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Compassion and Fierce Presence

Updated: Apr 15, 2021

“Compassion is threatening to the ego. We might think of it as something warm and soothing, but actually it’s very raw. When we set out to support other beings, when we go so far as to stand in their shoes, when we aspire to never close down to anyone, we quickly find ourselves in the uncomfortable territory of “life not on my terms.” - Pema Chödrön

I read this quote by Pema recently and it hit me why it’s been so hard to connect with the concept of compassion. I don’t like those uncomfortable places. I move away from them. I like life on my terms. It’s not that I don’t care about people, I do. I want to listen to them, help them if that’s what they want. But to really stand in there shoes and not close down? As uncomfortable as it is, I love that I’ve discovered this new distinction and new place to do ‘the work’ … the work of Fierce Presence. Oriah Mountain Dreamer, from her book and poem The Invitation speaks to this level of presence: (excerpted)

I want to know

if you have touched

the centre of your own sorrow

if you have been opened

by life’s betrayals

or have become shrivelled and closed

from fear of further pain.

I want to know

if you can sit with pain

mine or your own

without moving to hide it

or fade it

or fix it.


I want to know

if you can be alone

with yourself

and if you truly like

the company you keep

in the empty moments.

The etymology of compassion is to ‘suffer with’ which doesn’t sound too appealing to me but when I read Parker Palmer’s quote it resonates:

“The human soul doesn’t want to be advised or fixed or saved. It simply wants to be witnessed — to be seen, heard and companioned exactly as it is. When we make that kind of deep bow to the soul of a suffering person, our respect reinforces the soul’s healing resources, the only resources that can help the sufferer make it through.”

Being present and non-judgemental with others and our selves with a raw openness to all the discomforts as well as to all the joys. This seems like worthwhile work for me to explore.

© Michael Aaron 2020

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