Dear Friends and Colleagues,
Over the past few months people have asked me “What exactly does compassionate community mean?” Internationally, and here in California, there is a growing movement of organizations and cities collaborating toward compassionate action in many forms. As therapists, we commit ourselves to being caring, healing professionals. We are confidants for people’s most profound and existential issues. Our work requires us to directly help others — by listening carefully, empathizing, and encouraging clients to ask questions that are important for them to live a fulfilling life without creating harm.
These are aspects of compassionate action, which also include an extraordinary opportunity to explore our own depths of being human; the suffering and joys, play, work, relationships, death, and all the complexities of life. When we are engaged in our own personal work of self-reflection and self-care, everyone benefits. When our curiosity about others is integrated with a conscious awareness of our own hearts, a process of healing is supported.
While inherently therapists have a desire to be of help to others, they sometimes neglect their own self-care and inner work. In order to be compassionate in our work as counselors, we must begin by learning to be more compassionate with ourselves.
Centering, by the very nature of what it is, brings us to an authentic experience and awareness of ourselves. Especially now, in these times of turbulence, centering is an avenue that takes us to a more sound, stable ground, a base by which we can be in touch with our own feelings and at the same time assess and discern the best path forward. We do this by attending to what we are going through in our personal lives, and thus create a more solid container for and catalyst within which we are supported, and able to support others in their journeys.
When we deepen into silence we can relax with whatever else is going on. This allows us to be informed differently and respond from a place that is closer to our hearts.
Being more centered contributes to healthy independence and relating. In relationship, this means that you feel the freedom to be yourself, can choose to be with others without being dependent upon them and so have less tendency toward controlling or dominating behavior. You also know fundamentally that you are not completely autonomous, but deeply interdependent. When this is intuitively understood, the caring, listening, joining, allowing, and creating can be the vessel for an engaged relational space that leads to fulfilling connection and fruitful interaction in our lives, our work, and in the world.
Perceived threats can take us out of our center, through reactions of fight, flight, or freeze. These survival reactions are biologically based triggers from past experience. But we also lose our center and grounding with completely non-threatening things, like being complacent, or losing interest in the experience at hand. Focusing on the present puts you more directly in touch with how things are affecting you and why. This introspection helps you identify the cause and effect of experiences, people, and circumstances that impact you, and expand awareness of the potentially triggered parts within yourself. Becoming accustomed to a practice of breathing to sensitize yourself to how you feel, and inquiring into what’s happening gives us tremendous power to have more informed choice in any moment.
When the stresses of internal or external experiences in life are too much, the overwhelm can be un-grounding. As we learn to focus more deeply on being aware in the present, we increase our conscious capacity to be with uncertainty and tension, regardless of its origin. This presence gives us a more solid container for both awareness and stable holding of our challenging experiences. It helps us to not have to act them out and instead, to find a way to benefit ourselves and others.
Knowing True Power
When we are able to have more choice as to how to respond in the moment, rather than being at the mercy of external and internal forces, we are able to act from a strength that comes from a place of greater caring and contemplation. This base allows more self-trust, intuition, and clarity of the gestalt to take the best action forward. This kind of inner resilience and capacity to stay grounded in the face of conflict takes time, dedication, and most of all awareness. When we know and can see our triggers, we can learn to relax into the contraction and breathe. Of course, none of us has it “all together,” so it’s helpful to accept ourselves with compassion no matter where we are in our process.
“Being centered” sounds like it is a fixed point, but in fact it is a cohesive and dynamic part of a living human being that is in constant flux and flow. To be more compassionate is accepting that there are imbalances, and learning how to develop more resilience. Tuning into the reality of how impermanent things are can be humbling and create uncertainty. But the one thing we always know is that we are alive and conscious in this moment. Every breath we take, with intention, we are acknowledging this truth of existence. May we breathe softly and walk gently as we live, love, and counsel.
I give thanks to all of you for being part of the vibrant and diverse community at LA-CAMFT and look forward to continuing this conversation with you about how we can build our capacity to be ever more compassionate!
Shelley Pearce, LMFT is currently serving as President of the CAMFT Los Angeles Chapter Board of Directors. She has a private counseling office in Santa Monica, and regularly consults by videoconference with colleagues and clients. She serves on the board of The Global Bridge humanitarian foundation and helped create www.humanisticspirituality.org , an extensive free online resource for counselors. She synthesizes a breadth of career diversity, education, experience, and a sincere desire to help in her service and practice with individuals and couples.