THE BLOG

How Compassion Is Like Chocolate Cake

12/11/2015 15:31 GMT | Updated 11/11/2016 10:12 GMT

The fretful patches of rain turned into a downpour as if the rain had resolved, finally, that was its intention. I was heading north along the highway. The radio turned up loud, fought uselessly with the tribal-dancer-like thuds on the car's rooftop. Sheets of water thrown up by passing vehicles swept away my view ahead. It was mid-summer, 2011.

Three hours in, I came over a rise and stretching before me at the bottom of the hill were two lakes of water, only the ribbon of bitumen separating them.

'Holy, shit!' I said, to myself. If you drive through this, you might not get back. It looked only hours before the road would be cut off. I thought of turning around, but then, something else came: my intuition. It said, Press on. As I squeezed between the lakes, it felt as though heavy gates closed behind me.

Why was I taking this journey?

I had been recovering from posttraumatic stress disorder, a result of my work as a clinical and forensic psychologist when a stroke hit me out-of-the-blue. Any thoughts I'd entertained of resurrecting my career as a practising psychologist were blown away.

At the same time, tensions in my marriage were escalating and I felt alienated from my three children. I experienced suicidal ideas, enough to really scare me. (See my memoir: How I Rescued My Brain, Scribe, for an account of my recovery).

One of the lasting outcomes of brain injury is mental fatigue. By the end of 2010, I was so overwhelmed by fatigue I felt I needed a really, really restorative rest, something like a retreat.

I'd previously met a Tibetan Buddhist nun Choeying, who'd told me, 'Great suffering can be a curse or a gift, depending upon how you view it'. She invited me to come and stay at her home anytime. Now I was travelling to be with her and participate in the meditation course she was running. The house was already full of guests when I arrived.

On the first morning, Choeying sat at the end of the meditation hall situated on the ground floor of the two-storey house. Twelve of us sat on cushions arranged before her. She told us how she had experienced 'unimaginable abuse', this caught up with her as an adult and she became suicidal. She had overcome cancer twice in her life. Her adult daughter was estranged from her.

'So darlings, there is nothing you can tell me that will shock me, that I haven't experienced or heard before.' I had no argument with that.

We were to say our names and why we'd come. A big man, ruddy-faced, told us he suffered from stress. A woman in her fifties, with sallow skin and greying hair told us she was an alcoholic and three weeks was the longest she'd ever abstained from alcohol. A young woman with a brain-injury, told us of her fatigue and how her family expected her to "snap out of it".

An emergency-theatre nurse wanted to cope better with the stresses of her work. A woman, grieving over the death of her young son, was still haunted by her son's presence at home. Another had been diagnosed with cancer and feared the worst; she had an 18-month old daughter.

A couple told us there was a 90% chance she had multiple sclerosis. They had desperately wanted to have a child but couldn't have one, so the likely diagnosis brought with it bittersweet relief: no need to keep trying anymore. A woman with a closed expression told us she suffered from depression. She had a baby and a toddler and was recently separated from her husband. A young man, who sat at the front, said very little.

Tears had flowed in the room by the time it was my turn. 'I've had a stroke,' I said. 'My marriage is falling apart. I'm really exhausted.' I felt a sob rising within me, soon I was crying too, but not from despair: it was relief-relief to be in a place where it was okay to let go and be held in the supportive silence of others who know what pain is.

That evening, as I sat around the dining table, it felt as if I was part of a fraternity. We'd all pitched in: helped to cook, set the table, and washed up. Now we were laughing and chatting.

I was surrounded by this group of strangers who in their different ways, experienced suffering. They saw my suffering without any fuss and I felt held by this. I realised, then, that those who know suffering communicate their compassion without a lot of words.

My stay rolled into two weeks, the roads being cut off by the floods. By the end, my mind felt clear and calm. I didn't fear the suffering of the others, even able to give them something by my presence. The pain that had engulfed me before now had space around it.

I know compassion best by direct experience. You'll get what I mean by an analogy. If you have never eaten chocolate cake and I try and explain it to you, you'll get some understanding. But if I give you chocolate cake to eat, then you'll really know what chocolate cake is, without explanation from me.

Of course, now I thank my intuition for pushing me through those threatening floodwaters and delivering me to my chocolate cake experience!