I was preparing for a seminar I am about to give and decided I wanted to talk about the qualities needed to be a good practitioner. At the head of the list I wrote the word compassion. Surely that was self-evidently the most important quality? And then I paused, for what did I really mean by the word? I had used it, I felt, almost glibly, as though it was something we all took for granted.
The word itself comes from the Latin, meaning “feeling with”, and I think at some level we would all, especially therapists of any kind, like to think that we can do this, and that our compassion comes from our ability to feel what another is feeling, and thus share in that person’s experience. But in my view this is not strictly true. I believe that none of us can truly understand what another person is feeling about anything, because we are who we are and they are who they are. Depending on the amount of insight we have, though, we can make a stab at understanding some part of another’s experience, particularly those which resonate with ours. It is, however, arrogant and, in a therapeutic context, unwise, to assume that we understand the whole.
If, as I believe, we can only think ourselves into how another is feeling to the extent that their experience is in some way akin to something we, too, have experienced, then true compassion is understanding how our own experience can only partly mirror that of our patients. It must extend to accepting that there will be areas of another’s life which we cannot really enter into, but which we can acknowledge by allowing that other person the time and space to express what they are feeling without distorting the reality of their feelings. This is a more difficult task than it appears, as I know from many years of trying to help students work their way towards an appropriate approach to others’ distresses.
All our own hang-ups come to the fore here. We may find what a patient is saying disturbing for some personal reason and therefore want to coat it quickly in a layer of platitudes, by far the worst being those terribly trite and meaningless phrases such as “I feel for you”, or “I feel your pain”. At some unconscious level within ourselves, perhaps, we may be hoping that this will effectively silence our patients. Or we may interrupt them with intrusive questions which don’t allow them time to tell us what they want to talk about in the way they want to say it, but instead direct them where we want them to go.
I believe true compassion, therefore, is the ability to allow another person to express their deepest feelings to us whilst we acknowledge that these feelings will always be unique to them. It is indeed a rare gift to be able to do this, and one we need to nurture carefully. For a five element acupuncturist what is important here is that, if we give our patients the emotional space in which they feel free to express what they are feeling in the way they want to, the elements, instead of retreating into the shadows in the face of a lack of understanding, will emerge in ever clearer outlines, as though they dare to show their true faces only to compassionate eyes.