Mindset Training Week 18: Compassion
Idaho, the early 80s. My mother was screaming again. This time in the hallway. Without knowing why, I ran to her, clinging to her leg. Words spilled out of me: “I love you mommy, I love you mommy, I love you mommy!”
Sometimes she screamed in the driveway in front of our family station wagon. I would sit facing the front door in a rough, orange paisley chair with my knees tucked into my chest and cry, terrified that she would disappear. Distraught and disheveled, through the front door she would reappear.
“I love you mommy. I love you mommy. I love you mommy.”
Every time my mom screamed into the walls of our suburban home in Twin Falls, Idaho, I would try to love her better.
Conflict avoidance was the norm for our family. There was an unwritten rule not to bring anything up that would upset Mom. We learned to complement my mom before she asked, and tell her dinner was delicious before the first bite. Otherwise, plates would fly. The wrong response to the smallest thing would trigger her into a rage. If she looked okay, how her dinner tasted. If she perceived that you did not mean what you said, she’d tumble into a rant of self abuse. “I’m ugly.” “I am a horrible cook.” “I am a piece of shit.” I would do my best to calm her, reassuring her that the things she was saying were not true. After each episode, the incident was forgotten as if it never happened. Mom’s emotional health was never addressed, and her inner volcano continued spewing at unpredictable times.
At times her anger would be projected toward me. “Don’t talk back!” she’d scream, grabbing my arm. So, I didn’t talk back. I muted myself. I lost my voice. I took on her emotional stability as my own responsibility.
After one of these episodes, I ran to my room angry and crying. Standing on my tiptoes, I slid a gigantic powder-blue suitcase out of the closet and began to unload the contents of my sock and underwear drawer.
I have nowhere to go, I realized, defeated.
Just then, my mom walked into my room.
Unwilling to upset her though she had just been screaming at me, I fashioned an excuse that I was preparing early for an upcoming trip to my grandparents’ house. Having regained her composure, she responded sweetly, “Well, Manny, that’s not for another month. Put the suitcase away.”
These experiences ingrained a fear of making people upset and wrote stories that I was not safe, everything was my fault, and love was unpredictable. As an adult, I believed these stories. Because of this, I attached to people when they didn’t deserve my love. When someone was unkind to me, I’d try to earn their love. I stayed in my marriage longer than I should have. I put up with abuse and mistreatment because I thought I deserved it. I put my loving efforts toward someone who could not love me back. My mother and my stories about not being enough were my biggest trigger as I sought emotional healing.
As a child, I both loved and feared my mother. As an adult, I equally grieved for my mother and resented her. I blamed her for my insecurities. I was angry with her for not being well, for not being someone I could talk to about my problems, and for not being what I thought I needed in a parent. I was angry with myself that I couldn’t help her. I wanted her to be well. I wanted her to be happy.
Once I started my heart healing journey, I committed to stop using my emotional wounds to continue destructive patterns. I resolved to examine the untruth of the stories I was telling myself about my mother, and unravel them.
But it took me a long time to disentangle from my unresolved anger and resentment. I just couldn’t figure out how to let it go. I prayed for the solution. The answer came as compassion.
On a flight back to Seattle after visiting her, two rambunctious young boys were seated next to me. I had the inclination to get up and change seats, but I plugged my ears with headphones and stayed. The boy wiggling next to me began to scream and spasmodically hit the tray table in front of him. From her window seat across the aisle, his mother, with another child beside her and a baby in her arms, was near meltdown yelling directions. I reached over and released his tray table. Click. He calmed immediately.
All four children looked to be under the age of 8. She could have been my mother traveling with me and my three siblings. There it was, the answer to my prayer. She did the best she could with the tools she had. With that, my resentment dissolved into love.
After that moment, I began to dig into why my mother was triggered so easily. The limiting stories she was saying about herself reflected deeply ingrained self-hatred. Why and where did this come from? This prompted me to do something that I had previously been afraid to do for fear of her response. I confronted my fear, picked up the phone, and called her. This began a series of conversations with my mother that awakened me to my mother’s life experience and the cycle of ancestral trauma.
My mother grew up in poverty with her four siblings. Grandpa was a hefty man and a hard worker. He took any job he could to provide for his family: laborer, logger, janitor, bus driver. Grandma was a teacher and raised my mom and her siblings, growing their own food, raising livestock, and making all of their clothes. Being poor made them incredibly resourceful and self-sufficient. While love was present in the family bonds, stress of life accumulated with past traumas affected my grandparents’ parenting style. I knew my grandfather to be a loving man with his big bear hugs and full belly laugh. But he was not always that way. When stress overtook my grandfather, he brought things back to order with insistent discipline. His loud, booming voice sometimes escalated with a firm hand or a large stick—like his own alcoholic father. Grandpa gave up alcohol after converting to the Mormon faith, but the emotional and physical abuse of his upbringing left wounds that resulted in frequent fearful tirades. My mother took on the role to always be on guard for signs of an outburst. She would preemptively calm him. Grandpa’s rages left my mother fearful and feeling unsafe.
