Tag Archive for: witness

being compassionate

Are You Good at Being Compassionate?

Discovering Your Capacity for Being Compassionate

About two years ago I added two questions to my intake form for new clients. I put the questions on my intake forms to learn more about each individual client and how she sees herself. The plan was to garner information from how these questions were scored and use it to tailor the content of conversations to best help each person. Here are the questions:

  • On a scale of 1 to 10 how compassionate are you with others?
  • On a scale of 1 to 10 how compassionate are you with yourself?

You may want to take a minute to answer these questions yourself. For reference, 10 is the most compassionate and 1 is the least. Do you answer these questions quickly using a gut reaction or do you deliberate over them, concerned about what someone else might think if they saw your scores?

What is Compassion?

In the Merriam-Webster dictionary compassion is “a sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it” and a “feeling of wanting to help someone”.  It means to suffer together. I often see the word simply as “with passion” or being “with feeling”.

Compassion is something intangible that is hard to measure like love or kindness and it is relative to each person, but it is worth considering your own capacity for being compassionate. Do you simply tolerate other people’s pain or are you the kind of person that falls into it with them? Are you able to sit with another person who’s in distress and be a companion for them offering comfort in a way that helps? Spending time describing your capacity for compassion is a good exercise to do on occasion. It is worth noting the times you are compassionate and the times you aren’t.

Compassion for yourself is called “self-compassion” and it means a willingness to be with your own suffering and to want to alleviate your own pain. Dr. Kristin Neff has done a fabulous job of mapping out the intricacies of self-compassion on her website self-compassion.org.

Compassion leads to connection and gives substance to our lives. Many people include compassion as one of their values and they strive to learn more about being compassionate.

What Happened with These Questions?

What I ended up discovering is that the answers to these questions were incredibly tough to predict and even harder to understand. As an outsider looking in, I was continually baffled by the answers. The responses were not what I would have guessed even after getting to know the clients.

A little kept secret of mine, is that for each individual session, these answers are have little, if no, bearing on how I guide the process. Yet for some reason I left the questions on my forms even after numerous revisions sensing that there was something there I had yet to discover.

I’d like to say thank you to all the clients who have taken a moment or two to consider these questions. You may not have liked answering them or thought they were kind of frivolous. I think now is when you have the opportunity to benefit from that time you took.

My Survey Results

Over time, I’ve noticed a consistent trend among the scores that clients sent me. The scores for compassion for others was nearly always higher than the scores for self-compassion. Just this week, I decided to tally up the data I have to date and see what else I could learn from this impromptu survey. Here’s what I found:

  • 87% of clients who answered the questions had more compassion for others than themselves
  • 13% of clients had the same amount for others and themselves
  • ZERO clients had more compassion for themselves than others
  • The average self-compassion score was 5.5 compared to the average compassion for others score of 8.0

Here is a graph of the relative results to give you a visual. You can see that overall people felt they were better at being compassionate towards others.

being compassionate self compassionate

Cultivating Self-Compassion

Far from a rigorous scientific study, my simple, small survey will not win any notice among psychologists I’m sure, but that’s not the point. The point is there is an obvious trend here that many people can learn from.

From my outside perspective, my clients are some of the most self-compassionate people I know. They are not only aware of their suffering, they are willing to be vulnerable in sharing about it. They are so committed to alleviating their own suffering that they are willing to dedicate generous amounts of time and energy to getting better. But, since they are on the inside looking out they can’t see the heroism of their own efforts. Taking a moment to step outside yourself to look in will help you see how much you’re really doing.

Do you know the saying that we are our own worst critic? It may be that many people have bought into this mythology, and although it may be true it doesn’t help us work towards alleviating our own suffering. Next time you catch yourself thinking or saying that, go ahead and replace it with a compassionate statement such as, “I’m my own best companion.”

To have more self-compassion, we need to apply the compassion we give to others to ourselves. Clearly with an average score of 8 when it comes to being compassionate with others, we know about being compassionate. Learning how to befriend yourself can help you up your self-compassion score.

