I thought it might be time to get away when I started having vivid and poignant escapist fantasies involving one-way tickets to Barbados. I knew it was time to leave when I had a full-blown hissy-fit at my boss. So, before he could call HR and write me up for insubordination, I hopped into my car and headed straight to my favorite Buddhist retreat center in the Santa Cruz Mountains. I had booked myself into a three day meditation retreat; the topic? Compassion. (Honestly, the topic could have been anything and I still would have gone.) With the stressors literally piling up as I fled civilization, I arrived at the Center and started bawling. I had gone and done it again – I had neglected my most basic needs. My self-compassion had gone out the window. The result was that everything in my life had begun to spiral out of control. My emotions, my relationships, hell even my personal business, up to, and including, a small scuffle with the California Department of Motor Vehicles (“What do you mean you lost my proof of insurance and are about to terminate my registration?!?”). To top it all off, I had a full-blown case of poison oak that was spreading alarmingly fast over most of my extremities (try meditating through that!).
I showed up at the Center very much looking and feeling like I had been dragged backwards through a knot-hole. I don’t remember the evening meal, but I do remember my fellow retreaters looking at me rather alarmingly. I was the personification of “basket case” – and I was in the right place.
That evening the first topic was – surprise – compassion, but more specifically, self-compassion. And as I began to meditate on this I began to see and feel the threads of understanding wind through my consciousness. One of the basic tenants of Buddhism is to have compassion for all sentient beings, including ourselves. And for most of us (especially us Westerners), we can definitely get behind the idea of practicing compassion. But we tend to do it for everyone except ourselves. We dole it out all day long to those in need, to our families, to our co-workers or to our pets. But when it comes to giving compassion to ourselves, we fall short. We externalize the idea of compassion and happiness, forgetting that the first, last and only source of either of these things is internal. The result of this neglect is a kind of quid-pro-quo relationship with others. That is, we’ll do unto others, but when they fall short in reciprocating our efforts, we feel unloved and hurt. This is an externalization of our own power and leads to dualistic and decidedly un-compassionate thoughts and actions (“He does’t love me back?!? I’ll show him!!”). If the Buddha were alive today, he might tell us (if I may be so bold…) that this is a half-assed approach, and that certainly we are not practicing any real kind of compassion. Even if we leave the Buddhist teachings and look at this holistically, it doesn’t take us long to work out that before we can even begin to practice loving kindness to any other creature on the planet, we must first do it for ourselves. How can we give if the well is dry? We must tend the inner well and inner light first. Only then can we begin to truly have any idea what compassion and loving kindness really are.
I wish I could say that three days cured me of my chronic workaholism, and that I am now an expert on practicing compassion flawlessly. Um, no. That’s an awful lot of programming to undo in three days (and truth be told, I could have used at least another week to even completely relax…). But I am more aware of myself and the symptomology of over-exertion. I am now more compassionate with myself and understanding. I know now that when I’m tired and cranky, instead of berating myself for being tired and cranky, I step back and unplug. Instead of getting after myself for not being perfect enough, or smart enough, or skinny enough or enough of enough, I just need to take a step back and recognize that I am doing the very best that I can. As long as I can honestly say, “Heather, you are doing your best,” that is enough. It took the Buddha six years under that Bodhi tree to understand the true nature of reality. I am ok with the fact that it will, undoubtedly, take me much longer.