Grandma’s approach to Grandpa’s harsh scolding was to side with him so not to escalate his anger. My grandmother’s protective nature mingled with her own traumas imparted upon my mother a fear of men and the world.
My mother’s childhood was permeated with fear and insecurity. This continued into college. Like me, after meeting a man and falling in love, she thought she’d found her safety net. Only, her father did not approve of her first love. Marrying someone outside of the religion was not acceptable. Obedient to her father’s wishes, my mother ended the relationship. This was devastating, and soon after she was in a near-fatal car accident. Grief-stricken, with few resources, she felt her life was spinning out of control. Meeting my father was an answer to her prayers. He was a few years older, had a successful future as a lawyer, and most importantly, he was Mormon. My mother’s accepted my father’s proposal, sidelining her dreams of becoming a teacher, assuming the role of wife and mother.
The patriarchal power structure of my mother’s childhood continued into her married life. My father presided over the household and expected the traditional gender roles of his upbringing to continue in his own marriage. My mother filled the role of the consummate housewife. With a brood of four children, she took on the household duties of child care, cooking, cleaning, and never-ending laundry. Along with that, she sewed much of our clothing, planned activities, and made elaborate cakes for each birthday, all while maintaining a thin and beautiful appearance. On the outside, no one saw anything but perfection. On the inside, she was on the verge of crisis, anxious that her house of perfectly placed cards would fall at any moment. My mother never felt in control of her her mind or her body, so she screamed.
In seeking help for her emotional health, doctors diagnosed her with “Mormon Woman Syndrome.” The symptoms: depression, anxiety, and perfectionism. Treatment was prescribed in the form of pharmaceuticals with the message “it’s all in your head.” Dismissive attitudes of male doctors left her feeling irrational and crazy. Like Alice in Wonderland falling down the rabbit hole, one pill made her larger, one pill made her smaller, never feeling enough.
My mother’s emotional health was treated as a mental illness instead of a trauma response. Throughout her lifetime, unhealed trauma compounded upon unhealed trauma, which manifested into one illness after another. In childhood her nervous system was wracked with shingles, then Bell’s Palsy paralyzed half of her face. As an adult, she battled one health ailment after another. After birthing four children in the span of seven years, she was diagnosed with endometriosis and given a full hysterectomy. A few years later, she underwent a lumpectomy and radiation for breast cancer; after that the incurable affliction of Parkinson’s disease. This decimated her body with muscle spasms. Brain surgery to implant electrodes into her brain improved her ability to move, but nothing has stopped the progression of the disease. Fear launched her into boundless stress, and her body has been in revolt ever since childhood.
As I was listening to my mother recount her life, I wanted to scream with her. Compassion shifted the view of my mother to see her for all that she did despite her ailments. She devoted her life to raising my siblings and me. She gave me my life. She loved, nurtured, and never meant to hurt me. I began to see countless things she did right instead of focusing on the few things I perceived that she did wrong. No longer could I use my old wounds as an excuse: “I drink because my mom treated me badly.” “I stay in bad relationships because of my parents.” My healing was my responsibility.
While my mother vowed not to parent as she’d been parented, she couldn’t help but perpetuate her family’s generational trauma. From her, fear and insecurity were handed down to me. Each generation repairing best they could, then passing the reminder down to the next. It was my duty to take my turn and heal not only myself, but also my family.
Compassion was the key to seeing my mom as perfect exactly as she was, a child of God. A woman of infinite talents. She is a musician, an artist, seamstress, a teacher, a chef, a wife, a mother, and a friend. My mother is the most giving and generous woman, offering her services and talents to anyone in need. A childlike joy surrounds her and she bursts with love for everyone. My mother has overcome a never-ending stream of challenges. My mother is a survivor. My mother is my hero.
My mother was exactly what I needed, and I was exactly what she needed. Because of my mother, I grew in ways that I wouldn’t have otherwise. She influenced my experiential healing journey and my desire to teach what I learned. She is the reason for this book.
At the end of one of our conversations came words I never expected to hear:
“Amanda, I love you, forgive me.”
“Mom, I love you too. I forgive you.”
Then, a moment of grace.
When the call ended, I sat and wept tears of release from the gravity of grief.
With that phone call, we freed each other and repaired our relationship through love and compassion. Grief was enveloped and made weightless in the grace of unconditional love. Now, she is my best friend and confidante. We laugh together and cry together. I don’t want to go a day without hearing her voice.
I love you, Mom.
