Compassion Fatigue? - Bring Yourself into the Circle of Care
As news of soul-staggering violence against others spins around the globe, we, too, may feel ourselves spinning; dizzy from reading angry rhetoric; lost in the maelstrom trying to figure out what we can and should do to quell the calm.
As a spiritual guide—and I’m certain you have experienced this also—others expect that you will hold steady in difficult times such as these. They look to us to be the calm in the storm, the safe place to express their grief, worry and anger. As spiritual confidants, they know we certainly must feel strongly about what is happening in the world, but we know how to hold our tangled thoughts and emotions prayerfully.
Do we? Are you? These questions tug at me lately (and have since November 2016 with the U.S. election). I not only observe, but sit, with other guides, pastors, priests and care-giving professionals who struggle doing so.
Case in point. Post election, a pastor of a liberal Christian denomination whom I have been companioning in spiritual direction for many years, silently breezed into the room, nary a nod toward me, only to plop herself heavily in the chair. She was deathly quiet. I sat and waited.
Her first words were, “I am so glad I don’t have to hug you.” She went on to tearfully explain how exhausted she was from holding space and offering compassionate care to her parishioners who were grieving the election results. “I am literally tired of hugging people. I don’t want to hug one more person.”
She and I both knew she was experiencing a textbook case of compassion fatigue. Caught up in the media circus, trying to hold safe space for her congregants to express all that they were feeling, she had forgotten to hold space for herself. She had created a beautiful circle of care for these dear ones and not included herself in the circle.
As spiritual guides, we are prone to this. Praying for others is paramount. Praying for ourselves may seem ill-timed and insignificant, even selfish. Nothing could be further from the truth. As the Buddha himself is said to have taught:
Searching all directions
with one’s awareness,
one finds no one dearer
In the same way, others
are dear to themselves.
So one should not hurt others
if one loves oneself.*
In troublesome situations like those we are experiencing today, we would be well-served to observe these three R’s of compassionate care for spiritual guides:
Regulate your input and the amount of media-dispersed information you consume. Manage the time you spend in discussion with others about heated issues. Be responsible for your thoughts and feelings by caring tenderly for them . Give yourself the time and space you need to address them with calm and clarity—alone.
Rest in the silence. Rest your attention in your body, in your breath. Partake of beauty. Listen to birdsong. It’s alright to feel weary considering what is being asked of you right now. Give yourself permission to let go of what feels heaviest, if even for a short time. Extend your sleep time to allow your body to repair any damage caused by stress. Take naps as you need them. Rest is sacred.
Recommit to your spiritual practices. Our spiritual practices root us in the truth, the Ground of our Being, that which we value most. When we bring ourselves to the mat or the pew or the river’s edge, we reaffirm that our personal connection to Self and Spirit matter. Engaging in our chosen practice can bring much needed refreshment—body, mind, heart and soul. Amp up your meditation and prayer time. Desperate times call for deeper measures.
There is another “R” that speaks to my heart in difficult times and it is this:
Remember to bring yourself into the circle of care. However it is that you pray, meditate or bless, when offering phrases of goodwill to others, include yourself. “May you be free of pain and suffering” is my Metta prayer for others. “May I hold myself in compassion” is my prayer for myself. If you meditate visually, send whooshes of loving-kindness to wash over families, communities, and groups around the globe who are struggling, and imagine yourself right there with them, receiving this goodwill and care.
These are burdensome times in our human history, and you, just like anyone else who is bearing witness to heartbreak, deserves loving-kindness. May we continue to hold space for peace and reconciliation to blossom and grow, beginning with ourselves.
* From the Udana of the Pali canon translated by Bhikku Thanissaro
Dr. Janice Lundy is the co-founder and director of the Spiritual Guidance Training Institute, an organization engaging in education, experiences, and relationships for practical, integrative, unitive living. She is an interfaith/interspiritual guide, the author of several spiritual formation books including Your Truest Self and My Deepest Me, and the creator of the Pure Presence® method. She resides in Michigan, USA.