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Gail Straub

The Rhythm of Compassion
by Gail Straub

Preparing the Ground for Conscious Service

Compassion in action is paradoxical and mysterious. It is absolute yet continually changing. It accepts that everything is happening exactly as it should, and it works with a full- hearted commitment to change. It is joyful in the midst of suffering, and hopeful in the face of overwhelming odds. It is simple in a world of complexity and confusion. It is done for others, but it nurtures the self. It intends to eliminate suffering, knowing that suffering is limitless.
~Ram Dass, from Compassion in Action

Over the years, hundreds of students have come to my classes searching for ways to balance self fulfillment with service to others. These seekers have come to understand that with spiritual maturity comes the capacity to go beyond oneself and to embrace anotherís suffering. Yet our encounters have also made it clear to me how complex social contribution can be.

Rhythm of Compassion

Along with their eagerness to serve, my students are asking important questions. How do I balance the urgent needs of our times with my own need to care for myself? If I choose not to serve, am I taking care of myself or have I been seduced by my personal drama or spiritual laziness? How do I find time to serve? How do I open to my spontaneous generosity, to my natural desire to give without shame, should, or guilt?

I designed a major component of my Grace Spiritual Growth Training Program to address these inquiries and explore the nature of conscious service. I called this part of the training A Compassionate Encounter with Suffering. To begin, I asked each student to choose an area of service which would help them deepen their compassion. The idea was to move into a situation where their heart breaks, using the mantra "my heart is breaking, my heart is awakening." In leaving our comfort zones we would find a fuller connection to the human family and the natural world. I was asking a lot. The response and the learning was remarkable. Over a period of six years, my students documented their work with battered women, homeless people, holocaust survivors, prisoners, racial healing, abused animals, endangered forests, toxic waste dumps, elderly, handicapped, hospice, people with AIDS, and much more.

For the most part we exchanged our experience by reading excerpts from our service journals, which will form much of the content for the following chapters. Sometimes we illuminated the insights from our service through painting, sculpture, photography, poetry, dance, or drama presentations. At times there was such unbearable pain and heartbreak in our sharing that I wondered if I'd gone too far. But I hadn't. We grew very strong together.

We taught one another that our hearts were capable of far more compassion than we had ever imagined. Sometimes we had to go through fear, confusion, and resistance to arrive at that place. Often our caring was messy, complex, and full of shadow. We found that moral prescription--feeling burdened by shame, guilt, or shoulds--destroys the true joy of giving, and that more and more our service arose from spontaneous generosity. We learned that we were personally healed in profound and inexplicable ways through serving others. It is my hope that our stories will offer you some of this learning.

The first phase of excavation in digging for the awakened heart is to prepare the ground for conscious service. This is much like the commitment to tell the truth as a precondition for the healing that comes from our personal stories. So too here, there are several preconditions that prepare the way for the awakened heart: defining what service is; learning to follow our rhythm of compassion so that we balance self-care while we engage in service; and choosing the area of service thatís appropriate for us.

Defining Service

I had begun to see how complicated this notion of service is, how it is a function not only of what we do but who we are ( which of course, gives shape to what we do).
~Robert Coles, from The Call of Service

Service can manifest both in formal volunteering such as serving in soup kitchens or prisons; replanting forests; or helping in a shelter for battered women, and through informal channels: the office worker who goes out of her way to listen to a colleague in crisis; the father who coaches his sonís basketball team as a form of mentoring; the restaurant owner who sends her compost to an organic farm or makes sure all of her leftover food goes to homeless shelters; the couple who takes in an aging parent rather than send him to a nursing home. We need all these acts of loving-kindness to build the kind of communities that we hope for.

Sometimes we manifest our service within our vocation: the teacher who makes sure he builds the self-esteem of all his students; the business owner who treats every employee and customer with respect and kindness; the publisher who makes a commitment to using renewable resources (soy inks, paper from companies with sustainable timber practices) or aspires to bring books into the world that add inspiration and value to peopleís lives. The issues discussed in this section are intended for anyone--parent, social worker, business person, or concerned citizen-- who desires to care in a more conscious and loving way.

