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imply Well

Heal with Compassion

© John W Travis MD, MPH

The following is one in an ongoing series of columns entitled Simply Well by John W Travis MD, MPH. View all columns in series

Compassion is not blindness or naivete, however. Just because you may experience compassion for a teenager who was arrested for shoplifting or for yourself for breaking a promise doesn’t mean that you condone a theft or relieve yourself of the need to acknowledge your broken agreement and your responsibility to clear it up. With genuine compassion, we let go of the past; we release grievance, recrimination, and blame; and we attempt to reconcile. We do not assume, however, that this will necessarily change our circumstances or the attitudes and behaviors of those around us, though it could.

Showing yourself compassion does not mean becoming resigned to your problems. Compassion and resignation are two different things. Resignation is dry, passive, and lifeless. It is an attitude of defeat. Compassion is active and lively and requires your participation.

When you show yourself compassion, you willingly look below the surface of your behaviors or feelings. You find your true essence—your core of basic goodness that may have been temporarily obscured, but never diminished. When you see yourself (or others) honestly, compassion becomes much easier.

Compassion toward yourself or others can relax you physically and bring you peace of mind. Such harmony is the essence of healing. And with inner harmony, the situations and decisions that formerly seemed difficult or complex are suddenly simple, clear, and sometimes even easy.

A Short Exercise in Compassion

  1. Reflect on one or two ways in which you are hard on yourself. What do you blame yourself for? What do you feel bad or guilty about? What "mistake" in your recent past still burdens you with feelings of inadequacy or regret? For example:

    I feel bad about overeating at almost every meal.

  2. Identify any accompanying message(s) of self-hatred, personal judgments, or negative interpretations. For example:

    The messages I tell myself about my overeating are "I’m undisciplined, weak, and lazy."

    The weight of the burden is the seriousness with which we take our separate and individual selves.

    - Thomas Merton

  3. Ask yourself whether you really want to change that behavior or problem. If the answer is yes, the most effective change will take place if you willingly adopt a nonjudgmental attitude toward yourself. Go on to Step 4. If your answer is no or maybe, read ahead anyway. It is important to accept yourself as much when you are ready to make a change as when you are not.
  4. The key to compassion is honesty with yourself, about yourself. It is enhanced by a conscious intention to be compassionate with yourself and others. As you form your intention for compassion, keep in mind that compassion may not immediately arise as a feeling experience, so if you wait for your feelings to magically change, you might wait a long time. Compassion begins with a decision based in the reality of the human condition. And it is followed by the willingness and the effort to act on the basis of what you have decided. Quite simply, you make the intention to live in compassion with yourself or others, exert some effort in acting differently, just watch without judgment if you fall short of your goal, and then make the intention again.
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About The Author
John W. Travis, MD, MPH, is the creator of the Wellness Inventory and its parent, the Wellness Index. He is the founder and co-director of Wellness Associates, a consulting and publishing group whose mission is to transform the culture from its current focus on authoritarianism/domination into......more
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