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Welcome to My Year of Living Gently

I was on retreat last fall with a teacher whose message is to meet everything with compassion. "Enlightenment is when you meet all the pain in life with compassion," he said.

I don't know what that means, I said.

Let's say I have pain in my knee sitting here. I know how to be present with the pain, how to observe the sensation, to not get caught up in the stories about what I might have done or the congenital structural defects I'm cursed with, to not wander off into thoughts about whether I need a knee replacement and how I can fit six months of rehab into my life and and complications from surgery and ...

I know Shinzen Young's equation: suffering = pain x resistance. I can (and have) worked with all that.

But I don't know where compassion comes in. I don't know how to move from bare attention to kind attention. "Seeing what's happening is preliminary," he says. "You first learn to tolerate it, then move toward love and compassion."

How do I do that? I beg. Out loud, I ask the question, but internally I hear my pleading. It is a mystery to me. Tell me how.

The answer is the heart practices, the brahmaviharas, the divine abodes. Lovingkindness. Compassion. Appreciative joy. Equanimity.

I have done those, and I do those, and I appreciate their effects. I'm a nicer person. Really. Less defended, less rigid, more flexible. I see the inherent dignity of others, and I remind myself that I am equally worthy. But I don't know how to be that, to realize it, to embody it. And I want that. I see that I can't find equanimity in the world without finding it in myself.

The advice is to be gentle.

It's not the first time I've heard this piece of advice. It is something of a theme in my Buddhist life. The Bodhisattva name I was given translates to "gentle dawn," and when it was spoken people in the room -- who knew I had cried through most of the previous week of silent meditation -- went "awwww," the audible sound of the quivering heart.

I've been told that I'm hard on myself when I think I am merely stating things as they are, dispassionately.

What does it mean to be gentle to myself? I wrote in my journal. What does that look like?

Then I came home from the retreat and picked up with my life. The question lingered in the back of my mind: What would gentle look like?

Then this week, a video surfaced in my Facebook newsfeed. Pema Chodron had posted it in 2010, but it was circulating as if it were new.

Are you willing to commit to being gentle to yourself? Working on that for the next year? she asks.

Oh, a challenge.

Ani Pema didn't explain how to be gentle to myself. It's not like walking 10,000 steps with a FitBit to tell you every day that you've hit your milestone. You'll have to figure out what that means, she said.

So that's what I'm doing, making my next 12 months my year of living gently.

As an added incentive, in a recently published paper in Brain, Behavior and Immunity, Brandeis University researchers found a connection between a self-compassionate attitude and lower levels of stress-induced inflammation.

According to Medical Press,

It's long known that psychological stress can trigger biological responses similar to the effects of illness or injury, including inflammation. While regulated inflammation can help stave off infection or promote healing, unregulated inflammation can lead to cardiovascular disease, cancer and Alzheimer's.

Self-compassion describes behaviors such as self-forgiveness or, more colloquially, cutting yourself some slack. A person with high levels of self-compassion may not blame themselves for stress beyond their control or may be more willing to move on from an argument, rather than dwelling on it for days.

Participants in the study took stress tests and had their levels of a particular stress marker measured. Researchers were surprised to find that people with low self-compassion continued to show high levels of the stress hormone after the stressors had ended.

"The high responses of IL-6 (the stress marker) on the first day and the higher baseline levels on the second day suggest that people with low self-compassion are especially vulnerable to the adverse effects of this kind of stress," a researcher said.

The research illustrates how easy it is for stress to build over time and how a seemingly small daily stressor, such as traffic, can impact a person's health if they don't have the right strategies to deal with it.

Another teacher suggested that self-compassion is being willing to forgive yourself. Forgive everyone everything, including yourself, yet another teacher suggests.

Yeah, I'm on a quest. I'm going to find that gentle and bring it home.

Does that sound aggressive?


My Year of Living Gently

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