Dear reader, I’m glad your curiosity has led you here. It is my hope to share a bit of how I came to embrace compassion. This being a simplified story of how I learnt to re-purpose every knowledge at my disposal to heal myself (in conjunction with professional help, and it is important to stress that seeking professional help is critical)from a mental breakdown:
- Neuroscience gave me a solid foundation in understanding memory, habits, cognition, and emotions (at one stage, I was a board director at the Greenstein Institute of Applied Neuroscience); and
- The Virtues Project’s faiths (plural) based communication framework gave me a healthy way to talk myself into a calmer state (I am a certified facilitator); and
- Wim Hof and pranayama gave me tools to master my breath as a way to calm myself down (a daily discipline of breathing exercises I’ve maintained to this day); and
- TCM (traditional chinese medicine) and ayuverda gave me knowledge for sustained physical self-care (primarily ways to maintain a strong immune system, and facilitating my own body’s inner wisdom); and
- My legal and coaching training in the art and science of questions helped me ask myself powerful questions that act as clues (for a question not asked is a door not opened), which when combined led to me to becoming a certified conflict mediator.
Let’s begin at the beginning.
Once upon a time, I was a little girl who didn’t know there was a name for the life I led. I came to learn much later in my 30’s that the term was domestic violence. Physical beatings, the sort that makes people at school ask the next day “what’s that”, was frequent. But no one thought twice, because back in the 70’s and 80’s, corporal punishment the only way to discipline children, and family matters should remain just that, private family matters.
Various instruments were used - canes of all different sorts, belts, hands, sticks. Doors were locked so there was no way to run. Public humiliation (physical and verbal) too was part of the deal. I thought we screamed our lungs out. But maybe not, because no one came. I don’t really recall how we kids were able to fall asleep every night. Sometimes, it feels like a miracle that we made it this far.
I wasn’t the subject of these beatings, but I was there to watch. I don’t know whether that was on purpose. But I recall the sheer fear and utter hopelessness I felt when I wasn’t able to make it stop. No matter how loud I screamed, and pleaded, and cried. To this day, the sound of children crying and screaming (even if for fun) would transport me right back to those moments, and send a shudder down my spine.
Strangely, through it all, my heart ached the most for my mother. Even as a child who may only feel and had no words, my soul cried for my mother, trapped in a marriage so vile. My heart ached too for my siblings, as I stood by day after day, month after month, year after year, watching the dignity and love and humanity thrashed out of them, one thrashing at a time, one humiliation at a time, one silence at a time.
Yet as a public family, we had to put on smiles and pretended we were perfect. So we children too, though never explicitly instructed to do so, never spoke about it, and learnt the performance art of mask switching.
Fast forward, I was sent abroad at 11 years of age, because that was the only way my mother believed I would be saved from whatever it was that she thought awaited me. The years after, my siblings too left, to separate countries and cities. My mother stayed behind, and when there were long intervals of silence, I got worried. But told myself that the best way to break the cycle is to become accomplished, and return to save my mother.
Then sexual abuse happened, which saw me whisked away to another country, under a cloak of silence. Then anorexia. Then bulimia. Then discovering sex, without the sexual education. Then a sibling began to physically abuse their partner. Then a sibling threatened to commit suicide so we could all suffer the regret for the rest of our lives, to which I said “go ahead, and spare us the misery.” Then my father began spreading rumours that my mother of physically abusing him, the irony of which left us all dumbfounded. Then we discovered a half sister who was 20+ years younger in another country, and the mother being someone we’ve known all along. Then my father started to empty all family members’ bank accounts, and along the way, disowned a sibling on account of being gay. Then a sibling ended up in a protracted abusive relationship, the sort that ends up with the police knocking on the door. I’m going to stop here, as I believe you get the drift, because it is quite a familiar story. Sadly.
Through it all, I was blessed (by grace alone) with an amazing career, amazing friends who became my adopted family, amazing opportunities to travel and live and work in different countries, an amazing man who loved me inspite and despite, an amazing child who’s pure sunshine, and keeping my promise of enabling a different life for my mother.
Then one night, for no reason I know of, my mental state crashed. And life completely changed. Overnight. Literally. I finally understood why some would consider death sweet release. But LIFE will always find a way, if we but attend to its whisperings. Even amidst the primal fear, some part of me hung on to those quiet whispers of hope. And so I sought help, but only after a couple of months. Because I was too fearful of the consequences of admitting that I needed help. It seems foolish now, but back then, the fear was all-consuming and only too real.
First day in therapy, I asked not to know whatever diagnosis it was that the therapist needed to make to help me. I was also resolute that I did not want to be medicated, because I could not square being numb with being healed. Then a year latter, when a letter was required from the therapist for insurance purposes, I read the word “PTSD”, and asked the therapist if that was indeed the diagnosis or it was something that was purely for the sake of “insurance purposes”. The therapist looked me straight in the eye, and remained unflinchingly silent. I didn’t now what I was expecting as a response, but looking back, I realised I couldn’t accept being labelled with a condition I perceived to be suffered only by the weak.
For I was not weak, and suffered no fools, even if that fool was me, myself, and I.
