Finding Compassion for Myself
By Malcolm Stern
AS A PSYCHOTHERAPIST, I stress to clients that it is not what happens to you that truly counts; it is how you respond to the challenges that life will inevitably throw your way.
In 2014, I had to take a large dose of my own medicine. My daughter Melissa took her own life after a period of mania, followed by deep depression. She was 33 years old and had led a prosperous and happy life apart from a severe breakdown 10 years previously. She married a fine man named Ian, working tirelessly for Kids Company and was rich with friendships and passions.
Nothing prepares us for the loss of a child. For me, it was as though the fabric of my world had subtly and permanently altered. The best advice I got was from a friend who told me that I would think I was thinking and acting normally, but in truth, that would be impossible while the shock worked through my body, mind, and emotions. I found it hard to access my feelings.
I tried therapy to unlock my grief, but a part of me had frozen and was paralyzed, keeping at bay the enormity of the pain locked away inside me. It has taken me years to begin to come to terms with the loss of Melissa.
Fortunately, in addition to the pain and confusion, there were many lights on my journey. Firstly, I recognized that I needed support. I discovered which friends could accompany me on my grief path and stay present with me and care for me.
COMPASSIONATE MENTAL HEALTH
My ex-wife Amanda (not Melissa's mother, but a loving stepmother) and our children Michael and Alix, bonded in our grief and mutual loss. I joined a six-week course run by the Samaritans for those affected by the suicide of a loved one and found myself sharing my pain with others who understood the process. I was approached by Brigid Bowen, who was starting a series of gatherings called Compassionate Mental Health, and asked if I would open the meetings and offer workshops around sharing our stories.
I would start each of these gatherings with Melissa's story, allowing my emotions to be an integral part of my sharing, knowing that in expressing my feelings, I was permitting others to unlock theirs and also a means of embracing my loss. In Atsitsa , where I have been teaching since 1985, as part of a series of courses on holistic themes, the whole community helped create a mosaic, honoring Melissa, a part of the staff team in her early twenties.
Melissa became a part of all the talks I gave in various environments. Gradually my grief started to unlock as I slowly came to terms with her loss and its impact on my family and me.
I discovered an unexpected outcome of facing my loss. My work deepened as, having traveled to the depths of my suffering, it became more comfortable to accompany others in their journeys of discovery. In some strange way, I had earned the right to go the distance with those whose paths I crossed.
Slowly, peace and acceptance became a part of my psyche. For three decades, I have been teaching in my groups and with individuals that there is no quick fix on the road to self-discovery and healing. There is a richness in embracing life’s challenges with a series of practices.
Very few of us have spontaneous awakenings and find ourselves freed from being at the mercy of life’s iniquities. We find many ways to divert from painful challenges. Most of us are addicted in obvious and subtle ways. Plumbing the depths involves a lifetime of practice.
I have long understood that practice is the key. When I was training in Humanistic Psychology, a woman cathartically let rip in a role-play around her mother. The venom and fury were explosive, and there was hushed awe in the therapy room at her capacity to access the depths of her pain. I was dumbstruck and believed that she had exorcised her pain in her fullness of expression and revolutionized her ability to move on from her horrible childhood. Some two years later, she was still ranting at the specter of her mother. Nothing had changed at the core —only brief respites had granted some relief.
This experience colored my thinking. Over many years it dawned on me that while catharsis is a fantastic safety valve, there is no substitute for becoming conscious of our patterning and taking on daily practices to evolve the loving and wise self that resides within us.
SLAYING YOUR DRAGONS WITH COMPASSION
Some are deceptively simple, such as Bearing Witness, where the practice develops presence in relationship with others or learning to trust and follow our intuitive wisdom, which can be easily undermined by our logical self. Others are more demanding of resilience. The practice of Slaying your Dragons with Compassion, for example, helps us speak our truth in a way that can be received by another. It is also about confronting our internal dragons, becoming conscious of the patterns, and learning to refine our integrity. Two basic principles are at the foundation of the practice Slaying Your Dragons with Compassion:
1. Always endeavor to speak what is true for you and
2. Never hurt another more than is necessary.
Another practice involves creating what the Buddhists call a Sangha—keeping company with fellow pilgrims on this temporary existence on Earth. The essence of our relationships are based on awareness, understanding, harmony, and love.
Thich Nhat Hanh says this about sangha:
“Sangha is more than a community. It’s a deep spiritual practice. A sangha is a community of friends practicing the dharma together to bring about and contain awareness. The essence of a sangha is awareness, understanding, acceptance, harmony, and love. When you do not see this in a community, it is not a true sangha, and you should have the courage to say so. But when you find these elements are present in a community, you know that you have the happiness and fortune of being in a real sangha.”
My recognition and embracing of practices that enhance my spiritual life and understanding have provided a new way of understanding the work I have been doing for most of my life. At the same time, I am honoring the life of my beautiful daughter Melissa, who taught me so much and who I still miss every day.
Malcolm’s third book, “Slay your Dragons with Compassion—Ten Ways to Thrive Even When it Feels Impossible,” is published through Watkins, September 2020. https://malcolmstern.com