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A Heart With Two Wings

There is an image from the Middle East of a heart flying with two wings. It represents two virtues that we need in order to fly in life. The two wings are the ability to face the truth and the ability to have compassion when we do so. A heart that soars through life is happy, inspired able to bounce back from adversity. The two wings of the heart, truth and compassion, help us do that.[1]

 

The first wing is the ability to face the truth. The hardest truth to see is about ourselves. It’s easier to see other’s mistakes, harder to see our own. That’s because they are usually in our blind spot or shadow.[2] It’s only when things go wrong or someone gets upset with us that we can get a glimpse into our shadow. Tina is very thoughtful and considerate of others. When her fiancé Steven gets quiet she attempts to draw him out by asking questions. This doesn’t work so well because it actually makes Steven feel a bit invaded and he talks less. When in couples therapy, Steven explains this to Tina, she justifies her behavior, “I’m only trying to draw you out when you seem withdrawn.” At this point both people have an opportunity to learn something about themselves and their relationship. But to do so they have to be willing to face the truth with compassion.

 

Tina has to learn that while her intentions are good, her questions sometimes don’t make Steven feel good. In fact, they make it harder for him to open up. To navigate in life and make accurate course correction so we can learn from mistakes and not repeat them, we need the courage and humility to reflect when problems occur as well as hear feedback and criticism without blinking. This is the wing of truth.

 

There are many ways to blink, to deceive ourselves that we see what is happening to us when in fact we don’t. They are part of the defensive structure of the psyche that protects the ego from what it doesn’t want to know. They include: denial, avoidance, making excuses, dismissing the opinion of others, blaming others, self-pity (different from self-compassion in that it avoids the truth), feeling entitled, working too much without life balance, being over-controlling, trying too hard to appease or make peace, drinking, drugs, or having too much fun. We may think of some of these as character strengths such as working hard or having fun. And indeed these are strengths, but when we use them to avoid the truth they are simultaneously serving as camouflage for defenses – a preferred strategy the ego uses to hide from facing the shadow.

 

Why do we avoid the truth? To avoid the pain we anticipate feeling and responsibility we will have to shoulder if we face the truth about our lives. [3] After all, the truth can be harsh. Sometimes we are in a marriage where love has slowed down to a trickle and sex has dried up. Or we are simply unable to make enough money to keep the house. Or an injury makes our favorite sport no longer an option. Or someone we love broke our trust. To sit with painful truth we have to be courageous –literally from the French origin: to be of big heart – so we don’t fold our cards. Why do we fold and crumble? Because we our courage fails us – we feel anxious, overwhelmed or terrified and we panic or lose hope. We could say our heart fails us. Courage is a big part of the wing of truth. It gives us the strength to look within or speak up even when we fear the worst.

 

Once we are brave enough to face the truth about ourselves, we have to survive it. When truth is harsh it can cause us to collapse into hopelessness and despair. Then our optimism and vitality is drained. We feel we can’t go on. We are a failure or we no longer see a way to proceed. Sadness, shame or fear overwhelm us. We feel like giving up.

 

Understandably, rather than allow defeat, the ego puffs up and throws off the weight of oppression. We might face the truth momentarily but quickly push it back into the shadows in order to survive. This is where compassion come in.

 

Imagine a trampoline. It’s system of stable structure, springs and strong, cohesive fabric allows it to absorb the jumping energy of a child or adult again and again. It does not oppose the force that the feet transfer into it, it absorbs it. It absorbs it by spreading the force of the impact throughout its entire structure until the force is neutralized, then it gives it back in a steady, strong and fluid way. This is how self-compassion absorbs harsh truth. It does not oppose and it does not let go.[4] A heart that can face its shadow does not collapse or become rigid. It notices when things are going wrong. It listens to negative feedback. It guards its core self-esteem and never gives away the gold of self-love. Through the cohesive strength of self-compassion, it absorbs the force of the truth and uses it to mobilize towards a new direction one that seeks harmony with the other’s truth. Sometimes this involves mutual regard and cooperation. Sometimes, it involves gracefully handling conflict by learning about the other’s motives and giving that back to them in a fluid, graceful way. This is the wing of compassion.

 

But humility also is needed for the wing of truth to work. To face the truth we have to be able to stomach embarrassment, humiliation or guilt, all forms of shame without collapsing or reflexively bristling and puffing up to assert dominance. Why do we assert dominance? Why do we raise our voice or disparage our partner or work mate? Or go into an intellectual analysis of the situation? Or stonewall? We do all these things to refute the part that is true about us. Why do we do refute? First because it’s humiliating to admit fault. Humiliation is painful, much more painful than a sprained ankle. And so we won’t do it unless they do it first. That’s called tit for tat. Seeing the other one as wrong doesn’t cost us any self-esteem. Being the first to admit wrong takes humility.

