Compassion Is a Two Way Street

Compassion for self and others and an effective practice

Posted Feb 23, 2011

The following bit of wisdom is for anyone caring for someone with a challenging illness, not only Alzheimer's. Perhaps because this principle comes from another tradition, it came to me as a surprise. In Buddhism, they speak about the principle of "the two benefits." It's a simple idea but easily forgotten; that for anything to be of benefit to another person, it must also be balanced with benefit to oneself. Especially with long--term caregiving, we can get trapped into giving too much of ourselves. Imperceptibly, we lose our balance, slip into resentment or exhaustion, and become not the one sacrificing but the sacrificed. 

Here is where compassion comes in: It needs to be flowing in two directions, not just toward the one with an illness.

Cultivating compassion for another

Compassion is a quality central to all spiritual traditions. When living with Alzheimer's or any major illness, compassion ideally flows in two directions. First, toward the one suffering the illness. As the Native American expression goes, do your best "to walk in the other person's moccasins." What is s/he feeling? What is like to experience so much loss? What about their feelings of aloneness, abandonment? What would I most want if I were in their position? Amid the whirl of your other feelings  (sadness, frustration, anxiety, anger, etc), see if can you let your heart break open with compassion for the one you care for.

Cultivate compassion for yourself

Often the caregiver is the one who gets overwhelmed by the endless demands. Again, to evoke an uplifting perspective, the last chapter of life is perhaps the most heroic of all. In the later years, we have less energy, more physical challenges, and multiple losses. Yet we're called upon to respond to something as daunting as a major illness or Alzheimer's. Now walk in your own moccasins; acknowledge your feelings - the frustration, fatigue, worry, etc. Let your heart open to yourself.

A simple practice

I found it helpful to place my hands over my heart center (not the physical heart but the place of feeling at the center of the chest), close my eyes, and imagine sending love and compassion toward myself. Take several slow, deep breaths and really feel kindness and care flowing into you. At first this practice may feel unusual, but give yourself this gift. It really helps. Wishing you well.

Many blessings,

Olivia

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