We also need to remember that our capacity to serve changes with the different cycles of our life. The generation in their twenties is brimming with idealism and longs to channel their moral passion out in the world; they may join the Peace Corps or Teach For America, or Greenpeace. Later, our caring may take the form of conscious parenting, serving on school committees, and coaching Little League. As the children grow older, serving as a family--in a nursing home, a soup kitchen, or planting trees in the community--offers the children important values and teaches them that giving is a form of self-fulfillment. When the kids leave home, middle-aged couples often discover a deep yearning to give back to society. They may use their vacation to work for Habitat for Humanity or to start a mentoring program for inner city teens or to travel as eco-tourists.

In addition to these broad cycles, we need to continue the ongoing practice of balancing our own self-care with the care of the world. My students range in age from their late twenties to their mid-seventies. No matter what phase of life they are in, they are all looking to balance their own needs with the needs of those they serve. As we saw in Part One, without the in-breath of self-reflection we canít sustain our involvement with the suffering of the world. Now we continue our exploration into the necessity of balance to insure the clarity of heart and mind required for the complex challenges of service.

Listening to Your Rhythm of Compassion

The time for contemplation is the spring that feeds our action, and our action will be as deep as the spring. We need time to allow the spirit to clear the obstacles--the clinging debris and mud--that keeps the spring from flowing freely from its clear, deep source. And we need time for the spring to overflow into insightful and compassionate action.
~Thomas Merton

The second part of preparing the ground for conscious service is learning to follow your rhythm of compassion. Knowing when itís time to be on the in-breath, caring for self, or on the out-breath, caring for the needs of the world. Being in rhythm, capable of balancing your inner and outer impulses, is a precondition of mature compassion for society and the earth. An ongoing practice I use with my students is to ask them to really listen to their rhythm. Where is compassion leading me at this time in my life--inward towards personal needs, or outward paying more attention to my role in the world?

A talented social worker specializing in drug and alcohol abuse counseling discovers heís burned out and needs to take time off for renewal. A mother whoís active with a multitude of volunteer activities in her community worries that her teenage daughter is increasing depressed and alienated. She drops some of the community activities to spend more time with her daughter. A dedicated wetlands ecologist takes time off for the first time in many years to be rejuvenated by the natural world sheís working so hard to protect. These people find their rhythm of compassion by focusing on the in-breath.

A busy lawyer spends one less late evening at the office and instead volunteers at an AIDS hospice. Later he asks his teenage son to join him, and their relationship deepens to new levels. A therapist feels empty and disconnected from the world. Rather than leading another group for her clients, she volunteers her skills at the local shelter for battered women. A college professor takes one less afternoon in the research library and finds fulfillment working outdoors cleaning up a local river. To balance their lives these people needed to focus on the out-breath.

Letís explore how to follow our rhythm of compassion from several perspectives. First weíll examine busyness as the great trickster of balance--stealing from the person who never has time to contribute to society, or seducing the activist into never having time to care for herself. Then weíll look at the friends of balance--imagination, discipline, and support--the qualities that help us skillfully follow our rhythm of compassion.

Busyness: The Trickster of Balance

A major block to finding our rhythm is that weíre often too busy to listen to where compassion is guiding us. So many of my students longed to make a more meaningful contribution to the world, but many found they had no time. Others were dedicated activists and found no time for their own lives. In classes and workshops, we study the following passage from Thomas Merton as a way to be sensitive to our rhythm of compassion. It is a reminder to those of us who are over-extended activists addicted to service, and to those who are addicted to busyness and never have time to serve.

"The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is to succumb to violence. The frenzy of the activist neutralizes his work for peace. It destroys her own inner capacity for peace. It kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful."

These words point to the very heart of our spiritual bankruptcy. In his book Time and Soul Jacob Needleman says "The time famine of our lives and our culture is in fact a symptom of metaphysical starvation." Many of us in America live abundant lives. Yet we are like the knight Parsifal standing before the Grail Castle, seeing the most beautiful court in the world, and forgetting to ask the most important question: Whom does the Grail serve? In modern terms we have to ask: In all this abundance, what matters most? How am I spending my time? Am I using it compassionately and creatively? What goals does my spirit serve?

