One of the most valuable insights I’ve gained from my from faith’s teachings, is to not hold a grudge* (against others, against situations, and against God), and how to avoid the accompanying and self-defeating bitterness. Not only has this made me a better person, I feel that this has given me an added dimension as a therapist (and also has made me a better teacher and trainer).
But therapy often requires that we talk about the past, especially past hurts. We examine them (or process them in popular therapy parlance), and then use what we’ve gained from the process as a foundation to a more actualized self. But most psychotherapy insists that while we can gain, even from painful situations, the situations are unfair because life is unfair.
Judaism actually teaches that while horrible (and I mean horrible) situations can and do occur, generally these situations are actually designed with compassion by God to help us grow or correct ourselves in some manner.
While this means we should look to find the potential for growth or correction in all manner of painful situations, Jewish wisdom actually insists that we not do so when responding to the pain of people other than ourselves! In other words, we must examine and accept and learn from our own difficulties, but when it comes to others’ suffering we must first and foremost embrace compassion and jump in with helpful actions.
This understanding has definitely enriched my understanding of the therapy process. I find that while helping someone make sense of or accept a painful situation, even a traumatic situation, and all the accompanying issues that need to be worked through, the underlying theme of therapy must, from my perspective, be compassion.
Compassion isn’t a flood of sympathy or even empathy, though. Compassion, according to the ancient sages, is actually a judicious blend of utter, total giving and utter, total restraint. It blends the ability to connect with another with the ability to step back and remain objective. In Kabbalistic terms, compassion is “tiferet,” also known as harmony and (perfect) beauty. Like an uplifting musical chord or a thoughtful Ikebana, compassion harmonizes opposing forces to produce enlightened balance.
Here’s a simple illustration: if a child is screaming for his third piece of candy and you know he is prone to cavities and upset stomachs, a person who is governed by sympathy or even empathy, might give in and give him the candy.
Conversely, the person who is governed by a sense of restraint, might simply not give into the child and walk away (or tell them to stop crying and get over it).
But someone who is governed by a blend of sympathy and restraint, which we call “compassion,” is able to comfort the child, hug him, sympathize with him, while still denying him the candy but offering him a healthy alternative and encouraging him to try it.
This, in a way, is what therapy must teach us how to do for ourselves.
By “legislating our feelings” which means, bringing wisdom and insight into our experience of our feelings and our response to them, we allow our feelings to become our servants instead of us become slaves to our feelings.
*If I feel a grudge coming on, I try and fight it!
Photo: Ikebana by Adriano.