Wednesday, September 25, 2013

A Compassion Cushion: Creating a Big Interpersonal Cushion for the Ones You Love

A Compassion Cushion:
Creating a Big Interpersonal Cushion for the Ones You Love

I just created this term, compassion cushion, to describe my practice. I try, everyday, to give the people that I love space to be on their own path. Not my path, their path. Like yoga, compassion is a practice.

In poetic form:

         The Compassion Cushion
A feather-soft pillow
For the people in your life

To Try
Screw up

Work through things
Be what they need to be
When they need to be it


             By Catherine Cook-Cottone

Now, let me be clear- I am not talking about tolerating abuse: emotional, physical or otherwise. That isn’t part of the compassion cushion- per say. I am talking about the times when-- one of your friends doesn’t return your call because she is in her head about someone in her life, or something going on, and she is not ready to talk and she knows that if she calls you she will have to go deep into the whole thing and she just can’t right now. Yeah. That was a run on sentence- but that is how it looks in your/her/his head.

In this post, I will share with you about how the compassion cushion shows up for Zuri (in Zuri’s Eyes) and then the psychology behind it (in The Process)

In Zuri’s Eyes: Zuri’s Best Friend Emily (Who is Zuri? See the About The Yoga Bag page)

Friends since pre-K, Zuri and Emily have been distant lately. All summer they didn’t really connect and this school year they have had a few good days. Still, they have not been close, not Zuri and Emily close. Zuri has been trying not to get mad at Emily. She sits at her desk, in class, and sees Emily, four rows up, two desks over-- everyday. Emily knows things have been hard for Zuri. Still, she doesn’t say, “Can you come over and play?” or “Do you want to spend the night?” or “Do you want to go to the mall with us?”

Zuri has always counted on Emily to be her solid place. Emily is like Aunt Jasmine. You know, the people that you look to so that you can believe that things really can be okay someday. It’s all good with Emily. Emily’s mom and dad are still together. They met in high school and had three kids Emily is the youngest. Both Emily’s sister and brother have already gone to college. With her siblings in college, it is sort of like Emily is an only child at home. Her mom and Dad love her a lot. They don’t really drink much or use drugs. In fact, her parents are strong church members (they were at Thomas’s funeral) and they work hard with the church helping in the garden and in the community. They are both teachers for the Buffalo schools. They are committed to bring Buffalo to its full potential- a real city of neighborly love. Zuri loves Emily’s family. When she is with them she feel safe and happy.

Zuri has been reading my yoga notes from the yoga bag. She has read about the compassion cushion. I had used it as a theme for a yoga class and described it in my notes for the day. Zuri thought she would work on cultivating compassion which she Googled, checking to see what it was, “sympathetic consciousness of others' distress together with a desire to alleviate it” ( She read my poem (see above). She knew that Emily must be going through something because they have always been so close. She wishes that she could help Emily feel better. Yet, she has a sense that Emily needs space. So, she decided to practice compassion. For now she would be loving Emily and giving her space.

They were finally able to talk the Monday after Thomas’s funeral. At the funeral, they had said hello to each other there. Zuri smiled and practiced love and compassion for Emily. She thought, “Emily I love you a lot and I hope you are okay” as she smiled over to Emily. Zuri was holding close to Eric. She and Emily did not have a chance to talk.

Monday at school:

Emily walked up to Zuri’s locker, “Hey Zuri.”
“Hey Emily.”
“Is Eric okay? It is so sad about Thomas.”
“Yeah,” Zuri replied. “He’s okay. I think.” Her words didn’t represent her fears. Her thin voice did.
“Do you want to come over and do homework, bring Rashan?” Emily asked.
“Yeah.” Zuri tried not to sound too needy. And so it was. They smiled at each other.

