Beyond the Breath: The Promise and Perils of Compassion

Creative techniques can transform our meditation and free us from old patterns.

Posted Aug 30, 2017

A brief note: This post was adapted from an invited dharma talk I gave at the Mindful Reflection Community at the Unitarian Universalist Church (Unity Temple) in Oak Park, Illinois, on August 8, 2017. To listen to the talk, which was recorded live, click here. It's a more personal post than my usual fare, and it includes ideas and strategies for ways we can deepen our meditative practice and engage in a healing way with painful and persistent patterns.

Ken Miller
Source: Ken Miller

I begin with a brief excerpt from the story Emma’s Gift:

I thought I knew what it meant to lose someone, until a passionate and fiery 31-year-old Irish woman woke up next to me one morning with a pain in her abdomen that wouldn’t go away. Over the course of seven months, as the tumor gradually wore her down, the ground beneath me fell away one crumbling piece at a time, until there was nothing left but free fall.

For more than 20 years I'd worked with communities affected by armed conflict. I’d spent much of my professional life listening to stories of loss and grief. I'd sat with Guatemalan mothers still mourning sons and husbands “disappeared” by death squads 10 years earlier; listened to the anguish of Bosnian parents whose children were killed by snipers as they played in the streets of Sarajevo; and sat with Afghans widowed by rockets and made childless by shells rained down on their houses.

I had become intimately familiar with the heartbreak of war, and imagined myself something of an expert on the experience of loss. But like an art critic who has never picked up a paintbrush, I knew of it only from a distance. Reeling now, I understood how loss had always been an abstraction to me, a devastating experience seen through the lens of someone else’s pain. Now the pain was my own, I was the one being tossed about by waves of grief, looking frantically for solid ground where I might catch my breath and grasp the permanence of this experience, the foreverness of Emma’s absence. There would be no reunion with her. She was gone, and would always be gone. That fact was pure, and harsh, and startling in its intensity.

Two weeks after Emma’s death, I was back in Afghanistan, working again with my research team on a follow-up study of mental health in Kabul. It was strange to be there without Emma. I walked past the Chinese Dumpling-An, and remembered the nervousness and laughter of our first evening together. Long before sunrise, I was once again awakened by the Muezzin’s call to prayer, and sat quietly in meditation as grief moved through my body. The intensity of the pain frightened me, but I was reminded of a line in a poem by Robert Frost: “The only way out is through.” And so I leaned into the experience, letting the sadness rise until it gradually receded. I had to learn to trust the wisdom of my body.

How do we open up to that which needs to be seen, and held, and comforted? How do we do this without feeling overwhelmed? How do we do this when there may be a great fear of knowing our own experience, when there may be resistance to getting close to what we have doggedly sought to avoid, sometimes for years?

Ajahn Chah says this: “If you haven’t wept deeply, you haven’t begun to meditate.” But what if we encounter obstacles to weeping deeply? How can we safely and carefully move beyond those walls, or take them down one brick at a time?

I was frightened by the loss of Emma, by the intense grief it evoked. But I was even more frightened by older grief, older sadness, and memories of aloneness that her death stirred up. In fact, I knew more of loss than I realized when I wrote the story about losing Emma. But I had kept those early losses at bay, holding back memories and feelings as best I could, until I no longer even knew how much energy I was spending on staying distant from my own experience.

Focusing on my breath in meditation has often calmed me. I’ve had a meditation practice for years. It has often helped me to settle down, to become more aware of my feelings, and to feel more at ease in my own skin. It’s certainly helped me disengage from unhelpful circles of thought, and to notice my emotional reactions without needing to act on them.

But sometimes, the focus on my breath has felt like another form of avoidance, or aversion in Buddhist terms. I could focus intently on my breathing, and in that intense focus, I could avoid listening, genuinely listening, to what lay beneath: the fear and pain and rage I had split off, and persistently and skillfully remained unaware of—except for the tightness in my shoulders and face, the abiding sense of shame I could never explain or get rid of, the anxiety that so often made sleep elusive.

