I was given a lesson the other night. I woke up after a few hours sleep. I went to the toilet, and then lay in bed worried that I would not be able to go back to sleep, fearful of being awake in the empty dark. I don’t usually notice this feeling. I listen to the BBC World Service and it puts me to sleep. This night I thought to attend more closely to what I was feeling and to bring a quality of kindness to the physical sensations of my feeling.
The idea of being kind to our discomfort is practised in all major spiritual traditions. Some examples:
- the “welcome” in the Welcoming Practice of Centring Prayer
- the practice of self-compassion and loving-kindness in Buddhism (e.g. Pema Chödrön)
- the work of Kristin Neff on self-compassion
- the “caring-feeling presence” of Bio-spiritual Focusing
By habit, when I feel unhappy or uncomfortable I want to it to stop. Why wouldn’t I? Listening to the radio is a way of putting uncomfortable feelings to sleep. Wanting to stop a feeling implies criticism. “I don’t like this feeling.” “There is something wrong.” “I shouldn’t be feeling this.” “How can I stop this?” It is a small step from these questions to self-criticism. “There is something wrong with me.” “How can I fix myself?”
To be kind is to accept the reality of a situation and to have compassion for suffering. This is not a passive acceptance; it is not being resigned to one’s fate. Kindness extends a welcome to aspects of myself, to the circumstances in which I find myself, and to the human condition that I usually ignore or disavow.
I like this usually. It can feel like an important turning point. When I am kind to myself like this there is almost always a sense of relief and relaxation. The suppressed is given space to express itself; the unheard is given a voice. Energy being used to hold discomfort at bay is recovered and redirected into love.
But this night I felt resistance to this kindness, which took me by surprise. I didn’t want the kindness that was on offer. I took a step back, as it were, to reassess what was happening. As I felt into this resistance I realised I was using kindness to ‘soothe’ myself. I was attempting to diminish discomfort, rather than truly being with the felt-sense of my experience. This is entirely understandable, of course. Soothing is another way of not feeling. But I didn’t want this feeling to be soothed away. And soothing is not the purpose of a spiritual practice.
There is a caring, a kindness, that is not soothing. It is an open-hearted, accepting presence that also has some distance. It is disinterested or ‘indifferent’ to use Ignatius’ word. I try to communicate that I am present, that I care, but I am ‘disinterested’ (I do not have a vested interest in the outcome) or ‘indifferent’ (having no partiality for or against). I want to hear the ‘story’, whatever wants to be shown; I want to come to my own self, truth, authority, and integrity.
How do I do this? How do I extend a welcome, the hand of friendship, compassion and loving-kindness towards myself? It is an important question and many of us do not immediately know how to do this.
Without pursuing all the anthropological and theological nuances of self-cruelty, let me suggest something very, very simple. You know what tenderness is. We all have experiences of gentleness and kindness. Think of something that makes you feel that way: perhaps being with a loved one who is suffering, or seeing a small child asleep – whatever calls forth from you a feeling of warmth and tenderness or just simple caring. Feel that feeling. You can do that, almost without trying. It is a very familiar feeling, well known to you. Can you now, just for a moment, feel that way towards yourself?
Gerald May, Simply Sane, (p.165-6)
I would add some thoughts: Where in this body do you feel this “warmth and tenderness or just simple caring”? What does it feel like? Take time to get to know it and learn how to evoke it at will in different situations. Now extend this embodied feeling towards yourself. This is entirely possible.
Disinterested kindness is the ground of the spiritual direction relationship – of any good relationship, including the relationship with yourself: I care about you, I am curious about you, I want to listen to you, but I don’t need or want to control you. I don’t need you to fit in with my ideas of salvation or the good life. And I won’t be hurt or upset by what you show me – or if I am hurt or upset I will hold this carefully and not react towards you out of my hurt or upset.
It is easy to get emotionally entangled in the hurts and complaints of others. Entanglement adds to the problem. A certain separation is necessary.
I think of this as similar to how a medical doctor will approach someone who is ill. Of course, we wish our doctor to be kindly, but if a patient is in pain the doctor needs to know the reason for the pain. Her rôle is not to soothe the patient but to enquire and run tests to get to the bottom of the dis-ease. When there is a diagnosis, various courses of treatment can be explored, and the patient can decide what she wants to do. The doctor offers a particular kind of caring that leaves herself free to get on with her job and the patient free to make his own life choices.
Not listening is endemic in human society – from ignoring the protest of a child to denying the protest of the Earth. We tend to try to soothe or solve a problem rather than really listening to the protest.
What is required is to care about the world, to enquire about what is. I want to know who you are because the world is an interesting phenomenon, not because I want to have control. If I find I am trying to soothe you – to make you feel better, to diminish your discomfort – then I am trying to take control of your life, as if I know what is good for you.
Ultimately it is about justice, letting no cry go unheard, and not assuming we know best.
Teach us to care and not to care.
Teach us to sit still.
TS Eliot, Ash Wednesday