So often weíre on automatic pilot, going to the office each day, earning a living, car-pooling the kids, trying to keep up with the demands of ordinary life. But when do we step back and recognize the harm we do to ourselves and others by living such frenetic lives? My students all longed to make a more meaningful contribution to society, but many found they had no time. They too began to realize the violence of their overly busy lives. Dwight is a Harvard graduate and a gifted management consultant. This excerpt from his service journal describes the dilemma many of us face.

How inadequate I feel! I am so afraid of suffering that I cannot even begin to choose an area of service. I don't want to be melodramatic but part of my problem has been my unwillingness to even approach the subject. Said another way, "How I have suffered over suffering!" My agony is a mixture of impotence and fear.

Now I'm ready to face the fear, yet there is no time. Time, and how I use it, is at the heart of my spiritual exploration. As I examine my use of time it leads me to many dark places. I am seeing that I keep myself incessantly busy so I can avoid the hard areas in my life. How well defended I am. Is it even worth trying?

To approach the issue of society's suffering I first have to deal with why I've chosen to stay so busy. I need to find out why I have no time for something so important to me.

Dwightís story is a stirring example of the destructiveness of an overly busy life. He had no time for many of the things that really mattered to him, and further he had no time to feel. He used his particular false mask--the in-demand consultant, the workaholic--to avoid his own suffering. Before Dwight could reach out to society he needed to take the in-breath and face his own demons.

The death of Dwightís mother offered him a potent wake-up call. Through her death he faced his fears about suffering and re-evaluated his life priorities. His mother died at home and Dwight was her loving caretaker during her final days. The quiet dignity of her death, infused with poignant memories of her full and meaningful life, provided a mirror for Dwight to see his current life choices with stark reality.

Dwight was wise enough to heed his wake-up call and he began to make some changes. Shortly after his motherís death he went into counseling and strengthened his spiritual practice. He joined a support group that helped him make the life style changes he desired. His healing process was neither quick nor easy. He once told me that changing his life to make room for what really mattered was like turning an oil tanker. Yet after several years his inner work is taking firm hold; heís working less and spending more time with his family, and heís found ways to reach out by mentoring others.

Many of my students found that busy-ness, both at work, and at home, was often a defense against deeply buried wounds. It kept them from what really mattered and the longing to contribute something back to the world. In slowing down they could address and heal these painful places. As they cleared the decks, to make time for either service or their own self-nourishment, many found they could do with a lot less. Less work, less television and e-mail, less talking and over-analysis, less stimulation, and less noise. They also made fewer dates and phone calls, and decided to forego social situations that left them feeling empty or indifferent. What a relief it is to clear away the things that drain our energy and make room for what nourishes us. Now we have the space to really hear our rhythm of compassion.

Exercise: Clearing the Decks

In your journal do a written review of the way you spend a typical week. Include both your outer contributions as well as your inner self-care. Write down everything as it actually is, try not to censor yourself. Then ask yourself which inner and outer activities are necessary and life-giving? Which ones nourish and renew me? Take time to reflect, draw, and journal.

Now ask which activities--inner and outer--can I eliminate or do with less? Which ones drain my energy and leave me feeling empty or indifferent? The trickster busyness is very sly here and will try to convince you that everything is necessary. Here are some hints about what you can eliminate or do with less; work, food, television, e-mail, phone calls, talking and over-analysis, complaining, self-absorption, stimulation, noise, unnecessary dates, and constantly doing for others. Make a commitment to start eliminating at least one unnecessary activity this week, and then commit to one more for the next four weeks.

Belonging to Place: The Roots of Balance

We have forgotten what we can count on. The natural world provides refuge.... Each of us harbors a homeland, a landscape we naturally comprehend. By understanding the dependability of place, we can anchor ourselves as trees.
~Terry Tempest Williams, from An Unspoken Hunger

If busyness is the sly trickster trying to upset balance, then belonging to our place, putting down deep roots where we live, is the sturdy anchor of balance. Belonging to our place--be it urban or rural--provides the literal grounding for our rhythm of compassion. Our place is the presence that witnesses us and provides us refuge.