If you are a person that feels you are better at being with the distress of others than your own pain, this data should help. Dr. Kristin Neff says that a component of self-compassion is “common humanity” and knowing you are not the only person struggling. It is quite a layered thing to realize that you are not alone in feeling of you have a deficit of self-compassion and that this will help your sense of self-compassion.

Take some time each day to acknowledge all that you do to take care of yourself. You may do twice as much to beat yourself up as you do to help yourself out, but beating yourself up over that isn’t going to help. Focus on the ways you do know how to love yourself and do one new thing, no matter how small, to nurture you.


About Author, Stacey L. L. Couch

Stacey Couch shamanic practitionerStacey L. L. Couch, Certified Shamanic Practitioner, works as a Spiritual Director and is the author of Gracious Wild: A Shamanic Journey with Hawks. She empowers people with the ability to explore life’s big questions by calling on nature, story and synchronicity as a source for guidance and healing. With her deeply rooted experience in the field of shamanism and passion for working with wildlife and rescue animals, Stacey has a unique blend of rational and mystical perspective that makes the matters of the soul easily accessible to others. She values mindfulness, wonder, and compassion in her daily spiritual practice. Learn More About Spiritual Direction.

“Split in the Canvas” from Gracious Wild

In this excerpt from my book Gracious Wild: A Shamanic Journey with Hawks, I share the story of the first time that the northern harrier hawk named Thalia came flying to land on my glove. Thalia lived at a wildlife rehabilitation center where she’d been trained to work with humans to do bird of prey education programs. I was learning how to work with her to become her caretaker. Annie was Thalia’s current custodian who was handing the reins over to me… 

One afternoon in warm spring weather, I met Annie out at Willow Brook. This was to be our last day together with Thalia because Annie was leaving to do field research for the summer. I had asked her to meet with me not only because I wanted a chance to say goodbye, but also because I wanted hands-on instruction on how to fly Thalia.

I walked with Annie as she carried Thalia down the road to the corridor lawn and A-frame perch. She walked me through the procedure for hooking the flying line up to Thalia’s jesses and narrated as she called Thalia to her glove a handful of times. Thalia was focused and obedient, hitting the mark every time. I watched and listened, diligently trying to pick up every nuance of Annie’s methods. I’d seen this all before, but would now have to put it to use.

Annie set the brunette hawk on the perch and walked over to hand me the pouch of food and flying line. I made sure to get everything set up as I needed it. We watched the harrier out of the corner of our eyes to make sure she was still. Thalia sat nonchalantly, facing straight ahead.

I walked in an arch to a point twenty to twenty-five feet away and turned my back to the bird. I kept my hands in front of me and out of her view while stuffing a large chunk of meat into my gloved hand. I double-checked the line to make sure it was firmly under my left foot. Both of my feet were firmly planted in the grass, shoulder width apart. There was little room for doubt here. Thalia wouldn’t think of flying towards a shred of fear. I took a breath in and let it out, feeling my energy sink into the ground. If I’m going to be a raptor perch, I need to stand rooted like a tree, I thought to myself. I raised my left hand out parallel to the ground, held steady, looked over my left shoulder, and whistled.

Thalia crouched, her body tense but lithe. Every feather on her body lay smooth in the instant before her wings extended and legs pushed off. Now she was five times the size I’d ever seen her before. I stood from the perspective of a mouse, surprised to a standstill. Her wings drew in and out with my breath. One beat and a quick glide. Two beats and I could feel her stare penetrate my soul. Stretched across my entire line of vision was this fabulous creature. Just as I was sure she was coming straight at my head, she rotated a fingertip. The sound of her feet hitting the leather of my glove was deafening. The clutch she had on my hand was crushing. I reminded my lungs to draw in air while the huntress devoured her prey.

This was a split in the canvas where the world around was no more and I stood with both feet in another. Here was the infinite spirit I knew lived within this crippled body. Through this vision she’d offered me a direct link to the vastness beyond the mundane. A sense of hope, which I hadn’t felt since I couldn’t remember how long, welled into the beaming smile on my face. I now held in my heart a true vision of my own soul along with that of my dear friend. She had leapt over that last gap between my true promptings and myself. What a miraculous gift. I carefully slipped back through the veil and turned to face Annie. She was smiling.

