Radical Compassion in Challenging Times


Radical Compassion in Challenging Times

From Virtual Symposium 2020

By Tara Brach

May/June 2020


A few days ago, a friend emailed me a cartoon, a picture of Sisyphus working at home on a laptop with a huge boulder by his side. The reality is, it’s not life as usual for any of us. This unfolding global crisis is toppling every routine and plan in the books, small and large, so it’s been interesting in the last few days to ask, What matters? What really matters? How can we face the fears that naturally circle around this pandemic in a way that opens our hearts? Whether your fear is for yourself or for others close to you, or even for our world in a larger sense, our nervous systems are clearly getting the immediacy of the crisis. No one’s exempt. We’re part of this living web in crisis, and a huge number of us will feel real loss, hardship, and heartbreak.

We all know that pandemics are toughest on those who are most vulnerable, those with the least money, least access to resources. If they survive the virus, they’re likely to be financially devastated. But while we can feel the vulnerability around us with raw fear and agitation, we can also feel the possibility that in some deep way, what’s unfolding can wake up more loving, more compassion in the world. This is the potential that we have in front of us right now. As my friend Valerie Carr says, this is truly a time to know that no one is a stranger.

For many years, I’ve been practicing this prayer from the Buddhist tradition: “May whatever circumstances that arise serve the awakening of compassion.” Whatever circumstances. So my hope in these times is that this pandemic calls forth love that awakens this heart and all hearts. I invite you to ask yourself: In facing this collective suffering, what’s your heart’s deepest aspiration? What do you hope might be called forth in you? How do you want to be? Who do you want to be in the midst of this?

There’s a teaching from Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh about a time when a crowded refugee boat met with a storm. If everyone panicked, all would’ve been lost. But one person on the boat remaining calm and centered was enough to show the way for everyone to survive. How can we be that one person? I think a weave of mindfulness and compassion can transform our relationship to fear and worry, so we can shift toward inner calm.

The very word worry comes from an Old English word meaning to strangle. While it truly is a dangerous time, the looping thoughts of worry actually trap us in the kind of fears that interfere with our executive functioning, making good decisions. They interfere with our capacity to feel compassion for others. They interfere with a larger perspective that allows us to move wisely on our path. But mindfulness gives that capacity back.

In the meditation practice of RAIN, we can directly apply compassion to fear, so we can come back to a place of centeredness and tenderness, as opposed to reactivity. Each letter of RAIN is a way to work with our body, mind, heart. In short, the R of RAIN is recognize, meaning that we know what’s happening right here. We name the emotion: fear, worry, agitation. The second step is to allow, which means there’s an intention to let be for right now, to not fix or judge or ignore. Allowing gives us a pause. As Viktor Frankl said, “Between the stimulus and the response, there’s a space. And in that space is your power and your freedom.” So allow opens a space.

Now especially, when fear has a tight grip on us, we need to continue on with the I in RAIN, which is to investigate, to bring a gentle and curious attention to what’s here. The biggest misunderstanding with the I of RAIN is that it’s cognitive, but it’s about 90 percent somatic, in that we’re primarily trying to discover and feel and fully contact the emotion as it lives in our body. Investigating is what sets the groundwork for the N, nurturing. As we investigate, we get more in touch with vulnerability, and the whole mechanism of compassion is that if we can touch the vulnerability, a natural tenderness arises. So we nurture from that tenderness. We actively offer care to our inner life.

We can put our hand on our heart because so often it helps to offer that care through touch. We might have certain phrases of comfort we use, or an image of a loving being. When you investigate, you’re going to find certain questions to pose to that vulnerable part of yourself. What do you need? How do you want me to be with you? That will help create the contact, the nurturing. When we get to nurturing, we’ll each find our own phrases that speak to the particular needs of the vulnerability inside us. For many years, mine was, “It’s okay, sweetheart.” Just that simple. I’d put my hand on my heart and say, “It’s okay, sweetheart. Come home to love.” The nurturing dissolves the sense of a separate scared self. It lets us feel the belonging that’s so healing.

Evolutionary psychologists have a wonderful saying that it’s not the survival of the fittest: it’s the survival of the nurtured. That nurturing allows us to feel the kind of belonging that frees up the grip of fear because fear is the perception of separation, loss of connectedness. When we think of what a child most needs, it’s to be seen and loved. RAIN is a kind of a spiritual reparenting, where we recognize and allow what’s here and bring it a real tender nurturing.

