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Regenerative Cultures – Compassion: Strong Back, Soft Front

Regenerative Cultures – Compassion: Strong Back, Soft Front

  • Susana Cravo • Consultora & Fundadora da Kutsaca e da Plataforma Reflorestar.org

Although it is my dear and faithful companion in life, I deliberately left the theme of Compassion for this month of December. Some people still think that at this time of year, people – who are moved by the celebration of Christmas and/or New Year – are more open to balance, reflection, love and compassion.

The original phrase that guides my inspiration for this article – “Strong Back, Soft Front” – comes from Joan Halifax, an extraordinary, deeply inspiring woman and an icon of true compassion for me.

Let’s start by clearing up some myths about compassion, which is still very much associated with pity, mercy, charity, vertical/superior-inferior relationships. And I do this with the support of the “Compassion without Borders” Programme, kindly offered in Portuguese by Margarida Cardoso over the last three months, based on the well-known CIT Programme – Compassionate Integrity Training, present in more than 30 countries and in partnership with UNESCO, MGIEP (Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Education for Peace and Sustainable Development) and different universities and schools, also integrating the latest developments in the field of neuroscience, psychology, trauma-informed care, peace and conflict studies and contemplative science.

‘Compassionate Integrity’ is “the ability to live according to one’s own values, based on the recognition of a common humanity and a fundamental orientation towards kindness and reciprocity.” It is not right to promote harm towards oneself, others and the world. On the other hand, “cultivating ‘Compassionate Integrity’ in personal life and in the community has a direct impact on individual and collective growth.”

It’s essential to go through, practise and integrate the three areas: relating to yourself, relating to others and relating to systems.

Because living with a soft front and an open heart is for those who dare to “be a girl”. It takes a lot of courage to maintain our sensitivity, love and compassion

Focusing on our common humanity: we all seek happiness and avoid suffering. Even if this seems difficult to accept or understand at times. Appreciate the Value of each Life, without expectations, utilitarian and/or transactional premises. And to take on two fundamental changes: (if they don’t already inhabit us).

1 – Our basic tendency towards kindness. This is something I completely agree with (despite the different currents of thought that divide us into “naturally good” and/or “naturally bad/cold/selfish”), and which is supported by recent studies on the subject: “humans are, above all, motivated by the need to receive and express compassion, care and kindness (…) connection and care”. In fact, “no species of mammal or bird can fully develop without receiving care in the form of touch or contact from another individual of the species.” The shadow side of this primary need for belonging and connection, as well as the strong fear of social rejection, leads us to behave in accordance with our group and context. And this raises another fundamental issue, which Mother Teresa of Calcutta expressed so well in her famous phrase “The problem with the world is that we draw our family circle too small”. Our tendency towards kindness is towards those we see as our fellow human beings, who we see as more deserving of our love, empathy and compassion. Excluding, ignoring or even harming those outside our circle.

2 – Neuroplasticity and Neurogenesis: we have the ability to increase kindness and compassion. “Studies suggest that cultivating compassion and connection improves the immune system and reduces psychosocial stress. Everything points to the fact that the need for compassion and care is built into our bodies and that by knowing this, we can use this knowledge to our advantage.” (Course “Compassion without Borders”, Margarida Cardoso).

In addition, recent studies, shared by UNESCO, show that people’s apparent apathy or indifference to conflicts and/or serious situations facing the world is due to a lack of clarity and discernment about how we can help.

And this is what compassion is all about: the readiness to help, with discernment and skill. To do what is needed, to be helpful, to alleviate suffering, to do what is right, even – and this is fundamental – without knowing what the outcome will be. Joan Halifax uses a phrase that particularly touches me: “If we have a spike in our foot, we naturally lead our hand to take the spike out of our foot. In the same way, as a larger organism, compassion is about naturally taking the spikes out of feet that hurt.”

“We are lotus flowers in seas of fire” (J. Halifax adapted from the original “Ihich Nhat Hanh”)

And the hands that take the spikes off our feet, as hard as it is for us to admit, are feminine.

In the corridors of hospitals, prisons, war camps and other difficult settings, this author and others share many examples of this feminine presence, which, in the midst of chaos and violence, listens, wipes away tears, holds hands, cares, nourishes, sustains and even comforts us with a smile, lulls us with a song or a story. Caring hands and soft chests are above all women.

V (Eve Ensler), the well-known feminist playwright and creator of the “Vagina Monologues”, who was abused by her father for years and works with women all over the world, speaks of “a girl cell” in all of us – women and men, which we have learnt to suppress because we see it as fragile and dangerous. This “girl cell” manifests itself as “compassion, empathy, passion, intuition, vulnerability” – the soft breast, therefore.