I repeated this profound exercise a handful more times until Thalia and I both lost our focus. It was exhausting to hold such sacredness amidst the weight of the reality we were bound to. She flew past my glove and landed in the grass beyond.

About Author, Stacey L. L. Couch

Stacey Couch shamanic practitionerStacey L. L. Couch, Certified Shamanic Practitioner, works as a publicist and journalist for Mother Nature and is the author of Gracious Wild: A Shamanic Journey with Hawks. She empowers people with the ability to explore life’s big questions by calling on nature, story and synchronicity as a source for guidance and healing. With her deeply rooted experience in the field of shamanism and passion for working with wildlife and rescue animals, Stacey has a unique blend of rational and mystical perspective that makes the world of shamanism easily accessible to others. She values mindfulness, wonder, and compassion in her daily spiritual practice. Learn More about Stacey.

fate free will and karma

Fate, Free Will, and Karma

Most, if not all, of us have a desire to know our futures. A testimony to this is our media. There are so many movies, books, and TV shows that are based in the future. Then there are those that explore the concept of predicting the future and these stories either include an the oracle (think The Matrix) or a time traveler (think Back to the Future and The Lakehouse). There is an entire workforce of psychics that thrives on our need to know what is going to happen. Mostly we’ve explored the theme of one special person or small, elite group of people who get the opportunity to foresee or visit the future. If this person is gifted (as with the TV show Medium), a brilliant scientist (such as “Doc” Brown in Back to the Future), or a layperson (like Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure) is up for grabs. Clearly enough of us wonder what it would be like to be one of these oracles, that a host of characters has arisen to fill that fantasy.

Just recently, I finished a TV show that ran for one season on ABC in 2009 called FlashForward. This show was unique in that it asked the question, “what if everyone saw the future?” No one had a choice to see their future or not, as the opening credits announce “The planet blacked out…The whole world saw their future.” Each person got a glimpse of 2 minutes on the same day a year into the future, unless they were dead by that date. Then they saw nothing. What happened when everyone became their own oracle? They went mad with trying to figure out their vision if it was unbelievable, to make it happen if it was amazing, or prevent it from happening if it was disastrous. All of their choices leading up to that date were based on their relationship to their own vision. By observing the future some people were able to change it, while others made happen what may not have come to pass. They were all exhausted and living on doubt and adrenaline.

Why in a blog about shamanism am I sharing stories from pop culture and mass media? I think it’s important to bring this traditional practice into perspective of the modern era. In nomadic times, shaman were sometimes known as the oracles of their tribe. They would toss bones, sort through entrails, crack eggs, or watch the clouds to receive a glimpse of the future. Divination is a branch of shamanism many current day practitioners engage in. Since shamanic practitioners are often caught under the umbrella with other healers, clairvoyants, and energy workers we are asked regularly to help people make decisions by giving them information about the future. I have never been fond of the idea of acting as an oracle on someone’s behalf. I understand how much weight is put in that vision, and I am acutely aware of how much power people give to such predictions. My goal is to empower people. By glimpsing the future, people most often come out of the present which is a loss of power. Spiritual illness is a result of not all of us being in the current time and space. Soul loss happens backwards AND forewords (see definition of soul loss), and in this day and age we are spending way too much time out ahead of ourselves.

The reason why soul loss happens foreword in time is because we commit our efforts to creating or diverting a specific moment in time that we believe might come to pass. We leak an immense amount of energy and power to trying to control the uncontrollable. As we see demonstrated in so many films, we have no way of knowing the consequences of all of the choices we make. This is known as the “Butterfly Effect”. We make thousands of choices even in just a couple minutes. Will you have orange juice or tea? Should you wear a green or black shirt? How long will you run the water when you’re brushing your teeth?

Humankind has contemplated the nature of free will versus fate for centuries. Though many have presented “truths” in regard to this, there is no overlying agreement on the power of fate over free will, thus the prevalence of this inquiry in our culture. In the Middle Ages, the myth of the goddess Fortuna and her wheel of fortune (Rota Fortuna) was a common way to explain how fate works in our lives. Fortuna is often depicted wearing a blindfold and spinning the wheel at random. There is everything from great wealth to utter poverty available on the wheel. In this myth, one’s actions do not determine where the wheel lands. A man who does good deeds can be labeled a criminal and a thief can become a trusted aristocrat.

