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Quaker Practice This Month's Blog Post

Detached Compassion

What does Detached Compassion mean? Doesn’t being compassionate involve passionate caring about others? I began exploring this concept while I was in the throes of burnout. After years as a counselor, I wasn’t sure I could go on caring so much for others and neglecting myself. I was suffering from compassion fatigue, which is a common problem in helping professions.

I studied professional literature, which recommended taking time for self-care and setting better boundaries. But often I would prioritize the suffering of clients and friends over my own needs. I didn’t feel right about doing something good for myself or enjoying life while others were suffering. It seemed selfish, and I wasn’t supposed to be selfish.

I started seeing a therapist who encouraged me to be “self-full.” “You will be more effective if you give from a full bucket,” she told me. While this made sense, I still wavered in my resolve, regularly dropping my own plans to help someone in need.

I read books on gender dynamics and realized that, as a woman, I was culturally programmed to care for others above myself. Observing my family, I could clearly see where these messages had come from. This awareness helped me understand the emotional hooks which triggered my automatic responses.

I also read several Buddhist books that introduced me to the idea of detached compassion, which was new to me. Compassion is a central tenet of Buddhism, but it is not connected to martyrdom. Compassion for all living beings, including oneself, is a goal of Buddhist practice. So is detachment, which is not being attached to the passing forms and states of human existence. In other words, detachment is accepting where we are and what is happening in each moment as we move through life.

So how does one detach while being compassionate? The basic idea is to detach from the outcome, while allowing our hearts to guide us in compassionate action. This was a liberating concept I’d never considered! I realized I was very attached to the outcome of my helping and giving. I wanted clients to reach their goals, and my professional evaluations focused on this. I wanted friends and family to be happy. I wanted the world to be just and peaceful. I couldn’t rest until those outcomes were achieved, which meant I never rested.

It also meant I often took more responsibility for others and their choices than was my place. Detached compassion means we let others make their own choices and deal with their own outcomes, while still caring deeply about them. We may have to make choices in response, like setting boundaries and detaching from toxic or abusive relationships. I remind myself that others have a right to learn as they go, just like me, and while I like to help, it’s their life. I can be more helpful when I’m centered in myself and not caught up in their emotions and crises. It’s also helpful to maintain awareness that all things pass.

In my explorations on the topic of detached compassion, I have found the writings of the Dalai Lama to be particularly helpful. What I learned from him is that life is full of suffering, but it is also full of joy. He has witnessed terrible suffering, especially of his own people when China invaded Tibet. He lives in exile, and he is full of joy. How is that possible? He can detach emotionally from suffering while being compassionately present with an open heart, allowing his words and actions to be guided in each moment. His intention is to alleviate suffering; however, he is not attached to how or when this will happen. In this way, he opens space around suffering with his acceptance, so its hold can be loosened. In this spacious awareness, new possibilities arise. He also has a great sense of humor and strong faith in others.

As I absorbed the Buddhist perspectives, the possibility of being at peace with suffering arose. I learned it was my resistance to the fact of suffering which was causing my distress and leading to burnout. I began to practice being with the suffering of myself and others, while keeping my heart open. That required getting out of my head, which is my favorite place to hang out! I learned about the dance that happens between heart and head. I discovered that leading with my heart while letting go of my head’s agenda and judgments was a more skillful and joyful way to be with others. Then my head can be in service to my heart instead of the other way around.

I am still working with these lessons every day. I often forget what I learned and fall back into old patterns. When I catch myself getting hooked again into outcomes, I take a deep breath and remind myself to let go, open my heart and simply be with what is in the moment. I am a living creative process, as is everyone else. I can be deeply compassionate towards suffering and trust the process. I have learned that suffering often leads to joy given the spaciousness of acceptance and time.

By Rhonda Ashurst, Blog Contributor, Reno Friends Meeting

The opinions expressed above are not necessarily those of Reno Friends Meeting.

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Quaker Practice

New Year Messages from My Redwood Retreat

Sometime last summer, I hit a wall. My Light sputtered and I felt exhausted and depressed. I think it was Pivot Fatigue–a condition caused by too many changes and adaptations brought on by Covid, and then by our relentless wildfire season. Add to that the growing needs of our elders, which had also changed our lives considerably.