Then the end of the process is what I call After the Rain. It’s where the real gift lies. If we pause and just notice the quality of the presence that’s emerged, we can sense the shift from when we started, the frightened self or the agitated self or victimized self, to a space of radical compassion, which is compassion that’s embodied. It’s an act of caring, and it’s all-inclusive. It’s a sense of being in loving awareness that allows us to hold all of the streams of pain, the world’s fear in our hearts.

The good news is that it’s a pathway that becomes more natural and spontaneous the more we do it. And it doesn’t have to take long. You can do a light RAIN, and you can teach your clients to do it. In times of global crisis, we need practices that are accessible and easy to remember—and that we can do with others online or over the phone. It’s a way we can find an inner refuge of love in ourselves.

What do you hope might be called forth in you? How do you want to be? Who do you want to be in the midst of this crisis?

But how do we then bring that love and compassionate presence to others? There’s a saying that originally was attributed to Buddha: it’s that our fear is great, but greater yet is our connectedness, our belonging, our oneness. If we can remember and take refuge in that, we have room for fear. As we know, a huge amount of research shows how our connecting reduces fear. If you hold a loved one’s hand, parts of the brain correlated with fear and agitation quiet down. So if ever there’s a time for a refuge in our sense of community with each other, however we cultivate it, it’s now, and that connection is going to have the vastness and depth and tenderness to hold what’s going on.

I heard a story about a little boy who was scared during a thunderstorm. He kept going into his parents’ room, and they’d put him back to bed in his own room. “You’re safe, you’re fine, God is with you,” his father kept saying. After a number of rounds of this, the little boy said to his father, “I know God is with me, but I want someone with skin on.”

We need beings with skin on. We need the connecting. In contrast to natural disasters like earthquakes and so on, a pandemic can be a setup for disconnection. We start to fear that others are a danger to us, which is exacerbated by the physical distancing and the competition for scarce resources. Historically during pandemics, people have been so terrified that they’ve been unable to take good care of each other. The exception is in the heroism of healthcare workers, of course. But what we’re finding now is that we can counter that dread and awaken love in each other. I think what we’re evolving to understand in a cellular way is that we all want nurturing, we all want to love and be loved, we all want to feel safe. This is truly the time to realize that nobody’s a stranger. If we can see the vulnerability that each person is experiencing, then we’ll remember to extend our natural care.

And yet, we forget. It happens all the time. Each one of us gets caught in our own experiences of hurt and fear. And in those moments, we’re unable to reach out. There’s a well-known saying: everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle. So we need to remind ourselves we can bring radical compassion to our world in three ways. The first is by reaching out and connecting, really connecting, in different ways. Lots of people are having Zoom dinner parties. A friend of mine is even going to Zoom dance parties.

The second is being of help to others, which helps us reconnect with our sense of resilience and empowerment. So reach out to someone who’s lonely; contribute time. In Ireland, what took off through Twitter was an initiative to look out for elderly people who needed medicine and food, and match them with volunteers.

And the third is by celebrating the goodness that’s here. Please walk outside. The beauty of spring will lift you up, the dearness of those that you might be at home with. So many people really want to serve the good. In China, truck drivers risked infection to bring desperately needed food to the people of Wuhan. In Iran, videos showed doctors in scrubs dancing to keep people’s spirits up. It’s happening all over that we’re being true to the pain while remembering the goodness.

Richard Hendrick, a Catholic priest in Ireland, recently wrote a poem called “Lockdown.” It goes like this: “Yes, there is fear. Yes, there is isolation. Yes, there is panic. Yes, there is sickness. Yes, there is even death. But, they say that in Wuhan, after so many years of noise, you can hear the birds again. They say that after just a few weeks of quiet, the sky is no longer thick with fumes, but blue and gray and clear. They say that in the streets of Assisi, people are singing to each other across the empty squares, keeping their windows open so that those who are alone may hear the sounds of family around them. . . . All over the world, people are slowing down and reflecting . . . waking up to a new reality, to how big we really are, to how little control we really have, to what really matters, to love.”

At times, when things fall apart, as they are in our world right now, each of you has an essential medicine to offer. So that inquiry—Who do you want to be? And what kind of world do we want?—becomes critical. Just as there’s a viral contagion, it’s crucial to remember that loving presence is contagious. We have this opportunity to find our inner refuge and deepen our kindness and connection with others.

In many different ways, we’ve all been training for this, to hold this living dying world in our hearts and to respond with compassion and love.

***

Tara Brach, PhD, is the founder of the Insight Meditation Community of Washington and cofounding teacher, with Jack Kornfield, of the Awareness Training Institute. A clinical psychologist for 18 years, she’s the author of several books, including her latest, Radical Compassion.

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