“If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.” (Mother Teresa)
We belong to each other indeed, and yet in the chaos and rush of daily life, we often speed by one another–even those we love–without truly noticing our connection.
Over the past several months, I have been blessed to facilitate several mindfulness workshops and retreats. I always end the sessions with an exercise in compassion. As I explain prior to starting, our muscles get stronger when we lift weights, and over time, lifting weights becomes easier. Same as our brain. The more we practice compassion, the stronger the parts of our brain responsible for empathy and kindness become. And with time, compassion, just like lifting weights, becomes easier, more natural.
The compassion exercise that we do together first involves directing compassion inwards towards ourselves. We are often harder on ourselves than we are to those in our lives. We begin with a brief grounding meditation. I ask my participants to put their hands over their hearts, and really feel the sensation of their heart beating. They repeat out loud to themselves, “May I be safe. May I be healthy. May I be at peace.”
This is often challenging. We are not used to slowing down, looking inwards, and being intentionally kind towards ourselves. Somehow, along the way, we drifted towards a place where self criticism feels more comfortable than wishing ourselves well. Many find themselves unexpectedly in tears, perhaps reunited with an earlier, gentler version of themselves.
After this self compassion exercise, I ask participants to pair up. They hold hands, and look into each others eyes. I normally ask them to hold the gaze of their partner for about 45 seconds, but it truly feels like an eternity. Initially, there is nervous chatter and laughter, as I ask them to settle in and look at one another in silence. They go on to wish each other the same blessings, of safety, health, and peace. This often ends in tears also, and many hug and hold onto another for just one moment longer.
Afterwards, we process the exercise together. Many people discuss how awkward and new it felt to really look into another person’s eyes. To really witness the color, the changing landscape of emotion, the soul and spirit that emerges through the eyes. To see the way the lines on the face shift ever so subtly in response to the way the eyes move. Some speak to how difficult it felt to allow oneself to be seen, how uncomfortable even 30 seconds of sustained eye contact felt. I remember two women who expressed how challenging it was to not navigate the connection with words, and only use touch and sight.
I always try to participate in the exercise as I lead it, and I have to say that it always unravels me just a bit. Parts of me open up, parts that felt locked and disconnected and disembodied in ways that I wasn’t even aware of. I remember how desperately I long to connect with the people in my life. How desperately all of me longs to know and be known.
But perhaps most important of all, after this compassion exercise, I always leave better able to notice. I look a little more, see a little more, yes, into the eyes of those who surround me. I try to understand what I see. It could be the man driving the Uber, or the barista making my coffee. Or it could be my husband, or my children, or my patients.
When I focus my eyes, my presence and attention follows. If I am looking at my phone, my presence and attention rests there. When I look at the person in line behind me, I become present with the people in my world. We stop skimming by each other, and actually connect in our human form, body to body, perhaps even heart to heart. It is hard to hate and fear, so much easier to know and even love, when we are looking into each other’s eyes.
When I look into the eyes of my children, I see myself reflected. I see my husband, and our parents reflected. I see kindness, innocence, laughter. I see curiosity and questioning. I see their past and future selves, intersecting. I see how fleeting the time together really is. I stop looking around my children and above and in between them and actually take them in, fully, through a shared moment that will never again arrive.
So today, and in the week ahead, I invite you to join me in noticing the people who surround you, whether strangers, friends, family, or partners. What do you notice, what do you see? How do you feel?
With gratitude, Monisha