In a moment of despair, I was inspired to search for a place to retreat from the world and retore myself. I immediately thought of the California Redwoods and found myself on Airbnb searching for a cabin amongst the trees. I found a small gem and booked it immediately for early November. It was a magical spot in the forest, near the state park and my favorite trails through the majestic giants. I stayed for 5 nights–hiking; meditating; reflecting; journaling; listening to Spirit; napping; practicing yoga, Qigong, Tai Chi; dancing; and playing my wood flute.

I was frightened to go. I had received a very clear message from Spirit that I was not allowed to bring any of my books. I had never done a retreat without my books! What was I going to do with all that time by myself? Would I go mad?

Spirit was relentless. You spend too much time with the words and experiences of others and look to them for your answers. They are within you. Go and listen quietly.

I brought a notebook and pen with me and wrote what came through from the Beyond That is Within (another of my names for Spirit). As we begin this new year, I was led to share the highlights of what I heard and experienced.

As I walked through the forest, I was struck by its beautiful perfection. It is a jumble of new life growing out of death and decay, feeding lovely fungi that eat and transform wood that then grows new trees, ferns, and other plants. It is constantly renewing itself in an endless, intricate dance. Some trees are burned all the way through their centers and yet they still stand strong and vibrant, green boughs reaching for the blue sky and new children sprouting at their feet.

I remember asking for forgiveness for humanity and the destruction we are causing to the natural world and I received this message:  You and your species are as wondrous a creation as this forest.

I was aghast! How could that be true?

You are part of the Creation, unfolding Itself endlessly like this forest. You are a young species with much to learn. You are learning. Be patient with yourselves. Allow yourselves to be taught by Nature, to be transformed.

But we are killing nature, I argued.

You cannot kill Nature. Creation is endlessly resilient, like these redwoods, like you. Everything changes and transforms. Yes, you are changing the biosphere into something new. And you are learning through this process.

But species are dying, landscapes are forever changed!

Look around and within you. Everything is always dying and changing, including yourself. Yet from the decay, new life is born. Always new life. Embrace the changes, learn how to dance with Nature, remember we are all connected and nothing ever really dies. It just changes form.

I realized with sudden clarity how judgmental I have been of myself and all of humanity. As the days went by, my heart softened towards us all. We have a role to play in how creation unfolds on this planet. I determined to return to my life and allow Nature to teach me how to dance with Her, how to care for Her and cherish Her as part of myself. We are all intertwined in this magnificent Creation.

Meditation on the Redwoods

Be rooted in the Earth

Reach for the sky

Open your heartwood

Be fireproof

Create

Decay

Die

Give Birth to New Life

Repeat

I was encouraged to be present in each moment, not elsewhere in my head, to embrace what is so without thinking it “should be” something other than what it is. Along that same line, I was also encouraged to embrace myself as I am, while also honoring that I am continuously growing and changing like all that surrounds me. It is perfectly unfolding. My OCD/Perfectionist self was definitely challenged by Spirit during this retreat!

I heard this message:  BE more; DO less.

I spent time taking stock of what I am doing that dims my Light and feels like a “should”. I resolved to make changes to my schedule and open up more space to BE, to listen deeply more often.

One of the joys I discovered about halfway through the retreat was that I was having fun and it was effortlessly delightful! All this fear I’d had of being stuck with myself for a week vanished. I realized I still had the same ability I’d had as a child to get lost in nature and keep myself company.

Heaven is right here under your nose, open your eyes and see it.

I have a tendency to look for what I am seeking other than where I am standing and living. Repeatedly, I am directed to grow where I am planted and realize the beauty right here and now. I’m sure these redwoods understand this wisdom and are trying to transmit it to me!

The purpose of your existence is to give and receive LOVE.

I could feel that love was in the forest, connecting all the amazing life forms to each other in a symbiotic dance, and that I was also part of this dance. I was challenged to see that it is the same when I am in the human world.

