Conspiracies of Kindness: from self-compassion to living compassion

26 09 2010

As I venture into BLOGLAND I can help thinking affectionately of when I was a boy — an 16 year old  illegal alien who had followed love to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. I cultivated a western Canadian accent — punctuated every sentence with an ‘eh’ or two — and learned O Canada and the Maple Leaf Forever which I d belt out at the slightest provocation.  A low profile to be sure and no one would mistake this passionately patriotic Canuck for a yank.  I d chant St Paul to myself — “Act as if ye had faith and faith will be given unto you.”

Or — ” fake it till you make it.”

Here in the commonwealth of BLOGS I am certainly a stranger in a strange land but with this posting let me lay out what I have in mind.

I ve been blessed in this life with a simple mind, possessed by an fixed idea. What is compassion and how does one live it?  What is self-compassion and what is its relationship with compassion for others?

Though I teach compassion to doctors and nurses, Conspiracies is written for anyone who takes the matter of compassion seriously. In such a time as we live, I dare say nothing is more important.  This book proposes that compassion is a craft and thus can be learned and practiced like cultivating crops or raising animals.  The refinement of compassion, like any true craft, is a life’s work.

In this blog I will explore the four steps that I detail in my book Conspiracies of Kindness: The Craft of Compassion at the Bedside of the Ill and each week I will post on a new step. After this introduction I will post chapter one about self-compassion.

I will also write from another little book that will soon be published, Recovery of the Heart: Twelve Steps from Self-Compassion to Living Compassion that I’m coauthoring with Brandon Beckman of the Family of Addicts treatment program.  In Recovery the ‘four steps’ are translated into a variation of the traditional 12 steps.

So what are the four steps of the craft of compassion?

STEP ONE is self-compassion.  This is the tending tenderly to the vehicle that conveys compassion for others. Self-compassion is the threading of the needle that one might sew the garment of compassion for others. I will reflect on self-compassion the first week of every month.

STEP TWO is compassion for others. I rely on the Buddhas elegant definition. Compassion is sympathetic joy — joy over another’s joy — and sympathetic sorrow.  Sorrow over another’s sorrow.All beings know sorrow and joy so all beings know compassion. In teaching compassion I quote Dogen Zenji, the founder of the Soto school of Zen Buddhism: “No creature ever falls short of its own completion.  Wherever it stands it never fails to cover the ground.”  And also Zen teacher, Cheri Huber

“Love as much as you can from where you are with what you’ve got. Thats the best you can ever do. Remember, its the process, not the content that counts.”

Compassion is not “achieved.” It is ones original nature

STEP THREE: Radical empathy. “You can only understand another when you have walked two moons in his moccassins,” say the Cherokee.  Radical empathy is about seeing things through another’s eyes. With radical empathy one moves toward a paradigm shift. Compassion is not a “personal” possession or quality.  You are not the Source of compassion. Uninhibited compassion comes forth when the self gets out of the way.

STEP FOUR: The mysterium — Living compassion. Living compassion is the essential nature of human freedom.And living compassion is pure gift.  Zadie Smith describes it precisely:

“The moment when the ego disappears and you’re able to offer up your love as a gift without expectation of reward. At this moment the gift hangs, between the one who sends and the one who receives, and reveals itself as belonging to neither.”

Compassion as a presence – as Presence – is most relevant here. The person who meets this or that situation compassionately is vehicle for this quality that the bottom line of which is not personal. The spiritual practice of living compassion requires that the self step aside. It is radically and blessedly simple, and its experience extraordinarily ordinary. Compassion is the environment that one is in.  One is alert to its presence, available to being its vehicle but one doesn’t for a moment  possess compassion

And so now we go the first chapter of Conspiracies of Kindness on self-compassion.


Recently while teaching the craft of compassion in a large drug rehabilitation facility, one worker raised the question of helping addicts heal from shame.

“They are so consumed with self-hate,” he said.

He, like almost all sitting in the room, was himself a recovering addict so I asked, “How did you heal from your years of addiction, from your own shame?”

“Well, I let go and let God.  I was brought to my knees,” he said.