HEART HEALING STEP 7A: COMPASSION
Compassion is an open-hearted mindset to view others with respect and honor their life experience. The benefit of a compassionate approach to others is freedom from the strain that judgment and resentments levy upon the mind. Compassion allows investigation into why. This investigation in turn brings understanding. Through understanding, you build sympathy, which births the desire to relieve some of their pain. This desire produces thoughts and actions that plant the seed of joy, the healer of grief and suffering. By setting a compassionate intention, you alleviate suffering. Not only are you helping yourself, you are helping others.
Below I have listed four practical ways to practice compassion.
FOUR STEPS OF COMPASSION
Look on others with love and kindness.
Whether you know the person or not, it’s certain they have overcome challenges and experienced grief, pain, and suffering. It may be obvious, and it may not be. Practicing compassion is acknowledging the human condition to suffer, and looking at others with love and kindness. A compassion practice is to wish everyone you see to be free from pain and suffering and to be happy. This requires no effort: simply look at someone and say to yourself “May you be happy.” “May you be free.”
Hold space for grief.
Holding space for grief is being completely present with another person and listening. Growing up, my mother used to make casseroles for families who were going through tough times. Imagine sitting with someone who is sharing a life tragedy with you. Place your hands as if you are holding the biggest casserole dish. Breathe and listen. Just like the “Who’s in” exercise, refrain from offering advice and take in all the words that the person is saying. However, don’t take on the suffering that the person is expressing. Think of their grief going into your casserole dish. To have compassion does not mean you need to take on the emotions of another. It is listening and giving space to what they are going through. Recognize their grief, not with pity, but with love.
Imagine the person as a child.
If resistance presents itself when attempting compassion, imagine the person as a small innocent child. This will soften your heart to them. Ask what challenges they may have been faced with that led to their current state. You may be able to ask them directly, and you may not be. The visualization creates an opening for compassion for the child-self of that person. Surround the child with love that they needed and maybe did not receive. All beings are children of God. In a universe intelligent in design, every atom—therefore every being—contains an inner divinity. Even within the most deluded individual lies dormant divinity. Your compassionate thoughts awaken their godliness.
Be your joyful self.
As an individual awakened to your inner joy, you can be a relief to others with your presence. God reflects his love through you. You are an instrument, a teacher, and a healer. The person you are practicing compassion for is your teacher as well. There is a universal exchange when you practice compassion. Compassion pulls the mind from its paradigm of self-importance, and “my grief” expands into a universal perspective of “everyone’s grief.” After you open the heart and acknowledge universal suffering, set the intention of joy. Ask What can I learn? How can I bring joy? How can I show compassion?
ON-CUSHION: 18-MINUTE MEDITATION
Meditate first thing in the morning and just before bed. Begin your meditation practice by repeating a statement of intention and liberation. Filter the truth of the words through your heart and mind. I am compassionate to others. Just as I wish to be happy and free, all beings wish to be happy and free. May all beings find healing and know they are loved.
10-MINUTE EMOM + EIGHT MINUTES OF STILLNESS
- Set timer for 18 minutes with 10 one-minute increment bells.
- Sit with your spine in neutral, shoulders over hips, ears over shoulders.
- Close the eyes and focus gently at the third eye point between the eyebrows.
- As you breathe in, imagine a golden light entering your chest and exiting through the back of your heart.
- As you breathe out, imagine the light entering the back of your head at the point where the skull meets the spine, then exiting through the third eye point.
Minute 0:00 to 10:00 (five rounds)
- Circulate energy from the heart to the mind as you inhale and exhale.
- Inhale: Silently repeat “Heart.”
- Exhale: Silently repeat “Mind.”
- Keep count of the ten bells by extending your thumb for minute 1, then placing your thumb to each finger pad for minutes 2-5. Repeat for minutes 6-10.
- Retain breath.
- Concentrate at the third eye point between the eyebrows.
- Silently repeat “Love.”
Minute 10:00 to 18:00
- Sit in silence for eight minutes.
- Concentrate at the third eye point of intuition.
- Circulate the breath.
- Silently repeat “Om.”
Notice the feeling of self-love awakened from meditation. Affirm I am worthy of love.
OFF-CUSHION: THE PRACTICE OF COMPASSION
Practice compassion during your day. Is there a difficult person you’re having conflict with? When you think of them, repeat silently “May you be happy. May you be free.” Meet your mind’s immediate desire to react with patience and compassion. Anger and defensiveness shield the heart from joy. Surround them with the light of compassion. Aid them in deconstructing their emotions by noticing the emotion they’re presenting and asking them about it. Listen and hold space. With this practice, you’ll be less and less reactive to their negativity. They’ll often be taken off guard and will lower their defense systems of anger. It will completely change the energy of the interaction. Your energy is your power. You’re not surrendering your power by practicing compassion, you’re retaining your power and offering joy to a moment of tension.
Complete introspection questions and Chapter 18 exercise from your TMHH Workbook.