Managing our own and others distress

My thoughts at the moment are on being with my own and others distress. This isn’t really a very usual subject for a December blog, but its where my mind is at the moment. There’s a great deal going on in the world that can feel really difficult to be with. We may also be struggling with difficulties closer to home and within ourselves as well, especially at this time of year.

So I thought I’d share a little of what I’ve been thinking about and practicing on.

In buddhist thinking there are ideas around compassion and how it can be cultivated, so we can be more meaningfully engaged with our own and others suffering. Alongside this idea of compassion, there are also ideas around developing our ‘love muscle’ and diminishing our sense of separateness from others.

How so? And why does it matter?

The how, is in our ability to recognise and not pull away from our own suffering, our stresses, anxieties and pain. To find a way to welcome these human experiences and to tend to them with love and patience.

When I first heard this idea, I found it hard to imagine how this might be possible, to not be either overwhelmed by emotion, or just disconnected from it, in the busyness and distraction of modern life.

Over the years, my mindfulness and somatic practices have grown and allowed me to develop skills and tools that I can use, even in turbulent or difficult times. These practices have given me a space, a sort of room in my inner world, where my experiences can be held and met with with gentleness and care. Where my noticing self can see and offer kindness to my suffering self.

In this mindful space I can meet my experiences with warmth, actively seek to understand and offer assistance and love to my most painful experiences.

I’ll be honest I don’t always manage this, but it’s definitely my daily intention to offer this warm welcome to all the states, pains and experiences that make up my experience.

This active, loving offering is what is might be called compassion in Buddhist terms.

It isn’t the same as empathy, which is more about feeling others feelings. With empathy we can get a taste of other peoples emotional experience, we can sort of take the temperature of how they are doing. This feeling others feelings, feeling for and with, is such a human response to pain, but it can also get really overwhelming sometimes.  Especially when we’re doing a lot of it. This may be due to how we’re wired, how we respond to the world and others, it may be that we use this skill in our jobs or relationships.

I’m certainly not suggesting there’s anything wrong with empathising, but if you’re starting to find it tough to manage, then developing your compassion muscle might be useful.

If you’re finding yourself feeling really distressed in the midst of others distress, or emotionally protecting yourself by stepping back a bit too far, empathy overwhelm may be what you’re dealing with.

For me, this is where the, why does it matter question comes in. It matters because for us to stay connected to ourselves and to each other, we need to be able to find ways to be with the experiences of distress we will all experience in one form or another.

Pain and distress are part of being alive, we cannot avoid it in ourselves or others. When we try to do so, we often create more stress and definitely more disconnection and often feelings loneliness and powerlessness.

Being connected can help us to feel less alone, more whole and more at ease.

Also, we can use up a lot of energy staying disconnected from feelings and experiences of distress, this energy could be used for far better things!

Compassion is a bit different to empathy, as you can see in the above example of how I might respond to my own distress. Compassion is the response of ‘loving action’ – We allow ourselves to feel the love and care that draws us towards distress and offer support, without getting lost in the actual feelings of distress. 

One way to start developing our compassion is finding ways of reducing a sense of separateness between ourselves and others. Seeking to see the similarities and interconnectedness of us all, or what Thich Nhat Hahn described as ‘inter-being’.

A practice that I’ve found really helps with this is called Tonglen.

Tonglen is a buddhist meditation practice that allows us to give our focus to both giving and receiving of love and compassion. I find these two practices particularly lovely, they are from Pema Chodron:

Tonglen/Giving and Receiving, Pema Chodron, 12-minute practice: 

Tonglen/Giving and Receiving, Pema Chodron, 45-minute practice: 

One thing I will add, is to always be mindful of how grounded, how switched on and connected we are in our own nervous system state. Doing meditation, especially ones where we consider our own or others distress, can be triggering, be gentle with yourself.

I try to add to these audio recordings as often as I’m able, so you check back for new practices every so often if you’d like to.

I have a little bit of space in the new year for some one to one sessions if you’re interested. These can be to explore mindful, somatic or Buddhist ideas, as well as exploring neurodivergence and everything in between!

I hope some or all of the above might feel useful or interesting. 

Stay regulated!!

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