Belonging to a place is not only a primary aspect of caring for the earth, itís also a fundamental need for spiritual well being. Itís both personal and political. I often tell my students that knowing the details of their home landscape is as important as knowing the details of their life story. Without a sense of place we are rootless with no ground to grow in. And herein lies part of the loss of soul in modern life. When we lose our attachment to place we lose our grounding. Genuine belonging to place allows us to belong to ourselves, to be rooted in our rhythm knowing when to pay attention to self and when to focus on the world.

Knowing the details of our place develops mindful intimacy, the opposite of disconnected busyness. We stop and notice the sight of the willow tree in our yard turning an incandescent Autumn yellow, the dusk sounds of the birds in the park across from our apartment, the feel of the stone wall we have built along our driveway, the healing refuge of the small brook down the street, the smells of our beloved garden whether it be half an acre in the country or a tiny roof top plot in the city. As we come to know a place--the trees, plants, creatures, stones, water, and how they change with the light and shadow of the day and the cycles of the seasons--these elements combine into a strong network of attachment. Whether it be in the country, city, or suburbia this attachment is what makes a place a home and provides the foundation for a balanced rhythm.

Whether we live in the county or the city we can create a sense of place as we mindfully walk every inch of our surroundings, feed the birds, plant indigenous herb gardens, know the trees and creatures as we know our neighbors, study the maps and history of our region, or write love poems about our home landscape.

Until I left home for college I was blessed to live in one place where I formed a deep sense of attachment. College was followed by my gypsy years when I traveled the world and lived in many spots. When David and I got married we moved to the Hudson River Valley where we found a magical home nestled between the Southern Catskills and Shawangunk mountains. About five years after being in our home a gifted palm reader told me that the lines in my hands reflected that I didnít really belong anywhere yet and that I needed to make a home for my self. He suggested that this was essential for my well being. I immediately rejected his information as irrelevant citing my beloved mountain home. Only years later did I understand what he had meant.

During the first five years in our home I was traveling internationally almost constantly. Working for world peace and involved with a myriad of citizen diplomacy projects, I lived in my house but I didnít belong to a home or a place. When I started my spiritual counseling right after my fatherís death part of my healing was to fall in love with the place I lived. As I understood my over-activity as a distorted way to get love, I slowed down and traveled less. Staying home more I became a passionate hiker in the mountains where I lived. I devoured the folklore and maps of my region. I learned that these bluestone and shale mountains were first inhabited by the Esophus Indians who lived along the Esophus Creek. They called the region Ashokan, or the place of many fishes.

Our mountain home has breathtaking views of the Ashokan Reservoir and the southern range of the Catskills. There they stand--Ashokan Highpoint, South, Table, Lone, Balsam Cap, Slide, the Wittenberg, Indian Head, Overlook--venerable guardians watching over us. As I became more intimate with these mountains I began to call them the Grandmothers. At first I named them Grandmothers in honor of their ancient geological lineage with their shape like a primitive Goddess laying on her side--sensual, strong, and elegant. Later I realized these mountains had become my grandmother. I lost all my physical grandparents before I was a teenager and over the years the presence of these mountains has offered me the wisdom and constancy of an elder.

Iíve come to know the Grandmothers in her many moods and seasons: hiking in the golden brilliance of autumn; snow shoeing in the silent white powder of winter; overjoyed by the unfolding chartreuse of spring; and remembering my childhood as I gather flowers and blueberries in the summer. In these mountains I know the presence of deer, rabbit, blue heron, and owl as I know my human neighbors. With time Iíve come to belong to the place where I live, it is a part of me and I am a part of it.

In recent years a recurring dream has visited me. I dream that I am an Espopus Indian woman asleep by the Kanape Brook on the Ashokan Highpoint trail. Then I awake as myself. The feeling in the dream is as if my own body emerges out of hers. The site of this dream is one of my favorite mountain trails where David and I hike several times a year as a small pilgrimage to the Grandmothers. I experience this dream as a gift of having finally come home to my true rhythm.

