Path of a Warrior

Wildfires, hurricanes, mass shootings, politics, friends diagnosed with cancer– is it really possible to keep our hearts open when there seems to be so much pain in the world? I admit that the recent wildfires in Northern California which deeply affected people I know personally impacted me more than the major tragedies not so close to home. Keeping our hearts constantly open to all suffering is impossible, yet the price we pay for avoiding contact with suffering is often unknowingly deadening.

Suffering arises and we have three possibile responses. We can push it away, not feel the suffering directly. My brother David was informed of his terminal prognosis from metastatic pancreatic cancer in an after-hours email sent by his oncologist. A busy day perhaps but it is likely this doctor, like many in his profession, had little or no training in compassion.

Secondly we can get lost in suffering, overwhelmed, becoming totally identified with our emotions. The drama of our lives, of the circumstances in which we find ourselves can be so compelling we simply become lost. Thankfully, there is a third possible response – compassion, the open heart meeting suffering.

A truly compassionate heart is never fatigued. The secondary traumatic stress that helpers and caregivers occasionally experience is commonly called compassion fatigue. This stress is not the result of the open, compassionate heart meeting suffering, but rather from pushing suffering away or getting lost in it. Often when we sincerely attempt to meet suffering with a compassionate response, the fear of directly touching pain unconsciously subverts our good intentions. Can we train ourselves to let our fear inspire us to soften and open our hearts rather than automatically closing and defending? This path takes great courage and is the path of a warrior. The word “courage” comes from a French root word coeur meaning heart.

The compassionate heart has several defining qualities: it is connected, warm, and spacious. A simple yet challenging practice is to go through the day focusing on the condition of your heart and choosing one of these three defining qualities to return to whenever you notice that aching contraction – a heart connected to God, to others, to self; a heart that is warm, melting in response to suffering; or a heart that is spacious, boundless as the sky. I personally love the practice of breathing the whole sky into my heart, so that even when the pain remains, it rests in such boundlessness that it ceases to threaten.

Compassion doesn’t necessarily alleviate suffering in the moment, but an open heart makes it bearable, workable and creates the doorway to healing. In the boundless heart is a joy that transcends happiness and sadness, wellness and illness, life and death.

The most effective self-healing practice in my experience is with fierce honesty, to feel my deepest woundedness without concept or storyline and then gently open my spacious heart of compassion to this part of myself. Even though we cannot constantly stay open to the suffering of the world, selflessly dissolving into our sky-like heart awakens and enlivens whenever practiced. When “compassion fatigue” arises the antidote is true compassion for oneself.

— Dale Borglum
Executive Director