In the brutish world we live in, being strong means “not being a girl”. “Being a girl” is something so powerful that we try to annihilate it. And that’s exactly why we’re here. If there had been more “girls” in power, we certainly wouldn’t be facing so many conflicts, disorder and devastation.

Amongst the many touching stories of overcoming adversity and revolting violence, V (Eve Ensler) often shares examples of the impressive strength of “being a girl”: of women who decide to live, forgive, help and even love their mutilated bodies, their babies born of atrocious rapes, their fathers (and mothers), mates who sold them, abandoned them, raped them, humiliated them and mistreated them. V (Eve Ensler) brings up another fundamental aspect of “being a girl”: at a time when she thought she had already lived and seen so much, her remarkable experience in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in what is known as the City of Joy, which shelters women who are victims of extreme violence, made her go even deeper. It was this “piercing of her heart” that gave her the courage and strength to help.

Because living with a soft front and an open heart is for those who dare to “be a girl”. It takes a lot of courage to maintain our sensitivity, love and compassion. “We are Lotus Flowers in seas of fire” (J. Halifax adapted from the original by “Thich Nhat Hanh”). And it only becomes really powerful when it stops being about “Me” (individual/intimate core) and starts being about “Us” (collective/cause that touches me).

The cause, discernment and disciplined, integrated practice of the Three Territories Path – relating to oneself, others and systems – is what makes us Strong Back. Without a strong back, there is no compassion. Empathic suffering or even burnout will end up visiting us if we don’t take care of ourselves and ask for help when necessary, if we don’t protect ourselves from the vampires who will always visit us and if we don’t set limits and end points at times. There’s something else that’s fundamental to Strong Back: the network, the community. But anyone who ventures into challenging territory knows that there are times when the network is almost non-existent, and you need a lot of internal resilience. Therefore, the cause is the compass, disciplined practice is the power stick.

It would be unfair not to emphasise two things in this article:

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1 – Many of the striking examples I have experienced and witnessed cannot be shared for ethical reasons, but they are found above all in the invisible, in ordinary people, without any kind of voice or stage. However, violence takes many forms and crosses all worlds, statuses, means, often seemingly improbable. That’s why compassion should be a compulsory subject in schools, at home and from an early age. It’s up to all of us to rescue our “girl cells” in ourselves and in those around us.

2 – Fortunately, there are many “girl cells” in men. And here I pay tribute to some of them:

The first is Dr Denis Mukwege, co-founder with V (Eve Ensler) of City of Joy – a centre that welcomes these women survivors of extreme violence, in Bukavu, Democratic Republic of Congo. Responsible for hundreds of rescues and operations, often under enormous risk and threat of death, this remarkable gynaecologist and Nobel Peace Prize winner is a world reference.

The second is the well-known and remarkable Dr Igor Vaz. The specialist in Urology and General Surgery was, for some years, the only Mozambican urologist working in the country, having also faced tough situations, war and famine, but remaining faithful, out of love, to the cause, and with a unique record of success in the serious problem of obstetric fistula that affects so many women.

The third is Nicholas Winton, the British man who managed to help 669 children escape from Czechoslovakia before the Nazi invasion. Joan Halifax often refers to his example when she talks about genuine compassion, without quid pro quo, without expectations. The kind that moves us because it’s the right thing to do (even if we get hurt). Nicholas lived to be 106, proving that kindness and compassion are also examples of longevity. Only 60 years after his feat, he was surprised by the BBC in an auditorium full of adults, whom he himself had helped to survive. A video that, no matter how many times I watch it, always moves me.

And finally, my tribute to Ruy Santos, founder of the Makobo Platform and the Kaya Project, who, in Mozambique’s recent history, is an example of Compassion and Servant Leadership, for all that he creates, mobilises and represents. He has already been recognised by Queen Elizabeth II as a Commonwealth “Point of Light” and recently in the “BANTUMEN Powerlist 100 – Lusophone’s most influential black personalities”.

All these shared stories, and many of the unshared ones, are a source of inspiration and courage in my journey as an ‘Apprentice-Peregrine’.

Finally, and given the time of year, I risk being a “girl” and invite you to let this beautiful poem penetrate your soft chest:

“Kindness (by Naomi Shihab Nye), Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside you, You must know sadness as the other deepest thing, You have to wake up with sadness, Talk to it until your voice reaches the thread of all sorrows, And sees the size of the fabric, Then only kindness makes sense, It’s only kindness that makes you put on your shoes, Launches you out every morning to send letters and buy bread, It’s only kindness that lifts its head, Above the crowd of the world to say, I’m the one you were looking for, And then it goes with you everywhere, Like a shadow, or a friend…. ” (Inspiration-courtesy of the course “Compassion without Borders”, Margarida Cardoso).

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