Periods of mental distress are often characterised by a hyper-focus on our own struggles to the exclusion of everything else. In the midst of pain and suffering, loneliness and desperation we can end up so concentrated on the distressing aspects of our lives and on what is missing that we literally forget ourselves and what’s happening around us. The longer this hyper-focus continues the more narrow our view can become, until our experience of the world is reduced to the level of pure suffering.
But it wasn’t always like this, was it? I can remember those moments of greatest joy or peace in my life when I wasn’t overwhelmed by my own unhappiness. During those times much of my meaning came from realising that no matter how little money I might have, or opportunities, or how many people I imagined disliked or even despised me, or how unattractive or weird I felt, or how unlucky I felt in not getting that job I really wanted, I could – if I chose – stop the process of falling deeper and deeper into despair, worry and anxiety by making a deliberate choice. That choice – a choice that is available to any of us, no matter what circumstances we find ourselves in – is to respond to pain in a different way; a way that seeks to open up a different space inside and, no matter how hard it feels, let it be filled by compassion.
On the face of it, this will sound like a trite exercise in tricking ourselves into ‘happiness’. I can assure you, it isn’t. Neither is it a trick to fool our minds or distract our minds away from misery. It’s simply a realisation that all of the energy I am currently investing in trying to solve problems that appear to be beyond me at the moment; all of the time and effort I’m expending in trying to figure out solutions for my very real and present problems about, say, money, what I’m doing with my life, my looks, my disabilities, my limits, my flaws, my regrets, my shame, my loss, my anxieties and worries – at the same time, there’s no reason I couldn’t take a break from it all, even five minutes, to show some compassion towards myself and others who could really use a little of it. If I want, I can go right back to my problems after the five minutes are up. And I won’t have lost anything.
I say this as a person who has been absolutely consumed by my own depression, worries, shame, losses, embarassments, regrets, anger and injustice. And I also say this as a person who has made exactly this shift in myself: a decision to take a break from it, to deliberately apply my will to creating a compassionate response to suffering by a. looking outside; b. paying close attention to what I’m looking at; c. recognising suffering, struggle, hardship, loneliness, hunger, fear and other difficult experiences in others.
Here are some ways I do this:
1. Visualise yourself in a chair opposite you. See yourself in as much detail as you can. Notice the pain in your face in this visualisation. You know the pain this person goes through each day, so see this pain in your visualisation of them. Instead of hating them for it, loathing them for it or otherwise having a destructive attitude toward them, show them your power to have compassion. You won’t necessarily ‘feel’ compassion to begin with, but you can act with compassion. Now take paper and a pen and write down or say out loud whatever compassionate things you have in this space you have created. For example:
“I know how hard this is for you, and I can see how you are struggling with [fill in the blank] and for the next few minutes I’m going to stop everything else and show you that I care about you.”
After five minutes, you can, if you choose, go back to feeling lousy or troubled again. It’s ok to do what you choose.
2. Now choose to do something compassionate for someone in need of compassion. It doesn’t need to be a person. It could be an animal, wildlife or even a plant. You’ll easily find some other being in need of compassion if you pay attention to their struggle, because our world and most of the people and creatures in it are struggling with difficulties of some kind. You, yourself, are one of them. In the case of the birds and animals in your garden or the park, it is likely to be hunger that they struggle with, spending most of the day searching for food. In the case of a homeless person, they are likely struggling with the cold, the pain of passers-by appearing not to care whether they live or die, the losses they will have suffered in life that have resulted in them being homeless. In the case of an elderly neighbour, she may be old and hiding the fact that she is lonely most of the time, or in pain from health problems, or weak from old age. We all need compassion.
3. When we look around us and investigate more deeply into what is going on in the world, it is very easy to fall into despair about the state the world is in. No matter how unhappy you are, you can make a difference. A super-easy way to act compassionately is by giving your support to campaigns that seek to bring an end to injustices, cruelty and needless suffering on sites such as:
All it takes is a few clicks and you’ve already started to re-invest your energies into compassionate action.
Don’t look for a reward or a thank you for your compassion. Don’t look for any sign of appreciation at all from those to whom you show compassion. Don’t even look for any ‘good feeling’ out of it. If you receive some appreciation or good feeling that’s fine. But this isn’t about rewards. It’s about applying your will and awareness in a creative and therapeutically valuable direction opposite to the one that involves your being preoccupied with your pain. You can show your compassion through words, or without words. Actions, deeds, the things you do are the most powerful vehicles of compassion. They don’t need to be anything grand or impressive. Because this is about you experiecing the shift into another mode of being that is healthier for you and, if you stick with it, will slowly help you heal.
Even animals can have the capacity to act compassionately…
If you have been in pain or struggling for a long time, it will of course come as no surprise to you that this experiment may not have startling results right away. But it is without doubt the first step in a new direction and a small break from the monotony and burden of long-term hardship. It’s an exercise in beginning to pay attention to yourself and others and recognising that your power lies in how you respond to what you notice. It’s power that is in your own hands and you can, if you choose, use that power to harm or reduce yourself and make yourself feel terrible – or, to pay attention and respond with compassion. Directing your power in a new way, creating a new direction that can, if you persist, take you to a very different place. If nothing comes of it, then at the very least you have contributed something to the world that isn’t just adding to the existing selfishness or ugliness or badness or pain out there in the world. You’ve brought something good into the world instead.
When I have done this myself, I’ve taken myself from my own states of suffering to new, better places. But I’ve had to stick with it and persist, making a committment to investing my time and energy in healing. I have often still needed help from others, but the shifting of my power to a place of bringing kindness, compassion, a loving attitude, and thoughts that carry goodwill towards someone have been essential steps in my recovery, especially at those times where I really didn’t feel like doing it.
God knows, there is more than enough pain in the world already and you may already feel that you have suffered enough. Try taking a break from it in this compassionate way, and you may discover the process of aligning yourself with your true purpose and true nature.