A Real Yoga Challenge; Empathy, Compassion & (Healthy) Detachment

I met *Bryce about 20 or so years ago when I was working on an assignment for my university course about alcoholism.  Sitting across the table from him at the Salvation Army in Surry Hills, it was easy to recall that I had seen him before, getting on the train at Town Hall Station. He was hard to miss, covered as he was in tattoos, mostly unprofessional, including a huge one scrawled across his neck that spelt out a girls’ name; *Jenny.  As intimidating as he appeared,  he came across as warm, gentle, affable and vulnerable. He told me that “Jenny” was the name of his young daughter, who was now in care. Her mother was still living the life of an addict but he had opted, a few years ago, to completely change things. One day, he simply woke up and decided to give up alcohol, cigarettes and heroin.

He told me that back in that old life, he used to carry a huge knife in his boot and thought nothing of breaking into people’s houses – even when they were home – to get money to feed his addictions. He said that in his time, he had tied victims to chairs, held his knife at their throats and laughed at them when the immense fear caused them to wet themselves. It was hard for him to say,  just as it was hard to hear and  it is now difficult to write, to read or to imagine. That kind of cruelty and egocentrism; it’s the complete opposite of what we think of as sensitivity, empathy or compassion. But no child is born cruel.  Bryce’s genetic disposition and sensitive personality, combined with his less than pleasant life experiences, meant that he had ended up soul-less. His true nature had been buried.  Without the skills initially to repair his life, he had surrounded himself in invisible armour. Consumed by anger, self-hatred and lack of awareness, he had gone on a rampage with one purpose; to destroy himself and hurt anyone else who got in the way.

After a long journey of drying out and staying clean, and thanks to help from the Salvos, Bryce was now on the other side and much more self aware. He had been trained and spent a lot of his time working as a volunteer counsellor for the Salvos. He told me that, especially in the beginning, he had been hopeless at it. All these people, many of whom who lived on the streets and had some of the most terrible experiences imaginable, would come in and tell him their life stories. Bryce said the the accounts were sometimes so awful, he couldn’t stop himself crying uncontrollably in their presence, especially when it came to women.  As dark as it sounds, it did lend itself to a bit of a comical  moment during our interview as he reflected the fact that many people who had come in for counselling had ended up on his side of the table, comforting him while saying,  “But honestly, I’m OK now, Bryce, don’t cry!”.

Jokes aside though, this is the other side of  unhealthy detachment and it is important to be careful. Bryce was probably always a sensitive person. He had a difficult childhood and coped with it by blocking out his feelings.  Now that he had learnt to “feel” again, the next level of his life and counselling training was really about being able to listen to his clients without getting involved in their “story”.  If he could learn how to do that, then all his life experiences would make him an amazing, empathetic and inspiring counsellor.

Coming from a more privileged background, Swami Vivekananda (ex psychiatrist, Dr. Brian Thomson) relayed his story a couple of years ago at the Sydney Yoga Therapy conference. Shuffling on to the stage, SV could have been anybody’s elderly father or grandfather. He was dressed  in an inconspicuous woolly beige pullover and brown slacks rather than the colourful robes one might normally associate with someone who was known by such an impressive Sanskrit title. After leaving school many years ago, SV spent a few years at university studying psychiatry, and as a young adult, enthusiastically began his medical practice. Within a year or so he was depressed and burnt out. Despite all his intellectual knowledge and qualifications, he quickly discovered how sheltered his life had been.  His youth and limited experience meant he was ill- equipped emotionally to cope with the pain and suffering of others.  It was  shocking he said, to discover how many people had been born into, or had simply found themselves in hell and were really just trying to find ways to survive.

SV gave up his medical rooms, took off and ended up in India for a few years, practising yoga, helping out poverty stricken communities and essentially rediscovering his spiritual self. And by the time he came back, he told us, “I reckon I was a pretty good psychiatrist”.

Empathy and compassion are important human traits, but for overly sensitive souls particularly, it is important to  realise we must honour our emotions and never run from them. They will catch us up eventually; indeed they may even manifest into something that seems unconnected, such as a chronic illness or a condition such as OCD or addiction.  When we practise yoga or meditate, we are constantly working towards allowing ourselves just to  “be with” sometimes uncomfortable sensations and thoughts with judgment or identification.  This is essentially mindfulness. If we can learn to do this objectively by engaging our internal “witness” to tune in without getting caught up in the “story”, it is much less likely we will end up losing the qualities of our true nature .  If we can find the time to be in a quiet place and simply observe, this is essentially an opportunity to work towards healthy detachment. We don’t deny our feelings, we just give them space to be what they are, without letting them dictate WHO we are. When we lend a person our ear, it is imperative to instil a sense of healthy detachment. Says psychologist, Mel Coxley;  “I think it comes back to mindful awareness of your own inner processes, and your focus in the moment. When I’m with a client, my focus and empathic response is 100% with them, but later, that experience must be ‘shelved’, whilst I live my own experience. I could not survive emotionally any other way”.

*Names changed

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