Then there is karma. What we put out there will come back. There are consequences to the actions we take. These consequences, good or bad, accumulate over time to also steer the course of our futures.

There is evidence to show that all of these laws are at play in our lives: free will, fate, and karma. It is incredibly simple to see how we can get stuck in the future, even when we try to manipulate the future through just one of these cosmic laws. We can get caught in a mire of reasoning trying to figure out what are the “best” choices to make to get us where we’d like to go, what karma we need to clear to ensure the optimal outcome, or how we can best prepare for whatever fate is thrown our way. All three of these options serve to pull us into fear and out of the moment. We are no longer acting from our authentic selves. Indulge in entertaining a combination of two or three of fate, free will, and karma and you’ve left your body altogether. There’s just too much for one person to manage. There is no way we can control or steer cosmic forces. Yes, we can make a choice, but we cannot choose the outcome of that choice. That is entirely impersonal.

In the end, it is your job to concentrate on getting here, in your body. Just as we have so much effort focused on releasing and moving on from the past, we must put an equal amount of effort on releasing the future. From the present moment you have the most power to love and to heal.

I once had a shamanic practitioner retrieve a soul part of mine that was me as a healthy, elderly woman. When I saw her in the journey I was so relieved to find her again. I knew I’d allowed her to wander off into the future out of my belief that I couldn’t be a wise crone until I was physically old. My longing for her before the soul retrieval resulted in all consuming questions like: What if I never get old (fate)? What if I take the wrong path and never make it to her (free will)? What if I don’t heal enough to become worthy of her (karma)?  Out of my intense desire to become her 40 or 50 years from now, I was draining my current resources with strategies on how to get to her. I was not in the now. Just like we can ruminate on the past and make decisions to prevent old wounds from happening again, we can obsess on the future and make choices that to feed the destiny we crave. It doesn’t matter where the prediction of the future comes from, the Gods, a psychic, or your intuition. I don’t care if the prediction is right, wrong, or highly probable. It still has the same capacity to corrupt the moment and bleed you dry. Consider setting aside the temptation to get ahead of yourself and instead settle in to yourself. Call the fragments of you home, at last.

Attending to our present-moment mind and body is a way of being tender toward self, toward other, and toward the world. This quality of attention is inherent in our ability to love.”
– Pema Chodron in Comfortable with Uncertainty

How to: Blessing Food

“Through the earth, the creator brings us the food that will nurture us. When we do not receive the offering and gifts from the creator, we dishonor the divine source of all life, implying that we reject life.” – from Medicine for the Earth: How to Transform Personal and Environmental Toxins by Sandra Ingerman

Recently, I became very inexplicably sick. For six weeks I had a terrible, awful, wretched cough that no amount of herbs, homeopathics, or meditation seemed to be able to touch. I wrote a list of everything I tried in the course of six weeks and literally came in excess of 50 remedies. I continued to pray for healing, to invite the healing light of grace into my lungs, and to practice patience. My best friend yerba manza and beloved buddy osha root had no effect. My trusty standbys kali bichromium (potassium) and pulsatilla (pasque flower) couldn’t help move the illness out of my body. This is the gift of a wounded healer – the chance to know so many remedies and their actions -, but this wounded healer could not find relief. I was shaken awake at 3am gasping for breath, the cough choked me so badly that I was brought to the point of vomiting, and my voice trembled like I would break into tears at any moment. It was embarrassing and humbling. I was at a complete loss.

Then came the shift. A doctor muscle tested me and found numerous food allergies as well as a candida overgrowth in my gut. I was furious. Really? A life sentence of distrusting my food, refusing meals, and just waiting for the next spasm of my gut? I was NOT going to do it, no way, no how. But, what was my way out? As I drove the hour home, I started transmuting my rage into activism. Here is the central question that changed absolutely everything for me:

How can I be separate from that which is grown, prepared and blessed with love … that which nourishes me?