There are few things in life as steadfast as our place. It is our ground for meaning. As I learned to live in harmony with the seasons and cycles of my place, I began to live in harmony with my own rhythm. I could return to the refuge of my place to attune to my changing rhythms. I realized the roots of caring for place, self, and others are bound together as in a great tree.

Exercise: Rooting Yourself in Your Place

This exercise can be done anywhere in the place you live. If you live in a city itís helpful to do this exercise in the nearest park, or natural environment. With journal and drawing materials go out your front door and walk around your neighborhood. Walking with a quiet mindful rhythm, be aware of as many details as possible; trees, creatures, birds, plants, stones, water, sky, people, and buildings. Pay attention with all your senses to the light, sounds, smells, shapes, colors, and textures. After walking for fifteen minutes pause to reflect, draw, and journal about the details that constitute your place.

Try mindfully walking around your neighborhood several times a week for the next few months. Be aware what happens when you walk in your place on a day when you are feeling sad or out of sorts, or a day when you feel great. Can you experience your place witnessing you, providing you refuge? Perhaps youíll want to plant an indigenous herb garden, or feed the birds, or write a love poem about your landscape. Notice that the more you practice mindfulness in your home landscape the more you belong to your place. And pay attention to your sense of belonging to yourself as you become more intimate with your place.

The Friends of Balance: Imagination, Discipline, and Support

If busyness is the sly trickster trying to upset balance, then the qualities of imagination, discipline, and support are the friends of balance trying to help us find our rhythm.

In watching certain friends who seem to gracefully juggle family, self-care, work, and social and environmental causes, itís their ingenuity that strikes me. Getting their kids and spouses involved with their volunteer work at the local teen center combines caring for society with rich family time. Organizing everyone at the office to donate clothes, tools, furniture, and time to families who have been devastated by a fire boosts the morale at work and helps people in need. Setting up a recycling program at work makes environmental awareness a daily habit. For one of my students gardening is her deepest form of renewal. She and her daughter spend precious hours gardening together, and they give much of the fresh produce to the local soup kitchen. Imagination gets us out the box beyond the limitations of our ordinary routines.

For most of us--the busy doctor, harried executive, dedicated activist, or over-extended parent--finding our rhythm is a creative juggling act where we gradually find the particular ingredients for balancing inner and outer. Carol Elizabeth learned to be an imaginative juggler when she became a city councilor. This entry from her service journal describes the qualities that help her weave together her need for spiritual nourishment with her many social concerns.

I am aspiring to be a city councilor from a place of compassion. I am also aspiring to be compassionate to myself. This arena of public service is complex, with so many dramas, wars, and witless whines. Far too much to do for too few councilors. Each day we face something crucial: capital budgets, arts and culture, greenspace, garbage, fire stations, safety and security. Deciding the fortunes of workers at City Hall, which guns the police are to have, the future of parklands, the repair and maintenance of streets and sewers.

As I serve at City Hall I try to find the truth. Where the hell is it? I find distortions, deceptions, and manipulations. I find new rules and new games. It's hard to play along, but it's also hard not to. Can I encounter these paradoxes and games with compassion? I pray, I do battle, I withdraw, and I gently advocate. There are moments I am exactly where I need to be: writing the mission statement for the city; advocating for Council to meet privately without press or staff so we can speak our truth; educating people to reduce, recycle, and reuse not out of guilt but out of love for this small planet; presenting the Capital Budget as investment in our future and an antidote to cynicism.

All the while I am also learning to take care of myself. Certain things help a lot. Laughing at myself and drawing on a sense of humor. Praying before, during, and after council meetings. Asking my friends and constituents for advice, input, and support. Within my close circle of friends I give myself permission to cry, rage, pout, and yell about the enormous pressures of this job. With these dear ones I allow myself to be loved, cherished, and nourished.

I need to be vigilant about giving myself days off, tending to my soul and taking family time. And about finding my in-breath with regular massages, meditation, kayaking, by taking a Sabbath day and turning off the phones. At the Council, I am learning to lead and cooperate, to be strong and vulnerable. I am learning this requires wakefulness not exhaustion.

