BY JOHN MAKRANSKY AND BROOKE DODSON-LAVELLE
We come into this world dependent upon the care of others, and the ways in which our caregivers have seen, loved, and welcomed us empower us to see, connect with, and care for others. Although our capacity for care is shaped by these formative relationships, it is also deeply shaped by the moments of care that permeate our lives. These moments—gestures of kindness, offers of sympathy or support, experiences of being fully present with another—often go unnoticed. Yet we can learn to tune in to them more, thereby enabling ourselves to deepen our own caring resources for others.
As part of Mind & Life’s Ethics, Education, and Human Development (EEHD) initiative, we have developed a model for using contemplative techniques to help students and teachers learn to recognize and nurture their deep capacities for care. This model is based largely on the Innate Compassion Training program developed by John Makransky. Though this program draws from contemplative patterns of Tibetan Buddhism, it has analogues in other contemplative traditions. Such practices are also amenable to secular contexts because they draw directly from the life experiences and worldviews of those who engage them. These particular methods for cultivating compassion have been tested in diverse secular and multifaith settings and are informed by insights from education and developmental psychology.
The EEHD program is structured by three modes of care: receiving care, developing self-care, and extending care. Each of these modes empowers the others. Though we developed this program with teachers and students in mind, these practices have application in all our lives.
We are introduced to our unconditional worth and potential by others who see it in us, take joy in it, wish us well, and thereby help us to recognize and actualize our potential. This empowers us to recognize and respond to the same human potential in others. In short, to receive care deeply enables us to care deeply and well for others. Coming to sense our own needs, struggles, pains, and stressors also enables us to sense these in others, and to respond in compassionate and effective ways.
Even if we grasp this need for care intuitively, however, imagining ourselves as the object of care can be difficult. We may feel that receiving care makes us selfish or weak. It may also make us feel vulnerable to being hurt, especially if we’ve been let down before. We might also feel deep down that we are unworthy or undeserving of care. But without a fundamental sense of self-respect and appreciation of our own worth, our ability to recognize a similar worth in others and extend care to them—including our children, families, patients, students, and so on—is built on a fragile base. The following practice helps us to embed “receiving care” more deeply:
Recall an experience in which you felt valued, cared for, even loved. This image of care may be a memory of someone from childhood whom you loved being with. Or the image may stem from a moment of genuine connection from any part of your life—a warm smile, a welcoming gaze—with someone like a teacher, a friend, a mentor, or even a stranger. If it makes you happy to recall such a moment, it is suitable to bring it to mind for this practice. Try imagining that moment is occurring right now; notice what it feels like to hold that experience in mind. This is what it is like to receive care. Hold this moment in mind for a little while longer, allowing yourself to accept this person’s care to whatever extent you can. Take a few minutes to relax and allow this feeling to infuse every part of your body and mind.
Taking a few moments regularly to recall such moments can help you remember many other instances of care that have permeated your life. Learning to re-experience these moments of warmth and affection when you were seen in your potential provides the safety and security from which you are better able to welcome and see others in their potential. As you work with this practice, you might find yourself spontaneously recalling more and more moments in which someone took joy in you or wished you well, from many parts of your life.
Deepening our capacity for self-care can facilitate a sense of inner refuge and safety that is central to our health and well-being. In this mode, we learn to let our patterns of thought and feeling gently relax and unwind within a basic openness of mind. We thereby learn to host our difficult thoughts and emotions with compassion, which can empower us to host others’ feelings with compassion, becoming a more stable source of support and care for them. Finally, accessing this sense of inner safety or refuge can help protect us against stress and fatigue and also the burnout that many caregivers encounter in their work. The following practice helps us embed “self-care” more deeply:
One way of learning to rest in inner safety is through the practice of three deep “letting be’s” of body, breath, and mind. First, drop into the body with a sense of openness. Sense the body’s “groundedness” and wholeness. Notice any feelings of grasping or holding on within the body, and gently let those places of tension relax, letting all bodily feelings settle in their own way. Deeply let be within the body, as if you are becoming one with it. After a little while, sense any grasping to the breathing process, and let that relax. Let the breath settle into its own natural flow, as if you are becoming one with the breath, feeling it breathe you, and letting be. After a little while, notice any grasping to the thinking process in the mind, and let that feeling of holding on relax deep within. Give the mind permission to fall totally open letting all patterns of thought and feeling relax and unwind within a space of deep allowing and letting all be. Experience all thoughts, feelings, and sensations within this compassionate space of deep acceptance—the natural kindness of letting all be.
Many of us feel called to care. We value caring and compassionate people, and feel inspired to cultivate these qualities more deeply in ourselves. Practicing the extension of care should not be an additional obligation, but flow out of an awareness of one’s own sense of worth and belonging. Martin Buber described “I-thou” relationships as sensing another person not as a mere object but as a subject of care, one of “us,” held in an inclusive community. This is the ethical sensibility for loving action that respects and listens deeply to others. The following practice helps us embed “extending care” more deeply:
Sit in a relaxed way with back comfortably straight, eyes gazing gently downward. Begin with the “three letting-be’s” practice described above, becoming one with body, breath, and openness of mind. Recall one of your caring figures above and slightly behind you, taking a moment to connect with this presence and his/her wish for your deepest well-being. Imagine this loving wish and energy as a gentle shower of energy that permeates your whole body and mind. After a few moments, call to mind someone dear to you, for whom it feels natural to extend this wish of love. As you continue to receive this energy from your caring figure, allow it to come through you to the person before you, imagining this loving energy pervading this person’s whole body and mind. Sense that you are communing or connecting with the depth of that person’s being, affirming his/her goodness and worth, wishing him/her totally well. When ready, you can extend this wish to a few more people that are dear to you, while allowing the loving energy from your caring figure to come through you to all of them. After a few more moments, allow this image to fade, and simply merge into oneness with that loving energy, allowing the mind to fall completely open.
Recalling a caregiver evokes our underlying capacity for love and compassion that is always available, from which we learn to extend love to others more and more. The practice of extending love does not involve a struggle to try to get ourselves to be nicer or more loving, but is a means to help us cooperate with the underlying capacity of love that is always ready to come out. As we consciously accept that loving energy from our caring figures, we sense our fundamental worthiness that always deserves such love, no matter what we thought we deserve. From there, we can intuitively sense the same essential worth of others, no matter what they think of themselves; connect with that in them; and uphold them in their best potential beyond the field of individual or social judgments.