I knew this, beyond everything else, to be true, and I focused my entire next 60 minutes of contemplation, prayer and driving around this one sacred truth. Here is what I learned:

The muscle testing was true for that singular point in time. The projection of that momentary message from my body into the future was the distortion. Even the assumption that my body was saying “no more” of these foods was false. My body was just communicating what it knew to be true, that it was having a hard time digesting life. I was not able to receive the gift of nourishment from the creator. With this understanding I started to watch how I was eating, and allowing my body the opportunity to talk about how it felt. I wanted to hear her messages directly. This is how it should have always been, but I needed the gross perversion of the doctor’s projections to make this apparent. Sometimes our messengers are not the purest, sweetest souls, but if we’re willing to pay attention so much can change.

Here are the steps I took to find healing:

  1. The very first step I took was to start sitting with, holding, and blessing the food. “I bless you in the name of the Mother. I bless you in the name of the Father. I bless you in the name of the Spirit who moves through all things.” Other lovely blessings included “I am one with this nourishment. I am one with the divine. I am one with the Spirit that moves through all that is, was and ever will be.” I sent prayers of gratitude to the land that sheltered the food, the air, water and wind that nourished it, and the humans that raised and harvested the food. I channeled love and light into the food.
  2. Second, I stopped doing anything else but being with my food. I stopped working in front of the computer. I stopped watching TV and reading books. I stopped talking if I could help it. At the very least, I stopped heated and hurried discussions over my meals. I eliminated anything that came between me and my food. Instead of polarize away from it, I moved in and entered into an intimate relationship with it.
  3. Third, I moved in even closer and I slowed way down. I paid attention to how the food interacted with my mouth, my tongue, my throat. I found that I was eating WAY too fast. I nearly choked on my food every meal. I chewed and chewed and surrendered to the beautiful nuances of flavor that extended past the first encounter of the meal in my mouth. I felt the way my mouth talked to the flavors and then I sensed how my stomach received the nourishment. One of my dear friends reminded me, “put down your fork in between bites.”
  4. I began to watch not only my digestive tract but my entire body. I saw that I was sitting cross-legged and hunched over as I ate. I was twisting and compacting my gut. I was contracting and retreating from the experience. Now I consciously put both feet flat on the floor and feel the circuit between me and the earth close. The energy flows freely and I feel flushed and rejuvenated. It is like being steadied by both of a friend’s hands on my shoulders after getting off a rocky boat.
  5. Last, I listened to my body for the entire meal, listening closely for contentment. I found I was blasting way past contentment, into “full” and then into gorged. There is a quiet, comforting communication from the body that says “thank you” and settles in to the nourishment. The first time I heard it I understood how I had missed it all along. There is no quieter or more still voice. It’s like the silence of the moon setting on the horizon.

The result of this ongoing practice is that I now eat 1/3rd the amount I had been. I’ve lost a lot of weight, but feel more content with food than ever. My cough and mucous in my lungs is gone. I am eating all foods in rotation. My body asks for a variety of foods so I am sure to not go into auto-pilot when choosing my meals. Most importantly, I feel more connected to that which nourishes me as well as that who needs nourishment, my body. Some pretty healthy side effects! I would love to hear about your relationship with food and how you practice blessing the food. Please share in the comments below.

morning walk from gracious wild

"Morning Walk" from Gracious Wild

This excerpt from my book Gracious Wild tells of how a female northern harrier hawk began joining me on my morning walks on a lonely island I lived on. Her presence was one of my first confirmations that my encounters with the wild had a broader purpose:

Every morning, I walked into the coreopsis forest to check on the harbor. I followed the trail through the chest-high field of golden blossoms to the crest of the cliff overlooking the bay. There was a large opening in the coreopsis forest here, and an assemblage of large rocks topped by a stone cross stood in the center. This was a monument to a Spanish explorer famous for his exploits in the region. I’d try to get here early while the island was still at rest so I could linger, take in the view of the quiet harbor, and enjoy the short, meditative hike.