We see Carol Elizabethís imagination as she juggles soul and society. Her creativity brings together the ingredients of her unique rhythm of compassion--City Hall, capital budgets and greenspace, humor, prayer, educating people about the environment, time for catharsis, caring for her body, kayaking, vision as an antidote to cynicism, and solitude. We notice the wisdom of her imagination has brought forward a natural integration of body, mind, spirit, and heart.

The ingredients of our rhythms of compassion are as varied our chosen forms of self renewal; poetry, dance, silent retreat, time in the mountains or by the sea, long distance running, reading, solitude, singing in a choir, or playing an instrument. And as infinitely diverse as we are in our chosen areas of contribution--education, conservation, drug rehabilitation, child abuse, racism, hunger, over population, human rights, or endangered species. In the next part of this chapter weíll further discuss how to choose the right path of service. The creative challenge is to call on your imagination and let it guide you to the particular combination that integrates the inner and the outer for you.

Along with ingenuity Carol Elizabeth shows us the role of discipline in juggling self care with dedicated action. Since discipline often conjures up negative associations, itís helpful to think of it as rhythm with a purpose; the structure that gives us freedom. Unless weíre disciplined in setting our priorities weíve seen that the trickster busyness will run away with what matters to us. Like most of us with busy lives Carol Elizabeth had to carefully carve out time for massage, meditation, or family time. She made quality of life a priority and then she guarded it ferociously. This required vigilance, the "just do it " mantra.

Finally this story demonstrates the essential need for support in balancing our lives. This sounds so simple, but so many of us are stuck in the super-human syndrome trying to do everything, and doing it all alone. This is often caused by our mask of perfectionism that we know puts up the false facade of lonely, perfect, independence. Carol Elizabeth was wise enough to ask for help and input from friends and constituents both for her work at City Hall as well as her self-care. She also had a close community of friends who offered her spiritual and emotional nourishment. In Dwightís story we saw the crucial role of support as he found a counselor and a support group to help him make his life style changes. Support can come in many forms; a therapist or spiritual director, a twelve step program, a menís group, a mentor in your chosen field of service, a trusted family member, friend, or colleague.

Throughout the last twenty years I have been part of a womenís support group who have given me unflinchingly honest feedback about when I am burnt-out, stuck in perfectionism, or in need of self-renewal. With these cherished women I have also laughed so hard I thought Iíd burst; enjoyed some of the most decadent, delicious times of my life; and experienced the rare, complex, and mysterious process of authentic friendship. I am also close to a beloved community of friends who come together for meditation, silence, support, and celebration. I consider these circles of support among the most precious blessings in my life. There is no doubt in my mind that without their support I would not find my rhythm of compassion.

Our rhythms are as varied as Bach and the Beatles. Some of us tend to serve too much and get burnt out. We need to pay attention to taking time for self renewal. Some of us are addicted to busy-ness and we need to clear the decks and find out what really matters to us. Others have spent too much time focused on their own self-care and are looking to move out into the world.

Thereís no right or wrong here, rather an invitation to listen intently to your rhythm and find out which direction compassion is leading you. This requires imagination to guide you to the unique ingredients of your rhythm; discipline to help you carve out the space for quality of life and then take a stand for it; and support to guide, reflect, and nourish you. And we need to recognize that this balance of inner and outer is an ongoing practice--sometimes weíre in rhythm, sometimes weíre not.

As you continue your work as a spiritual archaeologist you are now digging for the tools of compassion that awaken the heart. The first phase of your excavation is to find your rhythm of compassion so that you know when itís time to be on the in-breath, caring for self; or on the out-breath, caring for the needs of the world. Learning to listen to your rhythm is much like the sacred agreement you made to tell the truth as a precondition to finding your personal story. Being in rhythm--capable of balancing your inner and outer impulses--is a precondition to the awakened heart.

The following exercise will help you explore your rhythm of compassion. At the conclusion of the book youíll be invited to look at your rhythm once again using the additional insights from the chapters ahead.