Life goes on. It adapts, transforms, changes forms, but it always goes on. You are part of the Creative, Holy Spirit which goes forever on, creating the next manifestation. Rest in that, trust, and then do the next loving thing in the moment, led by the Inner Light which is ever part of the Great Light.

Rhonda Ashurst, RFM Blog Contributor

The opinions expressed above are not necessarily those of Reno Friends Meeting

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Quaker Practice

Speaking in Silent Worship

Quakers are known for gathering to worship in silence, and yet they also gather to hear the many voices of God. Instead of a prepared sermon or liturgy, Quakers worship through “vocal ministry,” messages offered out of the silence by those who feel moved to speak.

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Quaker Practice

Sin and the Arrow

When I was in college, I had the great fortune to take a class on the Old Testament from a rabbi. It gave me a different perspective on these texts that I had been raised with and on life in general.

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Quaker Practice

The Genesis of Embodying the Light

I teach a Qigong/Tai Chi/Yoga class for Reno Friends three times a month and was recently asked how I came to this practice and what it means to me. I thought a blog post would be the perfect way to answer that question.

I have been practicing yoga since 2008 and Qigong/Tai Chi since 2014. I came to these practices after injuries and during rehabilitation. You might say I discovered them after breaking myself repeatedly. In Western culture, we are programmed to push ourselves to attain physical goals and fitness. Like many people, I was able to do this in my youth, but as I aged, this strategy was no longer working!

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Quaker Practice

Quakers and Prayer

Reno Friends gathered online earlier this year for a spiritual discussion about Quakers and Prayer. Newcomers to Silent Worship, puzzled by the unprogrammed quiet, often ask me if Friends are praying. I can understand their confusion, because it’s not clear during Silent Worship what, exactly, we’re doing. Some of us would say we’re sitting in silence waiting to hear what God might have to say to us. Others say they are meditating, and some might say they are praying.  

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Quaker Practice

Domestic Noise

On a recent Sunday, our Quaker Meeting was gathering for our Zoom Silent Worship, when something lovely happened. As usual, there was a bit of chitchat as folks welcomed each other to the zoom session, and then people began settling into the silence.  As the session quieted (and before the host muted everyone) there was a short period when we could all hear domestic noise from each others’ homes: the clink of a spoon in a mug, the scrape of a chair on the floor, the whistle of a cockatiel.  It was intimate and wonderful.

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Quaker Practice

Bringing Light into the World

This is the time when sunlight returns to our winter world and a new year begins. 2020 has been a year of retreat for many of us, clouded by uncertainty and anxiety. We spent more time with ourselves than usual. I have seen this year as an opportunity to go the “mountain”, to use a metaphor common to many spiritual traditions. There has been less outward activity and more inward reflection. But now the energy is shifting, and the time is coming to re-engage with the “marketplace”—to bring our inner Light into the world.

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Quaker Practice

Silent Protest vs. Speaking Our Truth

A Reno Friend recently shared a photo from social media that reminded me of something fundamental to the Quaker faith. It wasn’t a photo of Quakers; it was a photo of Turkish protestors, gathered to stand against their government’s crimes –   and they were standing in silence. Below the photo (which was published by The Free Thought Project) was a caption: No yelling. No screaming. No fighting. A more efficient form of protesting: Thousands of people standing in complete silence, protesting in squares & public places in Turkey. Baffling the police by creating a calm curiosity, instead of tension and aggression. Along with the photo, the Reno Friend sent a comment: “Quakers have been using this form of protest for years!”

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Quaker Practice

Continuing Revelation

The coronavirus pandemic has raised many challenges for society, but one of the most difficult are the restrictions on gathering for worship. Like many other church groups, Quaker Meetings have struggled with whether to meet online through Zoom, or outdoors, or in tiny groups – but for Quakers, it is all complicated by the fact that we worship in silence. There’s no service, no minister or choir, to videotape and upload to our website. Instead, we sit in silence and, occasionally, someone feels moved by a message rising in their heart, and they stand and share it with the group. But not always; many gathered Meetings for Worship pass without a single message. Despite that, however, we do feel the Spirit moving amongst us. There is something about being together that makes the Silence more powerful.