14 months ago I had a tip-of-the-tongue taste of Stanford’s Compassion Cultivation Training and it changed my life. Astonishing. It was only a 1.5 day workshop — a synthesized version of their 8-week program.
That it had such an impact has to do with my history. For 23 years I was what’s termed a “survivor activist” — working for justice for victims of Unitarian Universalist clergy sexual abuse. It was excruciatingly difficult work — littered with blame, vicious gossip, shame, hypocrisy, indifference, and, at its core, broken faith. But there was also a thick, rich silver lining — in particular building new, lifelong friendships with others who spoke this truth-to-power and stumbling across unimagined capacities in myself.
Working with these amazing people, in time I became a surprisingly effective voice for the victims — breaking the deadly silence. What made this possible? Learning a Nonviolent Communication (NVC) practice called “Dissolving Enemy Images.” It’s a straightforward step-by-step method that’s all about compassion — not just for “the other,” but for oneself too.
Doing this practice dozens and dozens of times opened my heart to many, especially denominational leaders who had “done me wrong.” I was able let go of that destructive (if understandable) blame energy. Thus I could connect with them and be in dialog. While I did the work at home, in Boston at Board meetings it stayed with me — and they could tell.
Then things began to change — I mean truly change — sea-change. Those months remind me of a passage from Seamus Heaney’s The Burial at Thebes: A Version of Sophocles’ Antigone.
Human beings suffer,
They torture one another,
They get hurt and get hard.
No poem or play or song
Can fully right a wrong
Inflicted and endured.
The innocent in gaols
Beat on their bars together.
A hunger-striker’s father
Stands in the graveyard dumb.
The police widow in veils
Faints at the funeral home.
History says, don’t hope
On this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme.
So hope for a great sea-change
On the far side of revenge.
Believe that further shore
Is reachable from here.
Believe in miracles
And cures and healing wells.
Compassion seems to me a super power: miracle, cure, healing well. The feeling in those Board meetings had a surreal quality to it. The closest I can come to describing it is a giving up of your petty self and, from some surprisingly calm center, trusting hearts that connect.
That said, this work was grinding me down, taking my life away from me. So I committed to give it my all from February 2014 to June 30, 2015. Then I walked away. Completely.
I carved out the last six months of 2015 to reimagine this precious life. I had zero agenda. Wonderous. From this blank slate, zazen (meditation) emerged as my new path.
But what of compassion? It went on the back burner — until the workshop 14 months ago. Then I was flooded with memories of that thick silver lining — tapping into the astonishing feelings and letting them pull me where they might.
Now where it pulls me is to to take the full 8-week compassion training — with the same teacher, William Thiele. I’m overjoyed.
The class starts on June 7 and includes significant homework. Doing that homework will be my monthly practice for June and July. Every day I’ll do the assigned meditations and, on days when there is no homework, I’ll do 15 extra minutes of zazen.
Once again I’ll build that compassion muscle. Then perhaps one day I’ll be certified as a compassion teacher and, with that, return to overcoming clergy sexual abuse — helping those who have suffered so terribly in its wake. That’s my dream. But for now suffice it to say I’m most grateful to the many people who nudge me to heal, learn, grow, and share.