I could feel the anxiety dissolve away in sunshine and song.
I had found that quiet centre and I knew then that whatever happened at the hospital,I could handle it. I was okay just as I was. I, with all my strengths and weaknesses, was capable of this work. It was a moment of supreme peace that kept me healthy for the rest of the summer. While there were tears and drama at the hospital, I handled it. The nun wasn’t such a tough cookie, after all. And while I still had my share of anxious moments, the experience in the classroom had shifted something. It allowed me to find the solid place to stand inside of myself. I stopped measuring myself against everyone else. I stopped assuming I was the only one struggling. I was able to hold onto that core of calm even as I sat with pain and illness and death.
The sun and the song allowed my heart to open up and let go of the anxiety I was protecting myself with. And letting go that protection allowed me to be present for the patients, to truly sit and be with them in their struggles.Compassion could enter the space once filled with worry.
Shifting from anxiety to calm is easier said than done, of course. It is easy to be aware of our anxieties and self doubts,much harder to make the emotional shift of letting go. I hope that each of you find moments in your week – in silence, in sunshine, in song – that help you find your centre.
An excerpt from a sermon first given at First Toronto in August 2012.