Along with the burst into color on the island, I acquired company on my walk to and from the stone cross. Each morning as I crossed the runway and started on the trail, I would hear an approaching keen. At first her cry blared then faded, but as it got closer, it turned into a ceaseless yelling. The female harrier hawk Morappeared coursing straight at me, her dark eyes piercing mine and her brown wings flapping sharply. She came right at eye level set on running me down, mouth open, screaming like mad. The trail was gently sloped, bearing me hard upon her. Just as we were about to collide, I abruptly swiveled on my feet to follow the turn of the path downhill. She immediately pivoted on her wingtips to mirror me.

We then traveled in tandem, my feet and her wings falling in unison. She hovered just 10 or 15 feet above my left shoulder. At times she’d have more to say and I’d turn to her with some smart quip. Wonder where I’m going this morning madam? Other mornings we’d travel in silence listening to each other’s movement and breath. She became so accustomed to expecting me that I often found her waiting at an old fencepost at the turn in the trail. She’d lift off as I approached and take position at my left flank. Her mate was usually in attendance, but he hung back and watched from afar.

The morning company of the harriers brought me limitless solace. Not only did they offer me much yearned for companionship, but they sparked a sense of magic in my being that I hadn’t remembered. I felt a kind of wonder that brought me out of the scientific detachment I clung so desperately to. With the harriers, I didn’t have to pull away and remain swirling in my intellectual dialect. I wasn’t required to pose theories and assign numbers to their movement. I was afforded the opportunity to respond and offered the chance to be a part of the experience.

During my enchanting walk each quiet morning, I re-entered a childhood of the natural world. My movement into hawk territory was no guilt-heavy intrusion into a place I didn’t belong, but rather a visit home. Here I acquired a sense of awe akin with the wild ones. The maiden harrier’s banter was calling me to something bigger than myself, to a purpose I felt stirring in my soul.


The Little Selves Seen

Today I was sharing with a group the value of employing power animals to help us in our daily lives. I have a great egret that I call in to help me manage my energetic boundaries in a group setting. I see her fly in and then dance, wings flowing, around me to help me stay clean and clear about what is mine and what is that of the people I’m negotiating with. I have a red fox that helps me look for something, or someone, I’ve misplaced. When I see him run out after the prize I trust that what I am missing will come back to me, and it does.

I love these spirits and have an intensely intimate bond with them. I cannot imagine my life without them. At the same time, I understand that my attachment to them is the same as my attachment to my role as a wife, animal mother, herbalist, shaman; the same as to my attachment to my ego. I love who I am in the world and I trust that it is not me.

I am the witness. As Ken Wilber says in the introduction to Caroline Myss’s Entering the Castle, “we have at least two selves, or two sorts of selves – there is the self that can be seen and known, and the self that cannot be seen or known. There is the unknown seer, and there are all the little selves seen. ” This unknown seer is considered our “true self” and is referred to in many meditative practices as the “witness”.

How can I view my power animals and my roles as “little selves seen” and hold the truth of the witness that is me? Do I hold one over the other?

The one that judges the little selves as less than the true self is just another little self. When we judge our power animals as mere projections we are not speaking from our true self. When we dismiss our role as a woman we are not acting from our true self. This is one little self judging another. In our polarized world we fragment into these multiplicities to have the experience that is human. These selves are what make our lives so unbelievably rich. Their judgements create our experience.

All the while, our true essence remains intact watching, accepting and learning from all the little selves do. Our true essence does not know how to judge, only watch. We have access to all the forgiveness and love that is the witness at any given time. Whenever a little self feels defeated she can release the shame to the witness and be overcome with an overwhelming sense of relief. Whenever I am asking a power animal for help, I am stepping outside of my role as a wife, employee, boss, etc. and becoming the faith that is the witness.

This goes against many teachings that encourage people to release their ego for the sake of the true self. What I’ve found is that we all are a work in progress and to expect any one of us to be free of ego is asking a lot. It is a tough road to follow and not fit for everyone. I am here to suggest another path. Instead of struggling through all the doubt and self-judgement that comes with severing oneself from the ego, I have chosen to instead honor the value of the little selves seen. The more I love them, talk with them, and share them with the witness, the more I find they align with my true nature. In the end, that is the ultimate goal, unity with all that is, was, and ever will be.

Quote from Entering the Castle: An Inner Path to God and Your Soul by Caroline Myss