Circle of Compassion

Exercise: Finding Your Rhythm of Compassion

Note to the reader: As with the other exercises, this one is intended as an ongoing practice. Finding your rhythm of compassion may take weeks, or even months. Donít expect instant results. Be gentle with yourself, and return to this and other exercises as often as youíd like. Your "answers" will undoubtedly grow and deepen over time.

Close your eyes, quiet your mind, and gently follow your breath until you begin to relax.

Take a deep breath. More than anything else finding your rhythm is a creative process. First bring your imagination forward and let it lead you to your unique ingredients of balancing self-renewal with contribution. Look at the list you made, earlier in this chapter, of the inner and outer activities that nourish and renew you. Ask, How can I get out of the box of my ordinary routines and let my ingenuity combine some of these preferred activities? Social contribution and family time? Self-care with family time? Offering my special talents to someone in need ? Organizing my colleagues at work to recycle and reuse or to help out society? Take time to reflect, draw, and journal.

Now using all your insights from this exercise call on your imagination and let it guide you to a vision where you balance self-care with service to the world. Pay attention to whether you need to focus more on the in-breath or more on the out-breath at this cycle in your life. Write down exactly what your vision would look like.

As you set the inner and outer priorities in your vision where do you need to be especially vigilant--making sure you carve out time for what matters most to you? Which of your priorities do you need to carefully protect? Write these down and reflect on them for a few moments.

Be aware that your mask of perfectionism may try to sabotage you into believing that you can do everything, all alone. Make a commitment to finding the support you need to help you balance your life.

When you have finished this exercise take some time to reflect and read it over. Give yourself time to digest all the information youíve uncovered. And remember finding your rhythm of compassion is an ongoing practice--sometimes weíre in rhythm, sometimes weíre not. Often we learn the most when weíre not in rhythm; stuck in burn-out or self obsession we experience the healing of paying more attention to where we need to focus our energies. No matter where we are in finding our rhythm being loving and non-judgmental towards ourselves is always the most helpful attitude.

Choosing the Path thatís Right for You

Once weíve learned to pay attention to our rhythm weíre ready for the final aspect of preparing the ground for conscious service--choosing the appropriate path of contribution. Advises Mirabai Bush in Compassion in Action: Setting Out On The Path of Service: "Be brave, start small, use what you've got, do something you enjoy, don't over commit." This sentence says it all and speaks of Mirabaiís years of devoted activism as well as her wisdom in assisting others to find their way.

I use Mirabaiís advice as the guideline for helping my students choose their arena of service. First of all recognize that if youíre just starting out it takes courage to face the challenges of the world. Begin with a level of commitment thatís appropriate for your life cycle. Look for something that calls out to you. Go back to the place of belonging in your life story for clues as to where you might want to contribute. For instance both my citizen diplomacy work and my environmental activism grew out of my deep sense of belonging with the earth. And then begin slowly, working one day or even a few hours a month perhaps, and gradually adding more hours as you get into the flow of it. One of the biggest mistakes people make when they start out is to overcommit.

It also may take some time to find the right fit between your talents and interests and a particular arena of service. In this journal entry, George begins to explore the right avenue for his contribution. George is a high level computer consultant whose children have grown, and heís entered the cycle of life where he wants to give back to his community.

I thought, I want to do good work. I want to give both time and money to help others, so I set out eagerly to research the possibilities. Big Brothers. Prisons. Mental hospitals. Hospices. Soup kitchens.

I was surprised at how difficult it was to find my place to give. The mental hospital seemed a good place to start, but the difficulty of phone calls, meetings, application forms, and training programs convinced me otherwise. Then I found a soup kitchen. Meals for the poor and homeless. In the school yard, all kinds of people lined up to be served. A bag lady. Young toughs. A man in suit and tie. Former mental patients released to the streets by cutbacks. I saw families dressed in their Sunday best take their places at old cafeteria tables. We said, "No big helpings or seconds please, until everyone has been served." And they answered, "Thank you, God bless you." As orderly as a theater ticket line. But more polite.

