It’s Not Helping
What can you do when compassion shows up as frustration? Karen Kissel Wegela on how to be present with our own helplessness.
Stan has been having a particularly difficult time with his health, and he is telling me about a seemingly endless round of visits to doctors. Some recommend that he have surgery to correct a situation with his leg; others recommend physical therapy and various medications. He is on leave from work because of another injury and suffers from a chronic disease that requires daily attention.
Stan feels despairing and helpless. He is afraid that he will lose his ability to work and won’t be able to support himself. Maybe he will even end up on the street without a home.
As I listen, I notice that Stan is jumping to conclusions. He hasn’t asked what seem to me the right questions, and he doesn’t really know what his prognosis is. Why is he so worried about losing the ability to work when no one has told him that his injuries will lead to disability? Why doesn’t he ask the doctors more questions? I grow impatient. I want to offer advice.
I start to make tentative suggestions. Has he tried talking to his doctor about his prognosis? Has he explored other avenues?
Stan stops briefly and looks right at me. Then he continues to describe how hopeless it all is and how untrustworthy doctors are.
This sort of interplay goes on for quite a while: Stan continues complaining and predicting a doom-filled future; I make more and more suggestions and offer increasingly explicit advice.
Finally Stan explodes in anger. “This is not helpful! I am feeling so frustrated!”
Whoops! In a flash, I remember an earlier session with Stan, in which he was telling me a number of stories about himself. Despite an inclination to try to bring our conversation back to the present, I had simply listened. I had offered simple feedback: “It sounds like these stories are your treasures.”
“Yes,” Stan had replied with delight and relief. “You get it! That’s exactly it.” Stan had gone on to report how infrequently he felt truly heard and received just as he was.
Now I recalled how important it was to him to simply feel received. I began just to listen—listen and welcome whatever he brought up right now.
As I made this shift, I noticed that I felt increasingly helpless and sad myself. I felt afraid that I would not be able to help, that perhaps Stan would become suicidal. I felt like there was nothing I could do. But I just let these feelings come and go. I noted them, and returned my attention again and again to what it was like to be with Stan—to take in his fears and concerns and just accept the textures of the present moment. I made some brief comments to show Stan that I understood how frightened he felt.
Then Stan said something that surprised me. “You know,” he said. “At some level inside myself, I know I can handle all this.” At this point, both of us experienced a softening.
When we talked later about what had happened, Stan made clear that what he most wanted was to be held in my attention, to be heard and understood. Once that began to happen, he started to relax. He no longer needed to argue with me or with himself about what to do and how to be different. With the relaxation of both the outer and inner struggles came an experience of basic goodness, a sense that the situation was workable.
It was a powerful reminder for me. Even though I teach about the importance of genuine relationship, it is still easy to get sidetracked. In this case, I had a hard time staying with the experience of the exchange, my direct experience in the moment. Stan was feeling intense fear and helplessness. Sitting with him, I had felt similar feelings: fear that I didn’t know what to do, fear that I couldn’t help. Instead of simply feeling that fear, however, I had tried to get away. I had jumped into the future with suggestions and plans. I had shifted my allegiance to escaping what was happening, instead of being present with it. I had lost touch with my confidence in basic goodness. I thought, mistakenly, that I knew best.
When I was willing to be present and not know what to do, both of us could relax. Then, perhaps not surprisingly, Stan’s sense of goodness and workability emerged naturally.
Sometimes we experience our compassion for others as frustration. We don’t want them to suffer, and we feel irritated and impatient with them when they fail to see the unnecessary suffering they cause themselves. Perhaps our perceptions are accurate; many times they are not. But within our impatience is the seed of compassion: we really do want to alleviate their pain.
However, unless we are willing to be with our own discomfort, our own pain, we grab what Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche used to call “the wrong end of the stick.” We leap in, as I did with Stan, with plans and ideas for the other person to pursue. Rarely are such suggestions useful when they arise from our own attempt to reject and escape what is happening.
The exchange with Stan went in both directions. Stan picked up on my own struggle and frustration. But when I relaxed and had faith in the usefulness of being open and welcoming, Stan too relaxed and rediscovered his own sense of confidence. It is not that I should get credit for Stan’s reconnection with basic goodness. The point is that only by being willing to not know, to not control, but to be fully available, do we find what is always and already there: basic sanity, basic goodness.
The simplest action—welcoming and receiving another—is often the most valuable gift we have to offer. How do we cultivate our ability to do that? We have to begin, as always, with ourselves. We start by being willing to be simply present with all of the pleasant and unpleasant aspects of our own experience. By learning how to host ourselves in that way, we become more welcoming to others.