Focusing on compassion and blessing should automatically lead to feeling more gratitude and seeing the good in people, not to feeling irritable or getting into arguments. Or so I imagined.
In life, a few things are certain. We are all born; we will all sometime die. After a wave washes onto a beach, it pulls back again. Spring and summer are followed by autumn and winter. Even rainforests have seasons of sorts, and when tropical storms uproot trees, light reaches the forest floor where it didn’t before and new plants grow.
Life is made up of cycles. Destruction encourages regrowth.
Most of us would prefer to forget that, most of the time. We want warm, pleasant weather, without searing heat or bitter cold. We want peaceful, happy emotions, without anger, anxiety or sadness.
Yet we can’t escape life’s cycles, and that’s as true for our emotional life as it is for our physical world.
When you engage in any practice with the intention of emotional or spiritual growth, you might get peace and harmony, but it’s as likely that every self-defeating lie you have ever believed will come bursting to the surface of your consciousness. Even if you’ve been through this process many times before, it can grab you unawares, and make you feel like crap.
Hey, roses need dirt to grow. So too, it seems, did I. It makes sense – the aim when practising blessing is to feel unconditional love. You can only feel unconditional love if life gives you the rough as well as the smooth, gives you the haters as well as the lovers, critics as well as the applauders. When that happens, the trick is to remind yourself life has its ups and downs, and recognise that it’s not personal. Otherwise, you are in danger of beating yourself up for feeling crap.
I don’t always remember that trick.
August was blessing month in 1000 Voice Speak For Compassion. While focusing on blessing, I was also reading Mindful Compassion by Paul Gilbert and Choden. This book looks in some depth at the way our minds evolved to protect us, and at how this focus on self-protection also causes us pain. It gives suggestions for how to overcome this. Something I particularly liked about Mindful Compassion was the way it explained terms that people often find confusing. I liked what they wrote about non-judgement so much I shared it on Facebook.
“Compassionate non-judgement is not necessarily based on liking. For example, we might never like a psychopath who has beaten people up and is cruel to animals. But through empathy we can try to understand what their mind is like, we can have enormous gratitude that we don’t have a mind like that. On the basis of this understanding and gratitude, we can open up to the possibility of being non-judgemental towards this person, but that doesn’t mean we allow them to continue to be harmful; and if we didn’t, say, put them in prison we might be failing in our efforts to prevent harm to others.”
To me, this says that we don’t need to like someone to feel compassion for them, and that we can feel compassion and still lock someone up for committing crimes.
Not everyone who read my post got that. Perhaps the sentence structure caused confusion, or perhaps on Facebook people quickly browse posts and don’t fully take them in. Whatever the reason, a couple of people objected and one thought my post was saying it was okay for people to commit murder. That person said I had no compassion for murder victims and their bereft family and friends.
My posts rarely create controversy, so I’m not experienced at dealing with online disagreement. While I feel grateful for that, it meant that at first I didn’t appreciate how angry the commenter felt, and so attempted to have a balanced conversation where we explained our perspectives. This wasn’t what the commenter needed, as I realised by the time he’d written:
“your compassion is one-sided and it is totally unreal and delusional.”
It felt hard to read that, but he had a point. He wasn’t correct that I don’t feel compassion for victims, but I was missing important someone out in my compassion – him.
While I had recognised that something must be beneath his anger, just as it is beneath anyone’s anger, I didn’t stop long enough to reflect and to let go of my own defensiveness. I responded by trying to show him that I did feel compassion, when really that wasn’t the point.
Something had triggered his anger, and that something had nothing to do with me – I hadn’t even written what he objected to, had just shared it. It wasn’t personal, yet my first reaction was to take it that way.
I felt frustrated that the conversation didn’t connect with this person in any meaningful way. While I realised that everyone reads through their own filters, I wanted to learn from others who had more experience of being challenged on social media. So I posted in the 1000 Voices Speak for Compassion Facebook group, asking how people responded to these kinds of comments.
I also asked how to get through barriers to create meaningful dialogue.
Several people responded by saying, “Don’t.”
Of course, they were right. It’s not my job to change people’s minds. Besides, that doesn’t work. As Clare, who blogs at Clare Flourish, wrote:
It takes time to turn a supertanker 180° but you might turn it 5°. You don’t need to make a convert. You don’t need him to revise his opinion that you are delusional. That sounds like an angry response which makes him less likely to hear.
She also said something humble and gracious that again reminded me defensiveness doesn’t actually protect us:
I can’t tell you about getting through to others, but I can tell you about others getting through to me – and it was completely mind-blowing. The right thing said in the right moment, in the right way, face to face. A huge gift.
As I read the replies to my questions, I saw that I had been trying to persuade, so of course I wasn’t fully responding to the irate commenter, but reacting. I wanted him to see that I wasn’t the fool he claimed I was. Defensiveness of any kind is never likely to build connection.
The silly thing was, just the week before I’d written a post about how to be with someone when they are hurting, and had said: Allow them to feel as they do, offer them loving support, and they will begin to feel calmer. Then they will be far more likely to hear your wonderful words of wisdom!
I didn’t do this. Sometimes we forget our own wise words. That’s when it’s so wonderful to have a group like 1000 Voices to remind us of our deeper selves. Of all the suggestions that I received, the one by Alexis Donkin really struck a chord. She said that when she receives this kind of comment, before she answers she first meditates, intending the highest good. She then replies in this sort of way:
It seems like this is bringing up some feelings of anger around this issue. You must have some very important reasons for feeling angry about this. I don’t know what those are, but I recognize they are present and valid. Just as you have reasons for feeling angry about my comments, I have important reasons for posting them. I recognize you are a person with inherent worth, just as every human has inherent worth.
Alexis’s response reminded me that acknowledging and validating emotions is the most powerful way to connect with someone. I love her practice of meditating before replying and though I often do something similar – welcoming and releasing emotions – I had forgotten that evening. Since then, I have been remembering to pause more often, both online and in daily life. I didn’t enjoy the turmoil I felt, I love that it brought me deeper awareness of the ways I sometimes fool myself into thinking I have something to defend, and I love that it encouraged me to reach out to others for support.
I’m going to end with this quote from Cheri Huber. It arrived in my inbox around the time of that encounter and sums up what I experienced.
We are not trying to “maintain a peaceful life experience.” That puts egocentric, karmic condition in charge, attempting to control us and life. We are letting go of everything that keeps us from accepting life as it is.