It was when they were doing homework that Zuri found out that Emily’s parents had gone through a rough patch over the summer. Emily explains that they were fighting all of the time about moving. With  the summer crime wave and stuff that had been going on in their neighborhood, Emily’s mom wanted to move and her dad refused. It recently resolved at Thomas’s funeral. She said her parents agreed that the people in the city needed them to stay and fight for a better way of being, of living. Together her parents decided to stay and fight in honor of Thomas and for Thomas’s family. Emily said she was afraid to tell Zuri because it might make it real that her parents might break up. She said that she wasn't ready to talk about it. Emily said that through it all she knew that Zuri understood. 

Zuri was so relieved and felt really bad for Emily. She knew what it felt like to be afraid to say something out loud.

“Emily,” she almost whispered. “I missed you so much and was afraid I did something wrong or you didn’t want to be my friend anymore. But I kept sending you love.”

Emily laughed out loud. “Zuri, never, ever, ever would that happen.”

Zuri told Emily about The Yoga Bag and all of the stuff she was learning. She told her about warrior ones and twos and breath. Emily told her that a lady was coming to teach yoga at their school.

“Wait! “Zuri we should go together! Let’s sign up!”

They agreed, yes they would go. Zuri’s heart was on fire.

The Process

Giving People Space to be on There own Path—The Compassion Cushion.

Sometimes we struggle. Here is an example from my house. My husband does this thing once in a while. He cleans the house. Amazing, awesome, wonderful, right? Well, sort of. After he does this, he becomes completely intolerant of anything we leave anywhere. Now, we all have a sense of the bigger picture, the reality of the two days prior-- when all of his work was on the kitchen table-- and his computer was next to the honey and granola-- and the kids were shoulder-to-shoulder trying to eat breakfast. Then suddenly, without warning, he has cleaned. What follows is a zero tolerance policy for at least 48 hours. We hear our names being called and he is standing with a half-drunk cup of coffee or a plate and fork, or car keys (yeah, a lot of it is mine). He is standing there with a look on his face of complete and utter judgment. At this moment, my husband is all of us.

We all do this. We make gains in our personal life, in our spiritual life, our relationship with truth and honesty, exercise, nutrition, whatever it may be. We make these gains. Then, we look at others through the lens of our growth. We think: Why does she struggle with honesty? Why is his practice so inconsistent? Why is she eating that food and drinking that drink, when I know she is struggling with a health issues? Why is she talking in the hall when she has a deadline? And who would leave a half drunk cup of coffee in the bathroom? (Well the answer to the last one is- me). 

No compassion. No cushion. It is so easy to feel that people need to be on the same path, at the same pace as we are.

The thing is that it is not possible. In a world of 7 billion people, I am pretty sure that there are about:

7 billion different life journeys
7 billion unique struggles
7 billion setbacks
7 billion paces of growth

Yeah. 7 billion. So, why do I think that my path, my growth is the measuring stick? You are right. I should not. None of us should.

GIVE people in your life space to have their path. Give people in your life room to try and fail and try again. Let that space be compassionate and soft. Let it be supportive, just like a cushion. None of us grows in complete grace in every moment. Growth is tricky, bumpy, discontinuous, variable, and part of being human. In growth, we are trying on new ways of being and when you are new at something- well- it can be kind of messy.

In psychological interventions there is an approach called Dialectic Behavioral Therapy (DBT). One area addressed in DBT is Interpersonal Effectiveness. Within interpersonal effectiveness (stay with me), there is a method called GIVE- this can help you when providing a Compassion Cushion to the ones you love.

Here is how to be present when supporting someone you love-- Dialectic Behavioral Therapy-- GIVE:
G – Gentle (Be): Approach the other party in a gentle and nonthreatening manner, avoiding attacks and judgmental statements.
 I – Interested (Be): Act interested by listening to the other person and not interrupting.
V – Validate: Validate and acknowledge the other person’s wishes, feelings, and opinions.
E – Easy (Be): Assume an easy manner by smiling and using a light-hearted, humorous tone.

Zuri and Emily are working it out. Friendship needs space sometimes. Their friendships, our friendships need a Compassion Cushion- and in that space- all things are possible.

So go out there and be a good, compassionate friend!


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