Everyone nodded in assent.  I also nodded in assent remembering how I was brought to my knees as a homeless teenage druggie. Unpacking this collective moment of recognition we were able tospeak of the nature of genuine self-compassion.

I quoted Leonard Cohen’s well known  lyrics: “ Forget about your perfect offering.  There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”

How do we accept our radiant imperfection?  How does humiliation transform into humble acceptance and tenderness for ourselves?

Latin offers the phrase amor fati, to “love ones fate.” which I would argue describes the foundational stratum of self-love.  Ones fate – not you have chosen but what has been chosen for you.

These parents, siblings, ancestors.  This body and gender.  The delights and terrors of your childhood  and the hard wiring of your character.

What awakens love of ones fate and the sustaining of self-compassion?  A spontaneous song of gratitude comes from recognizing that waking or sleeping we forever bask in gift.

Everything, every moment presents as gift – from the vastness of the universe to this very small life to your very next breath.

In the call and response between oneself and the world, one perceives the gift nature of everything and sings “thank you.”  This simple thank you makes it possible to love ones fate and provides the most reliable source of self-compassion.

It is gratitude that allows one to love the gamut of oneself without judgement, unfettered.

In the years I was recovering from homelessness I kept a“GRATITUDE JOURNAL” in which I wrote ten things at the end of each day for which I was grateful. My little girls laughter; the striations of red and magenta in a sunset; the small ways I was learning to be a human being. As I continued, learning gratitude became a spiritual practice in its own right. As I advanced into thecomplexities of living an adult life off the street, learning to love my fate became key to broadening and deepening gratitude and self-compassion.

So which came first – the chicken (gratitude) – or the egg (self-compassion)?

Well gratitude does give birth to self-compassion. There is no self-compassion until one can say “thank you” for being alive.  And self-compassion undeniably gives birth to gratitude, truly and profoundly.

Our ideas of causality are confused by the radiant truth of love.

Which came first?

Emphatically both – which makes the love of ones fate vibrant and durable.  Whether one enters the door of gratitude or self-compassion one arrives in the same place.

The authentic interrogation of loving ones fate arises in any circumstance where ones undone by the unforeseen.  You’ve lost your job.  The father of your children has left you for another man.

You grandmother who you thought would live forever has suddenly died.

Your doctor has just informed you that you have multiple sclerosis.

I have sometimes asked friends or patients “what have you learned from your heart condition (or cancer or AIDS or addiction and recovery, etc) that you could not have learned any other way?  Apregnant question. to be sure, that invites the ethos of loving ones fate. When I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis ten years ago it was my turn to ask that question of myself and ask it fully and completely.

Time to walk my walk.

MS found me a stubbornly young and arrogant man when a rangeof “symptoms” I’d seen from the outside as a nurse now took my body.  Falling down in public and unable to get up, incontinent ofurine and shit, a unreliable set of legs, sleepless and out of mymind on steroid therapy, losing my eyesight not knowing if it was mine to be blind.


Early on, not yet recovered from my first exacerbation, I hiked to my refuge on the Big Sur coast to spend two weeks alone in prayerand reflection. It took eight hours to hike what I knew to be anhour walk and I didn’t know if I’d be able to walk out.  This was amor fati proper.

“Let go and let God.”  I had to give up the fetish of certainty.  For twenty years I’d assumed it would be mine to see my older wife through the end of her life but that was suddenly far from certain.

Everything – everything – was far from certain.

To my knees.

To my knees.

Now, these years later. only gratitude remains of my passagethrough MS.  Indeed the medicine of gratitude, of embracing my fate, seems tied up with my healing. It’s been two years since mylast exacerbation and I don’t anticipate another. As I wrote this chapter my neurologist, Dr. Russ Shimizu, was shocked at my recent MRI. “Whatever voodoo you are doing keep on doing it,” he said in a surprise homage to my alliance with African medicine.

I’am free of MS .Few would recognize me as someone with an“incurable” neuromuscular disease.

The transformation of humiliation to humility was, like with so many, a passage through dis-ease.  The catalyst of that transformation was gratitude.

That is how the light of self-compassion gets in.



One response

26 09 2010

Wonderful first post, Michael. I loved reading this and can’t wait to read more!!

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