Compassion is one of the key nutrients for the heart. Compassion is as essential to the spirit as water and food are to the body. There are two aspects to compassion. The first is the capacity to feel pain and suffering without fear and with an open heart. The other is a quality of wisdom that sees this pain and suffering as a natural part of life. Both aspects of compassion help relieve pain and suffering, which otherwise can weigh us down.
We all have our secrets and sorrows. Metaphorically speaking, emotional pain and suffering without mindfulness is usually very difficult to swallow. If we could, we would choose only the sweet and joyful parts of life. We would be slim and strong, and healthy and fit – both physically and emotionally. We would likely eat natural and organic foods.
Compassion Is as Essential to the Spirit
As Water and Food Are to the Body
But what is really natural? The nature of life, our bodies and the food we eat are actually infused with pain and suffering. Bodies get sick, injured, food rots, bugs get killed, plants are destroyed. Throughout life, we get hurt and we hurt others. Nothing we eat or purchase can satisfy us permanently. We can’t claim anything – our body, our mind, food, emotions, relationships, etc. – to be me or mine. Everything changes. These facts of life can’t be avoided. This is what’s natural.
Suffering is part of life, just as hunger is part of appetite. We cannot always be full and satisfied. When we accept suffering and hunger, we can let go. And compassion and a different level of fullness can arise. With this insight, it is much easier to develop compassion for oneself and for everyone. Even our judgments of others – including those who have been hurtful and abusive – can’t disturb us.
Fighting against what is true and natural is one of the reasons people eat mindlessly. Compulsive eating temporarily dulls the emotional pain, but that feeling is destined to return. This cycle not only adds physical weight, but it also creates emotional weight. Blaming ourselves for overeating and hating our bodies are a heavy burden to carry. This cycle just creates more suffering, alienation and mindless eating.
Thoughts arise: “I have been eating this way for so long, these habits will never change.” Then note, this is just a thought. These thought habits may feel as if they are deeply ingrained, but they are not like our eye color. They are impermanent. Through the steadiness of compassionate attention, they change over time. In that way, compassion acts like an enzyme. It helps old patterns dissolve and allows new pathways of behavior to arise.
Our physical appetites also have the opportunity to change when we practice opening ourselves up to suffering. We realize how much energy is spent pushing away suffering and how much food plays a role in that futile effort. There may be so many years of tears, secrets and sorrows stuffed inside that it may feel as if there is no room to digest them.
But when we give space for suffering with compassion, and actually understand it, painful memories and habits can be transformed and transcended. Our appetites tend to change. There is actually a natural tendency to eat more mindfully because there’s less of a need to depend on food for comfort and instant gratification and as a misguided way to handle suffering. We wake up to the paradox that two ingredients — suffering coupled with compassion – have a potent, priceless and calorie-free capacity to satisfy.
Through the ongoing practice of compassion, we can become more honest and forgiving about ourselves. And then we are more honest and forgiving with others. But compassion always begins within us.
Over the nearly three decades of working in the field of mindful eating, I have met many people who take their suffering personally, as if they were to blame for things like getting sick. As compassion develops and deepens, that misguided belief that any one is singled out and punished dissolves into the truth that all beings suffer. Compassion, empathy and forgiveness and connection naturally arise for oneself and all beings. The classic image is a mother who remains loyal and steadfast when her child suffers. She will do everything and anything to protect and heal her child.
This practice requires learning how to stay with and soften to emotional and physical pain, rather than tighten around pain and hate it. It is actually a form of emotional nourishment. The heart yearns for this type of nourishment because it strengthens the heart’s natural capacity to let go, to allow the fullness of life and all of its manifestations to enter it.
Compassion meditation involves silently repeating certain phrases that express the intention to move from judgment to caring, from isolation to connection, or from indifference or dislike to wisdom. You don’t have to force a particular feeling or get rid of unpleasant or undesirable responses. The power of this practice is the intention to generate the feeling of compassion – regardless of whether it arises.
• May I be happy and peaceful.
• May I be free from mental and physical suffering.
• May all beings be happy and peaceful.
• May all beings be free from mental and physical suffering.
This practice involves breathing in the feeling of compassion, feelings of warmth, tenderness and kindness. Allow the feelings to digest pain, grievances and wounds, both emotional and physical. We commit to planting the seeds of compassion and nourishing them on a daily basis.
It may feel as if nothing is happening. But continue the practice anyway. Eventually, the seeds will grow and sprout, often when you least expect it.
Compassion is the true mode of being human, and just like mindful eating, the practice needs to be part of our daily life. It takes strength to tap into pain and suffering, but it is also rewarding. Over time, our appetites change as do our relationships to ourselves and to others.
When we are able to respond to ourselves and others with kindness, we are providing natural nourishment – a way out of suffering. It is the mindful approach to diminish compulsive eating, acknowledging life instead of pushing it away. Helping others is a means of increasing compassion.
We not only serve others but we feel better as well. Consuming less and sharing food, clothing, blankets, medicines, etc., not only help others in need but also satisfy us in ways that no amount of food can. It is a way to spread harmony and maintain balance.
One of my meditation teachers likes to say that “compassion is the diet of the wise.” He frequently reminds his disciples that although we eat to maintain our bodily strength, eventually all humans pass away.
The most radiant and well-nourished people are those who help others. They have few regrets and sleep well knowing that they have not harmed others. Compassion and generosity help decrease stress and improve one’s digestion, beauty and life span. We’re conditioned to want things, but the truth is that the best things are free.
Compassion helps steer us in the direction of calm and brightness. We want to consume compassion and give to others. These are the kinds of ingredients that provide lasting satisfaction, balance and harmony.
Ronna Kabatznick, PhD is an adviser to the Center for Mindful Eating. She is a social psychologist, meditation teacher and the author of “The Zen of Eating: Ancient Answers to Modern Weight Problems.” She has a private practice in Berkeley, California. She welcomes comments to this article and can be reached at email@example.com.
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