We will develop and cultivate the liberation of mind by loving kindness, make it our vehicle, make it our basis, stabilize it, exercise ourselves in it and fully perfect it. Siddhartha Gautama Buddha
Addicts in psychotherapy are often ambivalent about whether they are ready to act compassionately, even if their own recovery depends upon it. I have found in my practice that many clients feel a deep desire to reach out to someone compassionately, but that they are afraid to do so. They are often so engrossed in the shame and self-doubt that have defined their experience that they feel unworthy or unready to reach out.
Many feel unsteady and uncentered in the present moment. Because they are keeping themselves under close and constant scrutiny, addicts may feel they do not have the capacity to express true compassion. Recovery can be difficult, and there are often no easy answers. Yet understanding compassion and practicing it every day can have a positive and lasting impact on the lives of recovering addicts.
After years of reflecting on my own experiences as a therapist and a human being, I formulated a therapy style called Compassion Attentiveness. This technique engages both the therapist and client in a compassionate process that begins with empathy. The therapist must feel and embrace the client’s pain and suffering as if it were her own. If the therapist does not understand what is compounding her ailing client’s struggles, she cannot provide adequate treatment.
The client must also learn to activate her inner compassion by focusing on the struggles of others and, at the same time, taking her focus away from her own pain. Through compassionate attentiveness, the client will learn to be more empathetic. That empathy can create a bridge to her own recovery.
Before moving further, I would like to define compassion as it would be used in this therapeutic approach. Compassion literally means “to suffer together.” More broad definitions include aspects of caring for another person’s happiness and attempting to alleviate another’s suffering. However, I would propose that compassionate attitudes should not be limited to feelings and behaviors that we exhibit toward other humans. Compassion, even if directed toward animals or ghosts of our past, can create inner joy, healing and satisfaction.
The Inspiration for Compassion Attentiveness Therapy
Those who see all creatures in themselves and themselves in all creatures know no fear. – Upanishads
While I have always believed that compassion is an important element of my professional and personal life, there was one specific instance that broadened my perspective on compassion. A few years ago, a bee fell in the pool in which I was swimming. My first response was to move away from it, but I could not help glancing back at the struggling bee. It could not fly because it could not get any traction. It became more and more difficult for me to watch the bee’s struggle. Finally, I scooped up the creature with both hands and let the water trickle down through my fingers. Within a few seconds, the bee found traction and flew away. This was a simple act of kindness. Even though much time has passed, the feeling I experienced that day is as powerful and real now as it was then. My act of compassion instantly lifted my mood.
Only the development of compassion and understanding for others can bring us the tranquility and happiness we all seek. – His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama
When clients seek help, I encourage them to embrace their pain and to be unafraid of their suffering. We then begin the stage of the journey that includes small acts of kindness. Clients perform these acts for friends, family members and even strangers. Soon after beginning Compassion Attentiveness Therapy, the clients’ shame and guilt are replaced by self-worth and self-esteem. They now see themselves as helpers rather than victims.
Although addiction is traumatic and painful, feelings of loneliness and victimization dissipate after compassion opens clients’ eyes to a new world of empowerment and happiness. When using Compassion Attentiveness, the therapist navigates clients through difficult emotions, encouraging them to see their own loving nature. This approach allows the clients’ outward-facing compassion to reflect back onto themselves. As the process of individuation ensues, clients become more aware of their self-compassion.
Although this therapeutic style yields wonderful benefits, many beginning in Compassion Attentiveness Therapy are very fearful of turning attention away from themselves. However, they quickly realize that this fear naturally falls away in the process.
As therapy progresses, the therapist becomes a partner rather than a healer. This aligns the goals of the therapist and the client. They both desire to serve each other and those around them; they become a mirror for one another.
Practicing Compassion – The Beginning and the End of the Journey
On this path, effort never goes to waste; and there is no failure. Even a little effort toward spiritual awareness will protect you from the greatest fear. – Bhagavad Gita
As I watch my clients change their daily habits to support a compassionate lifestyle, I see other aspects of their character developing in a positive direction. Various features of maturity and wisdom arise as they come to understand the suffering of others. They essentially reverse the Golden Rule – they treat themselves the way they have learned to treat others.
All in all, practicing compassion allows individuals to understand that their own relief and freedom may come by alleviating the pain of others.
Saleem Noorali has been practicing psychotherapy for over two decades. He is currently the Clinical Director and psychotherapist at Addiction Therapeutic Services in Palm Springs, California, where he provides compassionate care to clients suffering from addiction.