Leading a conversation on shame, I was talking about the idea that compassion is the normal, healthy response to suffering, whether it is someone else's pain or our own. We talked about how to expand our compassion for ourselves by realizing that if others are worthy of compassion in their pain, we can also show ourselves compassion in our own pain.
I was thinking today about how that works in reverse as well. When we show compassion for ourselves in our own suffering, it teaches us to see and respect the suffering of others. I have heard Pema Chodron express it best, but spiritual people through the ages have understood the value of converting our own pain into compassion for others. Although pain naturally and understandably makes us self-centered--and that is definitely how I typically experience it--it also has the ability to open our hearts, even to break them, for the suffering of the world.
I don't often say much about that because I haven't experienced just a whole lot of pain in my life. The normal stuff that everyone goes through and maybe just a little more, but far less than average. (A former mentor asked me once, "Oh, so your suffering is still ahead of you then?") But my neck started hurting yesterday and by last night, I was really in pain. C said I cried in my sleep, but thanks to a Benadryl-induced stupor, I don't remember.
This morning, as I was swallowing 4 Advil gel caps, I thought about all those in my life who suffer physical pain as a normal part of life. I asked myself, "What would it feel like if this pain was twice as bad as it is?" I tried to imagine that. "What if it was ten times worse?" "What if Advil wouldn't help at all, in any dose?" "What if I had to go to a physically demanding job?" On my way to work, I prayed for those (you know you are) that I love who are well-acquainted with pain while I usually go about my life obliviously prayerless, forgetting about their struggles and taking my good health for granted.
Someone asked me last week how we can expand our capacity for compassion. I answered mostly about self-compassion but I wish I had thought of this--that when we deliberately ask our own suffering to teach us compassion for others, it will.