“We will develop and cultivate the liberation of mind by loving kindness, make it our vehicle, make it our basis, stabilize it, exercise ourselves in it, and fully perfect it.”
- Siddartha Gautama Buddha
Addicts in psychotherapy are often ambivalent about whether they are ready to act compassionately, even if their own recovery depends on it. You may ask, what could possibly cause ambivalence in the area of compassion?
In my practice, I have found that many feel a deep desire to reach out to someone compassionately but are afraid to do so. They are often so engrossed in the shame and self-doubt that define their experience that they feel unworthy or unready to reach out. Many also feel unsteady and decentered within the present moment. Because they are keeping their future and past under close and constant scrutiny, addicts may feel like they do not have the capacity for true compassion. Recovery is difficult and there are no easy answers, but understanding compassion and practicing it everyday can have a lasting impact on the lives of struggling addicts.
Compassion Attentiveness is a therapy style I formulated after years of reflecting on my own experiences as a therapist and as a human being. It involves both the therapist and client actively participating in a compassionate process that begins with empathy. The therapist must feel the client’s pain and suffering and embrace it as if it were her own. Without true empathy, even a perceptive therapist cannot know what the client is going through. As a natural corollary, if the therapist does not truly know what is ailing his client and heightening the client’s struggles, she cannot provide adequate treatment. The client must also learn to activate the compassion within by taking her focus away from her own pain and instead, focusing on the struggles of others. Through compassion attentiveness, she will learn to be more empathetic. That empathy can then be used as a bridge to her own recovery.
Before moving further, I would like to define compassion as it would be used in this therapeutic approach. Compassion literally means “to suffer together.” More broad definitions include aspects of caring for another person’s happiness and attempting to alleviate another’s suffering. However, I would propose that the compassionate attitude should not be limited to feelings and behaviors that we exhibit toward other humans. Compassion, even if directed toward animals or ghosts of our past can create inner joy, healing and satisfaction.
The inspiration for Compassion Attentive Therapy
“Those who see all creatures in themselves and themselves in all creatures know no fear.”
While I have always believed in the notion that compassion is an important part of my personal and professional life, there was one specific instance that broadened my perspective on how compassion could be particularly useful in therapy. A few years ago, while I was swimming, a bee fell in the pool. My first response was to move away from it, but I could not help but glance back at the struggling bee. It could not fly because it could not get any traction. It became harder and harder for me to watch the struggle. Finally, I scooped up the creature with both hands and let the water trickle down through my fingers. Within a few seconds, the bee found traction and flew away. This was a simple act of kindness. Even though much time has passed, the feeling that I experienced that day is as powerful and real today as it was then. I realized that compassion has the effect of instantly uplifting the mood. After that experience, I immediately started on my journey toward studying compassion and ancient Eastern wisdom. Within a short period of time, I began incorporating compassion into my psychotherapy sessions.
How does Compassion Attentive Therapy work?
“Only the development of compassion and understanding for others can bring us the tranquility and happiness we all seek.”
? Dalai Lama XIV
When a client seeks help, I encourage her to embrace her pain and not be afraid of her own suffering. Then, we begin the stage of the journey of by practicing compassion through small acts of kindness. A client can perform these acts for friends, family members and even strangers. Soon after beginning Compassionate Attentive Therapy, the client’s shame and guilt are replaced by self-worth and self-esteem because she now sees herself as a helper rather than a victim. Although addiction is traumatic and painful, feelings of loneliness and victimization dissipate when compassion enters the picture and opens the client’s eyes to a new world of empowerment and happiness.
When using compassion attentiveness, the therapist helps navigate the client through difficult emotions but equally encourages the client to focus on getting to know her true self and the truly loving nature of her being. This allows for the client’s outward-facing compassion to reflect back onto herself and allows for a process of individuation to ensue until the client becomes more aware of her self-compassion.
Although this therapeutic style yields wonderful benefits, many who start out in Compassion Attentive Therapy are fearful of turning attention away from themselves. However, it is important to note that fear naturally falls away from the equation because the client takes on the role of a powerful conqueror (as she conquers her suffering).
As therapy progresses, the therapist transforms into a partner rather than a healer and the missions of the therapist and the client become aligned. They both desire to serve each other and those around them. They also both share a desire to experience the beauty and connection of their authentic selves and become a mirror for one another.
Practicing Compassion – The beginning and the end of the journey
“On this path, effort never goes to waste, and there is no failure. Even a little effort toward spiritual awareness will protect you from the greatest fear.
The most essential component of Compassion Attentive Therapy is the practice of compassion at every available opportunity. Instead of self-indulging in pain, shame and guilt, clients will be busy reaching outwardly to minimize others’ suffering. In the process, the person is also healing inside. In order to support a compassionate lifestyle, other aspects of the client’s character begin to take shape. Various features of maturity and wisdom arise anew as they come to understand the suffering of others. The client feels gentler and kinder not only towards others but toward themselves as well. They essentially reverse the Golden Rule and treat themselves the way they have learned to treat others in the course of therapy.
All in all, compassion and humanity are the same and inseparable. Practicing compassion allows clients to understand that their own relief and freedom comes from alleviating the pain of others.