Emma’s death left me with an opportunity to work with what was trying to surface, with what needed my attention, and, most difficult, with my intense resistance to getting close to it.

My many books on mindfulness, the talks and workshops and retreats I attended, had not given me the tools to work with my powerful resistance, or to cultivate the kind of self-compassion that could help me get close to the grief, and fear, and shame I had carried around for so long. Metta, the traditional Buddhist phrases of Lovingkindness, simply didn’t do the trick for me, as they seemed to do for many others. What I needed was not so much words or phrases, as a kind of gentle attention. I needed to see, to create space—to cultivate a gentle listening, a compassionate awareness. But really, I had no idea how to go about doing that.

Mindfulness gave me the ability to sit quietly and stay present, to sit apart from yet present with my experience. But the work of Jon Kabat Zinn and others writing in the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) tradition didn’t give me the tools to engage with that internal resistance, with the protective part of me that kept me from knowing and seeing and holding that which needed to be known and seen and held. I needed to learn how to work with what psychologist and Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield calls Insistent Visitors, the powerful feelings that don’t simply rise and fall “like waves of the ocean," but persist, doggedly, in need of something more than mere observation. Generic exhortations to accept without judgment all that arose, didn’t help when fear kept things from arising in the first place. I needed some new tools in my meditation practice.

To find those tools, I turned to psychologists working at the intersection of mindfulness and psychotherapy, and to experiential psychologists whose work offered tools for gently engaging with barriers to knowing and transforming the emotional impact of our difficult life experiences. People like Ricahrd Schwartz and his colleagues, who developed so-called “Parts Therapy” (Internal Systems Therapy); Jack Kornfield, who, in his book A Path with Heart, offers strategies for engaging with “insistent visitors”—the persistent thoughts and feelings that intrude into our meditation, seeking a gentle and healing sort of attention; Paul Gilbert, who has written so wonderfully about the transformative power of self-compassion, with tools anyone can use in their meditative work; and Tara Brach, who has written with wisdom and compassion about integrating mindfulness and compassion into what she calls Radical Self-Acceptance

From these and other gifted teachers, I learned to sit as a compassionate, loving adult, a safe, nurturing and non-reactive parent, with the younger parts of myself who held fear, and shame, and old grief, and who needed, above all, to be seen and reassured. The breath remained an essential anchor to which I could return, but the deeper, transformative work called on other, more active techniques. Here are a few I’ve found helpful, and that clients I have worked with have also found useful. I should note that while none of these techniques needs to be used in the context of a meditation practice, that is how I have used them, both personally and with clients in my mindfulness-based psychotherapy practice. Meditation creates a calming, attentive state, in which these deeper, transformative techniques can be effectively used.

  • It helps to begin by calming the mind and body. Sometimes, simply noticing the breath helps with this. But we can also breath in specific ways that lower arousal and help calm us. Here's a simple technique: Take a nice deep inhale through your nose (or your mouth if you are congested), then exhale slowly through your mouth, to a count of 5. Focus on the process and sensation of the inhale and slow exhale, resisting the pull of distracting thoughts. The long, slow exhales lower arousal--it's the opposite of how we breath when there is danger, so we're effectively breathing in a way that conveys "lack of danger" to the brain. You can also notice your tongue, and if its pressed up against the roof of your mouth, try relaxing it. Another signal to the alarm center of the brain that you are not in danger. See Marsha Lucas for more of these exercises, and also the helpful Psychology Today blog from Christopher Bergland on lowering the fight-or-flight response quickly and easily. 
  • Notice tightness in your body and sit with it, sensing what feelings lie beneath it. No need to jump to any analysis, nor ask “Why do I feel this way?” Simply sense the feelings, perhaps naming them, seeing what images arise. Listen, see, and sit with a gentle awareness.
  • Acknowledge and interact gently and patiently with any fearful and protective part of yourself that may be keeping you from knowing and experiencing uncomfortable feelings. Reassure this protective part that you can help her or him experience and tolerate feelings safely. It can be helpful to develop this skill of identifying and working with protective parts with the support and guidance of a therapist trained in experiential approaches such as those mentioned above.
  • Use compassionate imagery, inviting and welcoming disowned parts of yourself to be seen, and known, safely and without judgment. See Paul Gilbert’s work here, as well as that of Marsha Lucas and Richard Schwartz, for easily learned ways of cultivating self-compassion, and working with split-off or disowned parts, either on your own or with a therapist or other guide.
  • There are some deceptively simple but powerful techniques for safely experiencing and letting go of difficult feelings. The EMDR community has developed several readily learned techniques that can be incorporated into one’s meditation practice, such as the Butterfly Hug first described by Lucina Artigas. 

