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Tattoos on the Heart and other reflections

Recently, I read the book Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion by Gregory Boyle (2010, Free Press). I do not remember how I learned of the book (I am thinking it may have been a library search) but for whichever way it came across my path, I’m glad that it did.

Gregory’s writing is filled with insights I could spend the next decade (if not the rest of my life) reflecting on and trying to live by and inspire. He is an ordained Jesuit Priest who worked for 20 years in the Boyle Heights of Los Angeles: offering kinship to hundreds of gang members from numerous gangs (including rival ones) and offering compassion and love. As Gregory poignantly says and strives to exemplify: “Compassion is not a relationship between a healer and the wounded. It’s a covenant between equals” (p. 77).

When I reflect on my training and career to date in psychotherapy and psychology, I am concerned that this message and concept may not be spoken of or reflected upon or developed nearly enough. At the risk of criticism and correction, I will go out on a limb and say I have the concern that in some instances this concept and discussion may be nearly wholly absent. I will also say that this idea is not something to merely mention in one segment of one lecture. It is something I believe needs to be deeply reflected on and ideally embodied. It is also a phenomenon not limited to or ┬ájust for psychology — far from it. Many sectors come to mind: from education at all levels (including post-secondary) to business to healthcare as examples.

When a person shows up in an emergency ward having self-injured and needing assistance, they are an equal, not a less than. When a person is overwhelmed by pain or emotion they are unsure how to bear, they are an equal. When a person requires a wheelchair to be transported and can no longer feed themselves, they are an equal. They are also a fellow human being.

And yes, it can be very hard to show up and face in an on-going way equals experiencing any number of difficulties–poor health, calamity, social oppression, disadvantage, inequality, or pain–experiencing as Jon Kabat-Zinn puts so well, “the full catastrophe” (the glory and the tragedy, stress, or pain). When we show up, we embark on a lifelong journey of learning about how to show up, about what and how much we can do, about how to feel nourished and sustained, and about how to nourish and sustain the care that we believe in and wish to give.

I have come to articulate a vision, metaphorically speaking, of both head and heart — where research, intellect, knowledge and the skillful application of these are valued and matter — but where heart is of utmost importance too. Compassion, feelings, connections, quiet, mindfulness, presence, stillness, something imaginative and soulful that defies easy quantitative measurement or definition, certain qualities that can be cultivated and inspired but that cannot be manualized–these things matter.

When I talk about working with people who self-injure, I give lots of concrete examples of “things to do”, “questions to ask”, “frameworks for understanding” but I also talk about heart–about high quality human presence. I talk about showing up with interest and care and meeting an equal–a key “therapeutic element” in and of itself.

Business leaders, helping professionals, educators, and the organizations, institutions, and societies that employ them need structures that nourish, develop, value, and cultivate both head and heart. Why heart? Because it germinates wellness and wisdom, and this affects creativity, decision-making, being, and responding. It supports the health and sustenance of these individuals, the organizations and institutions themselves. I’ll go out on a second limb and suggest my hunch that it has a positive ripple effect such that all those equals who work for, seek information, guidance, assistance, or care from also benefit.

But to cultivate heart, organizations, institutions and individuals have to intentionally create room, time, and a climate for this. It can’t be crammed into an agenda once a year for a 15 minute slot. It does require courage and vision — to go out on a limb because you believe in it. The good news is that if you do, you will not be alone in taking this leap. Google has done it (at least a bit). And Jon Kabat-Zinn (a man my respect and appreciation of has only grown for) said about compassion in an interview at Standford University in December, 2011: “It’s time has come”. Compassion’s time has come. Heart’s time has come. I think this is very good and exciting news.