Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Rockin' the Kwan Yin

Years ago I had the image of Shiva given to me from a therapist. At the time I was going through a not so pretty divorce and coming out to my family. The therapist had likened the change I was experiencing and initiating to the Hindu deity of transformation. Shiva is sometimes described as the one who creates birth through destruction. You can think of Shiva's power like that of a forest fire. The idea was that, while change can mean an end, death or destruction of something (the end of my marriage, the end of how my family perceived me) it is also the beginning of something. This was a great tool for me at the time and helped me stay the course of much needed change.

More recently, in the last few years, as my life has undergone a completely different kind of transformation, one that I don't quite understand fully yet, Shiva hasn't quite worked for me. I've needed a different Eastern embodiment of some "om" figure to fixate on. The change I've been working on has been a much less personally empowered change; a giant wave that I must attempt to ride out and just keep my head above water kind of change. It's been changes that have happened to me rather than change that I have initiated.

Enter Kwan Yin, or White Tara. The Chinese or Tibetan embodiment of compassion. In my paid job I have learned a great deal about compassion over the last seven years. As I have had countless first hand opportunities to practice witnessing to the trauma of families with children who are ill, I have dramatically improved my deep listening skills. I've become a practitioner of "being present" with others in their struggles. I have come to place an enormous value on just sitting with someone else's pain. Compassion for others has never been something I've been challenged by (I am the type of person who sees a stuffed animal on the side of the road and I get an ache in the pit of my stomach thinking about a sad child missing a fluffy friend...). Compassion for myself is a entirely different story and the brand of compassion I've been practicing is depleting and I've been left exhausted and drained.

I've been reading Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life with the Heart of a Buddha, by Tara Brach, nightly over the last month or two and just came across a passage on Kwan Yin. Ms. Brach presents us with the image of Kwan Yin as the mother of compassion who extends her healing presence through acknowledgement of the suffering of others. Ms. Brach then invites us to turn that image inward. For those of us who work in the community service sector, it is easy to view compassion as an outward practice and something that we embrace for others. Ms. Brach challenges us to turn that compassion inward first and posits that compassion will then naturally flow outward. I woke up this morning with the image of a pebble thrown in water, the ripples radiating outward effortlessly from that central point. Compassion begins with lovingkindness towards ourselves. When we greet ourselves with compassion, there is no effort required to share that compassion with others. It flows naturally outward.

Postscript: For another good book on self-care, especially for those in non-profit work, please see the lovely Ms. Laura Van der Noot Lipsky's Trauma Stewardship. Ms. Lipsky's book gently turns us toward self care as a source of energy and asks us to consider how we may improve our service to others through that self care.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Meaning and Purpose

I have often heard the most famous of Viktor Frankl's quotes from Man's Search for Meaning: 
"...everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms - to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way." This is a profound thought, often repeated, but difficult to implement. It is a quote that I often cling to in difficult times.

I am currently reading Man's Search for Meaning and today I came across the quote. I read it with surprised joy, to come across it in it's original context. What surprised me more was the quote on the exact opposite page. It is not a single sentence that can be easily picked out of the paragraph and quoted alone, which is why I'm certain it's not as frequently recited. It had as profound an effect on me though. So I quote it here. To best understand it, I am adding the context of the quote above, with the emphasis added:

"...everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms - to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way.... It is this spiritual freedom - which cannot be taken away - that makes life meaningful and purposeful."

This is the further action. The action that does not require difficult circumstances before we show our best. This is the part of his thesis which compels us to make a purposeful life even absent suffering. So appropriate for this time of year and for those of us to whom fortune has been more attentive this year!