Guest article by Sharon Salzberg
One of the ironies of being a caregiver for someone in our family or working in the helping professions is that we often don’t receive the help and support we need for ourselves. As we open up to others we find that it is not unusual to experience secondhand suffering and fall into exhaustion, frustration and demoralization.
This is why self-compassion is an important quality of any compassionate caring for others. Self-compassion, which I sometimes describe as a sense of sufficiency in compassion, is a central focus of all of the meditation retreats that I lead for those in the helping professions. Without a sense of sufficiency, we can begin to feel overwhelmed and, when this happens, we aren’t effective in our work as caregivers.
The first step in strengthening ourselves is to see that our spirits have been changed by our work in the helping professions. Once we are able to see that clearly, we can begin to bring our attention to the part of ourselves that is feeling fatigued or burned out. With a mindfulness practice we can slow down and nurture a sense of calmness and self-acceptance and cultivate an attitude of gentleness, kindness and openness.
When we’re balanced in this way we naturally become more resilient caregivers. It doesn’t mean that we become cold and indifferent to the suffering that we encounter with those that we care for—in fact, the wisdom gained through mindfulness and other contemplative practices allows us to move even closer to the suffering of others because we are also able to touch the joy that comes from providing the care that we do. That joy bolsters and sustains us in the more difficult moments.
At the next retreat for people in helping professions and other caregivers that I’ll be leading—“People Who Care for People” —at the Garrison Institute–March 4-6, which will be co-taught with Ali Smith, Atman Smith, and Andres Gonzalez from the Holistic Life Foundation—we are going to explore different practices that help us experience self-compassion or bring a sense of sufficiency in our compassion for others. We will use contemplative methods to help us access the resiliency of the human spirit and to cultivate greater calm, clarity, and peace of mind.
When we’re connected to both the joys and difficulties experienced in caring for others, we’re connecting to something bigger than ourselves. It allows us to see the caregiving relationship in a different light. The people that we care for are bigger than their diagnoses or whatever their situation is. And our lives are bigger when we are able to continue caring for others.
Sharon Salzberg has been leading meditation retreats worldwide since 1974. She is a co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts and The Barre Center for Buddhist Studies. Sharon’s book, Real Happiness at Work is the follow-up to her New York Times bestseller, Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation: A 28-Day Program.