When another person makes you suffer, it is because he suffers deeply within himself, and his suffering is spilling over. He does not need punishment; he needs help. That’s the message he is sending.
-Thich Nhat Hahn
To see beyond someone’s hurtful behavior to their true loving nature is the very essence of compassion. But, this isn’t always so easy, especially when we are really hurt.
When I first came across Thich Nhat Hahn’s quote, I was struck by how beautiful and loving was his approach was to compassion and forgiveness. There is no blaming, no shaming, no re-stating. Just love. Just help.
But, what if the one doing the hurting is me? And what if the one needing compassion is me? Forgiving another is one thing, but forgiving ourselves is extremely challenging.
Like many of you, I have spent my life trying to do and be my best. And, I brought this perfectionism with me to my spiritual path. Somehow self-forgiveness and self-compassion eluded me. To me, it seemed more like self-pity. Or, not taking responsibility for one’s actions.
Not too long ago, I had had a non-stop busy day and, that evening, after a disrespectful comment from one of my children, I snapped back. I felt terrible. I thought to myself, “How can I talk about mindfulness to my kids and then snap at them?” Isn’t that a bit hypocritical?
And then I remembered Thich Nhat Hahn’s quote. And, I directed it toward myself. Rather than flooding my head with the typical negative and shaming comments, I said to myself, “You are really suffering. What is going on? What do you need?” I realized that I was tired, that I had gotten up too early, and had spent most of the day taking care of others. What I needed was some time to myself. I had forgotten to take care of myself. The problem wasn’t my daughter; the problem was that I had forgotten to take care of myself.
So, I sat down, took a few deep breaths, and sent loving thoughts to myself. I then went and apologized to my daughter. I said, “I shouldn’t have talked to you like that. I am tired and I need some time to myself.” The response shocked me! She smiled and told me that we all need time for ourselves. “You’re human mom,” she said and gave me a hug. And, I realized that by playing out the whole situation and not shutting down with pain and shame, I had unintentionally given her permission to go through the whole process herself: to take care of herself, to lose it once in a while, to ask forgiveness and be forgiven.
This is what life is. Life is not a painting on the wall—an impression of what we want it to be. It is, in the words of the Clint Eastwood film, the “good, the bad, and the ugly”. And, once we start embracing all of life and all of ourselves, we can then embrace all of others, eventually seeing the connection between all of us.
So, today, be gentle with yourself. Be gentle with others. And, rather than reacting, see who is suffering, who needs help, whether that person is you, a loved one, a friend or even a stranger on the street.
Here is a breathing exercise focused on self-compassion.