Radical Compassion in Challenging Times
Facing pandemic fears with an awakened heart.
Posted Mar 30, 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 very 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. These are the people most likely to contract the virus, to die of it and, for those who survive, to be financially devastated by it. But while we can feel the fears and vulnerability within and around us, we can also feel the possibility that in some deep way, what's unfolding can wake up more loving and more compassion in the world. This is the potential that we have in front of us right now. As my friend Valarie Kaur says: This is truly a time to know that no one is a stranger.
There's a prayer I've been practicing for years from the Buddhist tradition: May whatever circumstances that arise serve the awakening of compassion. Whatever circumstances. So my deep aspiration 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?
Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh writes:
When the crowded Vietnamese refugee boats met with storms or pirates if everyone panicked all would be lost. But if even one person on the boat remained calm and centered, it was enough. It showed the way for everyone to survive.
How can we be that person? A weave of mindfulness and compassion can transform our relationship to fear and worry...and when we learn to shift toward inner calm, we light the way for others.
The very word worry comes from Old English 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 and our ability to make 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 brings that capacity back.
In the meditation practice of RAIN, we can directly apply mindfulness to fear. Each letter of RAIN is a way to work with our body, heart, and mind, and together, the four steps return us to a place of centeredness and tenderness, as opposed to anxious reactivity.
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—the A in RAIN—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. Viktor Frankl said: Between the stimulus and the response, there's a space. And in that space is your power and your freedom. Allowing opens a space.
Now, especially when there's a tight grip of fear, 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 alchemy 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? And that will help create the contact, the nurturing.
When we get to nurturing, we'll each find our own phrases that really 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 and allows us to feel the belonging that's so healing.
There's a wonderful description from an attachment psychologist, Louis Cozolino, that says 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 real, tender nurturing to that.
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 where 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 a heart-space of caring, and it's all-inclusive. It's a sense of resting in loving awareness and holding all of the streams of pain, the world's fear in our spacious hearts.
The good news is that RAIN gives us 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 like this that are very accessible and easy to remember, and that we can do with others online or over the phone. It’s a way we can calm our fears and reactivity, and reconnect with an inner refuge of wisdom and love.
When we have opened to our own vulnerability with compassion, we have the attunement and courage to truly keep company with each other. The core suffering we all face is the pain of separation. And collectively, the medicine we most need is to feel our shared belonging, and learn to care for and cherish all living beings. 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. May the suffering of this global pandemic call forth in each of us the fullness of that loving.
Please enjoy this free guided meditation: Calling on Your Awakened Heart: A Guided Meditation for Times of Pandemic.
Brach, T. (2020, March). Radical Compassion in Challenging Times. Keynote address presented at the 2020 Psychotherapy Networker Symposium. Washington DC.