Caregivers are motivated by compassion. We see a need and jump in with both feet because we mistakenly believe that compassion asks us to give ourselves away. But true compassion cares for both giver and receiver. It leaves nothing out, including you.
I’d like to propose four simple practices that bring you into the circle of compassion. These take no extra time. They aren’t one more thing to do. Rather, they change how you relate to activities you’re already doing so you can receive short bursts of refreshment throughout your day.
Walking is a miracle. Our young brains devoted enormous energy to learning how to keep us upright, balanced, and moving. But once mastered, we ignored the miracle of walking and put our attention elsewhere.
I’ve noticed that walking is one of my throwaway activities: I walk to get somewhere else. So I made an agreement with myself: When I walk, I enjoy walking. I trust that whatever I’m moving towards will be there when I arrive. It can wait. For now, my attention is on walking.
Walking with awareness nourishes me. I notice the movement of my body, my feet touching the ground, the exquisite balance of my muscles and bones, and the freedom of being healthy and strong. I walk to honor all those who no longer can, knowing that one day I, too, will take my last step.
Maybe you’d like to begin paying attention as you walk from your car to the patient’s door, or from your team meeting to the bathroom, or on another regularly-taken path. Start with one path and try if for a few weeks. If you find some freedom, consider expanding it to other locations.
We wash or sanitize our hands before and after each patient visit. This can become rote when done many times each day. But what if we used this activity to bring ourselves back into the circle of compassion?
I smile and enjoy the sensations of hand washing. Warm water becomes a pleasant, enforced break from my busy day. Washing with awareness not only protects my next patient from germs I might be carrying, but also protects them from being contaminated by residual stress or preoccupation I carry from a previous patient.
When I worked in a hospital, I made an agreement with the door handles. Every time I touched the handle of a patient’s door, I paused and felt the cool metal. The sharp edges reminded me that to offer compassion to this next person, the circle of compassion had to include me.
So I would stand outside the door for one or two breaths and check in with myself. Am I rushing? Distracted? Fearful? Or am I calm? Open? Present? It wasn’t so important that I be in a particular state of mind — that often felt out of my control. It was more important that I knew my state of mind. If I was stressed or tired, I knew to be extra kind and not leave myself out of the circle of compassion.
Our mothers breathed for us before our birth and our breathing reflex will continue until death. Many hospice patients struggle to breathe and teach us volumes about the preciousness of breathing.
When bringing myself into the circle of compassion, I allow my breath to show me how I feel. Is my breathing shallow and quick, or deep and slow? Am I taking full breaths or only breathing into the tops of my lungs? Is breathing painful or pleasant? Labored or free? My mind can lie about how I feel by telling me that everything is fine even when my breath is shallow and painful. But the breath doesn’t lie.
Taking three or four conscious breaths is nourishing. Begin by paying attention to the breath moving into and out of your nose. Let go of the past and future and focus on your your breath rising and falling in the present moment. Allow everything else to drop away. Know only this breath, this sensation, this moment. Ah. Much better!
These four practices, walking, hand washing, door opening, and breathing, can transform your caregiving. They give you little boosts throughout your day and bring you into the circle of compassion.
But don’t let their simplicity fool you; they are not trivial practices undertaken by Pollyannas. They are proven techniques practiced by generations of contemplatives. I invite you to try the practices for yourself. If you find them ineffective, let them go. If they support you, deepen your experience by turning other throwaway activities into moments of joy. Be creative. Use mindful awareness of your particular daily activities to bring yourself into the circle of compassion.