I recently returned home from a week-long silent meditation retreat. Retreats are a great way to deepen one's experience through more intense and continuous practice than we typically find in our daily lives. For a few weeks before the retreat, I had been struggling with some issues at work, difficulty finding a romantic relationship, and other recent events that made me angry, frustrated, and discouraged. On retreat, as in meditation at home, the idea is to notice one's reactions to events like these, to fully experience the feelings without clinging to them or wishing them away, and to see the patterns in the mind. It's not always easy, however. The more charged the situation and stronger the feelings, the harder it is to observe them without getting caught up in clinging and aversion. Some of these issues pushed some very hot buttons for me, triggering still more anger, sadness, and frustration. It was difficult to keep my attention present without getting pulled into the content of the thoughts and the feelings they brought up.
In our small-group interviews with the teachers, I was talking (yes, there is some talking on a silent retreat!) about these issues and my difficulty working with them. The suggestion from one of the teachers and my friends was that I needed to find more compassion for myself. I've heard this advice many times over the years, and I have often struggled with it. The image presented was of a parent holding a baby, cradling and comforting it, making it feel safe and loved. It's a very sweet image, but one that has never worked for me, especially when I'm caught up in anger. Still, it was my teacher's advice, and I trust her a great deal. So I spent some time considering and working with it.
But over the next couple of days, I found that this idea didn't fit me, and this image didn't work for me. Compassion for myself didn't seem to be lacking; I wasn't blaming myself for the situations I was in, or otherwise "beating myself up" over how I was feeling. The anger was directed towards others, not at myself. I also realized that I didn't want to be cradled and held like a baby. Maybe it's a guy thing, but I don't find that comforting. What I really want--what will make me feel comforted and comfortable--is to feel powerful. I want to be in control. The image that came to mind was being hit by a canon ball or some other big projectile, having it crumble at it slammed into my rock-hard body, and just brushing it off like it was nothing. And then I want the power to strike back at those who angered me and force the entire world to bend to my wishes. This is what would bring my mind comfort.
What I want is impossible, of course. But the point is not to dismiss the image or the desire as unrealistic. The purpose is to identify and understand the images and desires. So I brought this to the next group interview, with my other teacher. His response was quite different. He said that we need to redefine what we mean by compassion. He explained that we tend to think of compassion as one single thing, a thing that we are supposed to have, and imagine it as a liquid that we can drink from a bottle to fill ourselves with. But compassion is not so much a thing or a filling or a feeling. It's more of a quality, an approach that we bring to a situation. The quality is one of softness. What this means that when a difficult feeling or situation arises, instead of getting caught up in "I hate it, I hate it, I hate it!," approaching the thoughts and feelings with an attitude more like "oh, look at what is present now," or "this is very upsetting and painful." The idea is softness in the approach and reaction to the situation, even when the feelings triggered are very hard and aggressive.
This suggestion made all the difference. It's not magic, and it doesn't wipe away all anger, frustration, and other unpleasant feelings. But what it's done is relax the metaphorical clenched fist of my mind and opened up some spaciousness around the hard thoughts and feelings. From the spaciousness, I can see the constricted sense of self that forms around the thoughts and feelings. I can see that this self is only a small part of what is happening--just one of many sensations in the present moment. Then the identification with the self loosens, and helps me to further recognize that the self is simply a habitual pattern based on past experiences and recent stimuli.
I am coming to understand and accept that compassion is the right approach, in every situation. Realizing this was simply a matter of finding the right teaching and practice to allow myself to open to it; and then actually doing the practice.