My meditation practice gradually became a more active process, focused increasingly on cultivating self-compassion. It has been powerful and transformative. My clinical work has been transformed as well. I had often felt at a loss when working with clients struggling with persistent and deeply ingrained shame and low self-esteem. Cognitive techniques too often failed to alter deeply held beliefs and attitudes towards the self, nor could they transform deeply rooted fears of experiencing painful emotions. Psychodynamic and client-centered approaches offered clients a new and more positive experience of attachment, but they offered little that people could use on their own, between sessions, to speed up and take greater ownership of their own healing and growth. Helping clients develop meditation practices and adding in experiential techniques to foster greater self-compassion was the key to finally being able to help them let go of old fears and beliefs and the persistent pain those fears and beliefs kept alive. Research on self-compassion has confirmed what I have seen clinically and personally: it is linked to healthier psychological functioning (Neff et al., 2006), strengthened emotional regulation (the capacity to effectively tolerate and cope with difficult emotions; Finlay Jones et al., 2015), and is significantly under-developed among people struggling with depression (Krieger et al., 2013).

Compassion is a powerful force for connection and healing. It has been an essential element of my work with communities affected by war and exile in or from Guatemala, Mexico, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Iraq, Syria, and Sri Lanka. It has helped me connect with people across profound cultural differences, finding our common humanity. And as my own self-compassion has deepened, so too has my capacity for compassion with the experience of others.

Again, from Emma’s Gift:

Seven months after Emma’s death. I was in Sri Lanka making a film about the impact of an attack on a small village on the frontline of the country’s civil war. We were interviewing survivors of the massacre, family members of those who were killed seven years earlier. I listened to stories of the most profound grief—a mother who lost three children, two girls whose fathers were killed, a man who lost nine family members in a single night. I did not compare losing Emma with the experience of these villagers, but for the first time, I felt as though I understood the finality of loss, and could grasp the intensity of their grief. I listened now in a new way, no longer afraid of the sadness their stories evoked. Although it wasn't easy to sit with the pain they shared, it was not overwhelming. It was, in fact, profoundly human, and I felt an unexpected kinship I could not have known before. A deepened sense of empathy, the silver lining of a black cloud, a gift from Emma. I imagined her nodding with pleasure, her eyes nearly closed as she smiled in delight.

Deepening my compassion for myself and for others has been wonderful and life-enriching. But it has not been without its risks. Allowing oneself to connect deeply with other people is both rewarding and precarious, an idea discussed by psychologist Robert Kegan, who suggests that 

What the eye sees better the heart feels more deeply. [By allowing ourselves to care] we not only increase the likelihood of our being moved; we also run the risks that being moved entails. For we are moved somewhere, and that somewhere is further into life, closer to those we live with. They come to matter more. Seeing better increases our vulnerability...And yet...in running these risks we preserve the connections between us. We enhance the life we share, or perhaps better put, we enhance the life that shares us.

To hear a live recording of the original talk from which this post was adapted, please click here.   

To hear an audio version Emma's Gift, please click here

References

Kegan, R. (1982).  The Evolving Self: Problem and Process in Human Development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.