A good thing by a lot of people I thought. Businesses gave food to a food bank. The food bank gave to the soup kitchen. The meeting place was given by the Church. We helped with cooking, serving, table setup and takedown, dish washing, and trash pick-up.

But, for me, something was not right. I was trying to learn compassion but I was not relating to people, only to stereotypes. To a bag lady. To a young tough. To a man in a suit. I could not feel the people behind these images.

They liked me there because I did good work. But it was not done with compassion. I examined my motivation. I was brought up to believe, if I do good, I will be good. Being good, I will be accepted, recognized, and loved. And I will receive the Big Reward. Heaven and some kind of giant, unending spiritual orgasm.

George demonstrates that itís often a process of trial and error before we find our appropriate path of service. Sometimes the bureaucracy involved is too much to deal with, other times we realize itís just not where we want to be. For example, you may be interested in doing hospice work but find youíre uncomfortable with illness. So you help out at a center for troubled teens and find a real fit for your talents and love of this age group. After some more exploring George found his place as an Alternatives to Violence Trainer in the Colorado State Prison System. Working in prison offered George both stimulating challenge and opportunity to deepen in compassion. He felt he could give his best in this setting and learn invaluable lessons about life not available in the business world. The following exercise is designed for those who are searching for an appropriate area of service.

Exercise: Uncovering the Path thatís Right for You

Close your eyes, quiet your mind, and gently follow your breath until you begin to relax. Focus on Mirabai Bushís advice:

  • be brave
  • start small
  • use what you've got
  • do something you enjoy
  • don't overcommit.

Take your time to concentrate on each phrase and how it relates to you.

Ask yourself, What talents do I have to offer others? What kinds of things do I most enjoy doing that can help others? What kind of things do I know I donít like to do? What do I want to get out of my service to others? Paying attention to my rhythm of compassion, how much time can I realistically commit to my service? Take time to reflect, draw, and journal.

Using your insights from these questions ask what area of society calls out to me to make a contribution? List several places you would like to start your research. Some possibilities to stimulate your thinking-- education, conservation, drug rehabilitation, child abuse, hospice, prisons, racism, hunger, community gardens, domestic violence, human rights, or endangered species. Go back to the place of belonging in your life story for clues as to where you might like to contribute.

What are the first steps you need to take to research this area of service? Make a commitment to take the first steps in the next two weeks. Remember it might take some time to find the right fit for your skills and interests.

© Gail Straub.  Excerpted by permission from "The Rhythm of Compassion: Caring for Self Connecting with Society" (Tuttle 2000).  All Rights Reserved.

Maple Leaf
Gail Straub has been a teacher and activist for over 20 years. She is considered a pioneer in the field of empowerment, and co-founded the company Empowerment Training Programs, in 1981. Since then she has offered training to thousands of people throughout America, Europe, Russia, China, and East Asia. With her husband David Gershon, she co-authored, Empowerment: The Art of Creating Your Life As You Want It. The book, currently in its tenth printing, has been translated into five languages and is used worldwide as the basis for empowerment support groups. Gail has also appeared widely on radio and TV discussing her work.

In the last ten years, Gail trained Russian colleagues in the Empowerment methodology and helped them build a visionary leadership model for the new democracy. Her training model was adopted by the Chinese Womenís Federation, the largest womenís organization in the world and she has traveled to that country eight times. From 1983 to 1986 Gail served as the International Director for the First Earth Run, a global initiative that took a torch, symbolizing peace and international cooperation, around the world in 86 days. The project involved 25 million people, 62 countries and 45 heads of state, and raised several million dollars for UNICEF.

In 1992, Gail designed an advanced training called Grace: A Spiritual Training Program, for students who want to integrate spiritual development with social and ecological responsibility. Based on this training she wrote The Rhythm of Compassion: Caring for Self Connecting with Society and Circle of Compassion: Meditations for Caring for the Self and the World, both published by Tuttle.

Gail Straub received her B.A. with honors in political science from Skidmore College, then served in the Peace Corps in West Africa from 1971-73. She has served on the Board of Directors of the Omega Institute and the Advisory Boards of the Russian American Humanitarian Initiative and the Global Action Plan.


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