Compassion as a Way of Healing for Addicts

Compassion is a foundational healing modality recovering addicts must learn.

Using my book, The Craft of Compassion (Hand to Hand Publications, 2010), as the curriculum, I had the honor to work with Brandon Beckman teaching addicts and their families at L.A. Family Housing in North Hollywood. We guided them through the exploration of self-esteem via the first step of the Craft: self-compassion. We came at it from two different angles.

First, citing John Makransky, we invoked the “benefactors.” A benefactor is a figure who lets one know he or she is beloved. The benefactor might be your mother, uncle or pet. It could be Christ, the Buddha or the Blessed Virgin Mary, or the Baal Shem Tov. I encourage addicts to see the forthcoming work through the benevolent eyes of the benefactors. Often, recovering addicts have invoked God as their benefactor.

Secondly I speak of amor fati, which is Latin for “loving ones fate.” Not what one has made of oneself, but the “cards one has been dealt.” This includes your parents – not another set – your gender, race, the hard wiring of your character. Amor fati is the substratum of self-esteem, and self-esteem is the substratum of all healthy human relationships.

The second step of the Craft is compassion for others, and it hinges on sympathetic joy – joy over another’s joy – and sympathetic sorrow – sorrow over another’s sorrow. With the community of recovering addicts, we tell the story of “the sorrow of our sorrow with which we meet another’s sorrow, and the joy of our joy with which we meet another’s joy.” Working this way, we see how compassion lifts the addict from the self-preoccupation and narcissism that distorts relationship-building with others. The stories of one life become a vehicle for connecting with others.

Step three of the Craft takes this farther: Radical Empathy. The Cherokee proverb is apt: “You cannot understand another until you have walked three moons in his moccasins.” Radical Empathy is about seeing through another’s eyes.

I have been entirely astonished at how profoundly recovering addicts have received Step three; an intimate empathy is built into true recovery. Addicts understand the travails of fellow addicts, the joy of freedom that is being clean.

We paired off and each told the story to the other of bottoming out on alcohol or drugs. Then, in the group, each told the story of the other as well as he or she could – and told

“as” the other, in his or her “voice.” The truth is that recovering addicts do this impeccably. Two women I paired off were roommates and arrived angry at each other, yet when they entered into the “game” of seeing through the others eyes, they did so perfectly.

Step four I call the mysterium: seeing through the eyes of compassion. The previous four steps have prepared the addicts for this, the shedding of layer after layer of self-involvement. All the steps involve putting the self to the side and seeing through another’s eyes, so at this step, one is well prepared to see through the eyes of compassion. These are, in fact, the eyes of the benefactor who taught us not to be so harsh on ourselves. Here we are looking out on the whole world through these eyes.

Through the eyes of compassion one is equally kind to oneself and others. “Do unto others”, yes, but also “Do unto yourself as you would have others to do unto you.” In living compassion, you bless the full gamut of human experience – the vales of disappointment as well as the joys of camaraderie.

In these four steps of the craft of compassion, we can see how the necessary life skills of self-esteem and relationship-building with others are creatively engaged and refined.

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