Now, instead of oscillating between just primal fear and numbing despair, I added raging anger to the mix. At some level, I was getting better, and started to work again, and things seem to be “under control”, which (in hindsight) I mistook with “being healed”. The fact was that I wasn’t completely ok. The clue being the series of physical health challenges I began experiencing.
It seems that I’ve managed to intellectually convince myself that I was on the “right” track of getting better though my body was essentially telling me “you just moved the problem somewhere else”. And for a few years, my doctors’ visits was more vibrant than my social life. By this stage, here’s a list of everything I’ve tried:
- Psychological Interventions: CBT (cognitive based therapy), EFT (emotion freedom technique), EMDR (eye movement desensitivation reprocessing), hypnosis (does my unconscious know better?)
- Medical Interventions: TCM (strengthen immune system), acupuncture (to regulate growths), ayuverda (skin-level nutrient sources), embolissation (fibroid), nutritional profiling (to internally regulate allergies)
- “Spiritual” Interventions (first time in my life): Past life regression (maybe a clue?), reiki (it worked for others?), psychic readings (just tell me it’s going to be alright!)
- Diet & Lifestyle: gluten free diet (to combat severe eczema), vegetarian diet (to regulate hormone), sulfate / paraben / preservative free products (eczema), intensive yoga (they say it balances the mind), meditation (not mindfulness, hard core meditation, though can’t say it was very successful), aroma therapy (using essential oils in healing)
- Personality Profiling Tools (I needed to be “told” I was fundamentally a good person): Gallup, Emergenetics, VIA
What more can I do? This was an urgent question, because by this stage, I’ve hit a brick wall. Not 100% yet, but not bad enough that I could justify spending more money on therapy. I didn’t believe in trying every and any healing modality (that would take a lifetime). That was when, serendipitously, three things came together in quick succession:
- First, I came across Elizabeth Gilbert being interviewed by Krista Tippett where she spoke about she had to stop doing (psychological) violence unto herself. The penny dropped, as it began to dawn on me that maybe, I was doing this to myself too.
- Then I came across another talk that recounted the Dalai Lama’s confusion when asked for his opinion about self-loathing. This time, a boulder dropped, as I asked myself “could the reason for doing violence unto myself be due to how much I loath myself for being in this condition?”
- Third, I rediscovered psychologist Marshall Rosenberg’s (9134–2015) work on nonviolence, where he spoke about suffering being a natural consequence of a fundamental need being unfulfilled. Meaning, unless the unmet need is met, its “un-metness” will keep manifesting in any possible form of suffering.
That was when I began to systematically research compassion - the science, the psychological interventions built on compassion (NVC and CFT), and ancient texts’ elucidation of compassion. Followed by getting certified because I needed more precise tools to get to the root causes of my own suffering. Apart from the 10+ how-to articles here on Medium, here’s what I learnt, in essence.
❶ Suffering is a permanent feature of being human. Compassion is the only sustaining response. For me, this is not, in any way, a Buddhist statement. It is based simply on observations derived from paying attention to LIFE playing out in the lives of people in my life.
If you wish to delve deeper into exploring what is compassion, check out <Trinity of Compassion: Mindfulness, Wisdom, Power>. To explore the difference between compassion and mindfulness / empathy / sympathy / kindness, click here.
❷ Compassion begins with one’s self. It’s so very much easier to deal with another person’s suffering because ultimately, I can ignore it, leave it somewhere else, and truly forget about it. But my own suffering is a whole other matter, because I can’t ever run from it. It’s always there, in some form, as intimate as my own shadow.
And unless I’ve experienced the indescribable sensations of suffering in myself, I don’t believe I can ever truly show another genuine compassion. Because all that I would be doing is following a script (most probably written by someone else), and not being truly connected and sensitive to the other human being, and sensing moment to moment what is needed to alleviate their suffering.
❸ Truly, the only difference between a life of suffering and a life of peace, lies in the decision of how to respond to the cards one’s been dealt. At the beginning of my healing, a much older friend asked me “have you considered the possibility that you will have to live with this for the rest of your life?” I hated that question with vengeance. There was no doubt in my mind then, that I was going to “beat” this condition into submission.
How wrong I was.
As I sat in the therapist’s room week after week after week, there came a point, some months in, when this question was posed to me quietly, “Roslina, what if you just chose to believe otherwise?” Time stopped.
The sheer simplicity of the answer to that question stunned me, and Viktor Frankl’s quote (Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.) became the space that is the universe.
The answer was “I have a choice”. Even if it’s the choice of non-choice, of status quo, of defending my brokenness. The freedom to choose my response is something no one can take from me. So the orienting question became, “how can I consistently make room in my life for this freedom to flourish in the permanent state of suffering that is life?”
My answer? By practising compassion. And in practising, becoming compassion. Not fake compassion, but compassion that is woven into the very fabric of the space that is the universe sort.
Because it doesn’t ever go away completely (which is not a “bad” thing), compassion as a mindset and a skillset and a state of being (for self and others) has helped me become:
- Faster at identifying when things are beginning to go off-course
- Smarter at choosing my responses
- More efficient at sustaining balance
With this, I end with the hope that you too will give compassion a go 🌹