I am currently enrolled in the eight-week Cultivating Compassion course offered through the School for Contemplative Living here in New Orleans. The course leader is Dr. William Thiele, the School’s Founding Director and author of the book Monks in the World. William went through a year-long Compassion Cultivation Training program at Stanford University in preparation to lead the local sessions. Dr. Thupten Jinpa at the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford developed the course. More about the course development can be found in Dr. Jinpa’s book A Fearless Heart. Dr. Jinpa is otherwise known for being the official translator for The Dalai Lama since 1985.
The course approach to compassion convinced me to spend my Sunday afternoons for the next couple of months in the seminar setting. Dr. Thupten defines compassion in A Fearless Heart (2015:xxii) as “. . . a sense of concern that arises when we are confronted with another’s suffering and feel motivated to see that suffering relieved.” Also, I was intrigued that one session would be devoted to self-compassion.
The self-compassion session took place this past Sunday. In the session, William encouraged the participants to consider a personal circumstance or event that caused us to be filled with doubt and self-blame. I was somewhat surprised that what immediately came to my mind was my stage 4 cancer diagnosis of one year ago. In fact, the session brought me to view an aspect of the cancer diagnosis I had not discussed with anyone, but only internalized.
Last year, during the initial speculation on the primary source of the cancer, I immediately focused on my complicity in the disease:
- As I was a cigarette smoker from the age of 10 until my mid-40s, I felt assured that I had lung cancer. That proved not to be the case – my lungs are in great shape.
- My general practitioners first guess was colon cancer and I immediately felt guilt for procrastinating and never having a colonoscopy despite the recommendation of my general practitioner 15 years ago. However, my colonoscopy last August revealed a cancer-free GI system.
- Next my oncologist ruminated that perhaps the cancer originated in my liver based on some blood test results. I immediately then experienced the shame and self-blame of my years of alcohol and drug abuse. However, subsequent PET and CAT scans showed my liver is free of any cancer as well.
Another exercise in today’s session was to respond to “If anything were possible,
- What would I love to find in my life?
- How would I want to grow as a person?
- What would I want to offer the world?”
An immediate and legitimate response to the first question seemingly would be to deal with my health issues. But with a bit of reflection, I thought otherwise, responding to the questions, respectively as follows:
- for my thoughts and actions to align with a direction toward my true self
- to prioritize how I expend my time and resources toward that alignment
- my true self
These response make sense to me when I consider the popular Biblical adage, (Mark 8:36) “And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul?”
True self has been the trajectory of my recovery for the past three decades – coming to terms with what I am truly called to be and do in all of my relationships with self, family, friends, and the world. I cannot imagine having traveled that path without my road out of addiction. I expect that my current health issues will provide me the same opportunities for growth and direction toward that true self. Being self-compassionate clearly includes fully embracing those possibilities on that journey.