 

The other reason we don’t want to face the truth is that we may have to change. Once someone points out something wrong about us and we actually let it in, our own integrity will needle us to change. And changing is hard work. Much easier to stick with our own worldview than be impacted by the truth of another. So instead, we dismiss, we stonewall, we condescend. We rationalize our position and de-legitimize the other’s. We hear but we don’t really let in. This is the opposite of respect. At its worst, it is contempt, the theft of dignity. Without humility, the capacity to feel shame and not react right away, we have no choice but to project shame out onto others. Which means we are not yet capable of a true dialogue. We are not able to construct the truth together. It is my way or the highway.

 

Paradoxically, being able to hear unpleasant truth without asserting power builds dignity. Whether a damning statement about us is true, partly true or not true at all, being able to feel the emotion of shame, including guilt, humiliation, embarrassment or indignation, and let it pass through is a sign of great strength. When we can allow others accusations and slights to fill the air for a moment without automatically refuting, this is called “having chest.” It requires a firm belief in our own worth; the opposite of doubting ourselves. Those who cannot tolerate shame are fragile. They lack self-restraint. Those who can tolerate some shame are firm and reliable, not easily provoked and manipulated.

 

To be open to learning about ourselves, we have to tolerate the emotion of shame momentarily so as to consider how the other has experienced us in an unfavorable light. Being able to do this is dignified. And hearing someone out when they are upset at you restores respect to them. As does being able to say your truth without attacking. Then dignity and truth is conferred in both directions. [5]

 

The second wing of the heart is the ability to greet even painful feelings like fear and shame with kindness, gentleness and compassion. We usually think of compassion as being directed towards the other person. But here we are first and foremost talking about developing compassion for ourselves. This means allowing our own suffering – fear, sadness, disappointment or shame – to happen, to move through us and while it’s passing through, to have a caring attitude towards ourselves, an attitude that is able to hug, support, honor and validate ourselves in our moment of need. The thing we wish someone else would do for us, that is what we must learn to do for ourselves. We must practice being our own best friend. Then we can learn and grow from painful experiences and harsh truths.

 

When we hear unflattering things about ourselves, and experience humiliation or guilt, it is our self-compassion that keeps us breathing. When we feel condemned it literally becomes hard to breath. We puff up and project shame onto the other to survive this experience of internal pressure, so we can have “room to breath.” “Get away!” “Leave me alone.” “ How could you say that?” This is what causes the conversation to derail or escalate to yelling. But, if we have self-compassion at these moments, we can hold steady and learn and begin to pivot towards a different conversation. We continue to love ourselves and feel worthy even if someone else is claiming we ought to feel guilty for hurting them. We may even assume they are going further to imply we are unworthy of their respect or love. But, it is often us that is adding this more severe condemnation. Compassion for ourselves saves us from thinking that. When we have self-compassion we don’t collapse into feeling unworthy: we can bear the weight of criticism and not explode or fall apart. We can take the other’s opinion in knowing that we will respond and represent our point of view at least to ourselves if they are unable or unwilling to of take us in.

 

If truth is like the force generated when we use our muscles to walk, compassion is like the structure of our body, the tendons, ligaments and joints that transfer that muscle power into action.   Compassion and self-worth, the sense that my life is important and is worth living allows the truth to matter to us. It gives us an ability to bear weight, absorb force and direct ourselves forward. We can sit with the truth without needing to push back right away or slough off

 

Without the energy of compassion, the truth is too harsh to learn from. We need both wings. And with only compassion, we might not really receive the lesson, the place where we need to take responsibility and pivot towards change. It takes two wings. The two wings of the heart.

[1] The image is a Sufi symbol, from the mystical branch of Islam. A Jewish story has the angels arguing with God saying that he cannot rule the world strictly by justice but must also show mercy. The central dynamic of the Kaballistic Tree of Life teaches that mercy emerges from the balancing of firmness and loving-kindness.

[2] Carl Jung’s term.

[3] More fundamentally, we do them because that was the attachment style that was modeled for us by our parents. Usually, following the equation: I perform/serve others/compete and win therefore I deserve to be loved. Rather than: I am loved because I am.

[4] A central tenet of Tui Sho, Tai Chi push hands training is Dop Du, Dop Dang, “Don’t resist, don’t let go.”

[5] Both the listener and the speaker have to have a filter in place (restraint) in order for dignity to be shared and not degraded. See Pia Melody, The Intimacy Factor for a full development of the idea of speaking and listening with a filter.

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