Two Simple Steps To Radical Compassion

holding hands

In my personal life, I keep dancing around the concept of heart protection. Living an open-hearted life comes with so many gifts that it seems worth making the heart vulnerable. But how do we live open-hearted lives without being at risk of feeling hurt or disappointed all the time? Are we supposed to keep the heart open at all costs, knowing that getting hurt or disappointed is simply a side effect of living an open-hearted human life? Or are we meant to protect the heart exactly because it is so vulnerable without armor?

Most people aren’t capable of keeping the heart fully open. They build prisons around their hearts and make you earn your way in with tests of your trustworthiness. Even once you pass the tests, you find more walls, and this limits the capacity for depth and intimacy. Rachel Naomi Remen keeps reminding me that when someone rejects your love, they’re not rejecting YOU; they’re rejecting LOVE. Because most people have armor around their hearts, they can’t fully let love in, and if you’re offering them a blast of unfettered love, it may bump up against a fortress of solid metal. They simply don’t know how to let the love in, and because they can’t receive love, it’s very hard to find true compassion within.

Open Your Heart

Yet living an open-hearted life means that even when you get hurt, instead of judging people when they don’t behave the way you wish they would, you’re able to find in your heart a place of compassion. You’re able to open your heart to why they might be acting the way they do. Your heart expands when you shift your perception this way. It’s not that it hurts any less, but you’re able to understand.

Where I get stuck is with the issue of boundaries. Yes, it’s okay to protect yourself with boundaries. Otherwise, people can walk all over you. You can get emotionally wrecked. You can get physically hurt. It’s okay to say no. In fact, it’s imperative that you say no when you discern that no is the right choice. It’s okay to set limits. It’s okay to barrier against repetitive hurt. It’s even okay to walk out. You’re not there to get taken advantage of over and over and over. At some point, it’s self-loving to pull back. But where is that line? How do we live open-hearted lives, giving those we love permission to break our hearts, and still maintain healthy boundaries?

The One Thing That Links Compassionate People

I was deep in my own personal reflection around this issue when I was teaching the new class of doctors of the Whole Health Medicine Institute with Martha Beck this past weekend. Martha was talking about a study by Brené Brown who investigated exceptionally compassionate people to try to uncover what makes them so. Was it that they were raised in extraordinarily loving families? Were they more or less educated? Did they make a lot of money? Were they religious? What kinds of professions did they have?

Turns out that the one thing they all shared was exceptionally high boundaries. They walked around with wide open hearts, but only those who were invited in had access to those exceptionally compassionate hearts inside the high boundaries.  Martha concluded that, in order for doctors to fully embody the shamanic archetype and be true healers, only two things are necessary. The first- high boundaries. The second- finding what she calls your “sweet spot,” which allows you to be radically present. Finding this sweet spot requires stillness and, as Mary Oliver says, “You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.”

Finding Your Sweet Spot

As Martha was teaching this, she was dropping into that state of radical presence and entraining everybody else in the room. You could feel the energy. The room literally had a pulse, the heartbeat of the soul of the world. Her energy was infectious and we were all dropping into this sweet spot with her. I don’t doubt that we might have healed whatever walked into that room.

You don’t have to be a doctor to be a healing force in the world. Try it yourself today. Let go of your fear and anxiety and quiet the monkey mind. Open your heart, and invite in whoever you choose to invite in- but only allow in those who have your permission. Drop into that still point, find your sweet spot, and let the soft animal of your body love what it loves. Keep your heart open- with appropriate boundaries- and from that centered, quiet, sweet place, go out into the world.

Practice Compassion

Notice the store clerk whose brow is furrowed because he’s worried how he’ll feed his family if he gets fired. Pay attention to the woman behind you in the coffee shop who is scared because they found a spot on her mammogram. Consider your friend, the one you’re angry at because she didn’t meet your expectations, and notice what might have caused her to disappoint you. Open your heart to that family member who doesn’t treat you the way you wish to be treated.

Play around with how to use boundaries not to keep love out but to allow your heart to love even more.  See what happens to those around you. How do people react at the grocery store? What happens on the schoolyard when you pick up the kids? How do others respond? How do you feel when you do this?

Try researching your ability to practice radical compassion and report back in the comments.

Researching with you,

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