[Mini] On Compassion as a Practice
Release Date: 12/18/2017
In this episode, I am excited to have Karen Gifford on to compassion towards others as well as ourselves. Karen Gifford is COO of Ripple Labs, global leader on distributed financial technology. Previously, she worked in the financial industry, first as an attorney in the private sector and at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, where she was Counsel and Officer in the Litigation and Enforcement Group. Alongside her legal and consulting career, Karen began meditating in a yoga tradition more than fifteen years ago, initially as a means of coping with the stress of her legal practice. Her executive coaching work incorporates meditation and mindfulness practices, placing a strong focus on the importance of inner skills such as detachment and resilience for effective leadership. She also teaches meditation, with an emphasis on bringing the insights of meditation into everyday life. Karen is active in the start-up world as a founder, investor and advisor. She holds a J.D. from Yale Law School and an A.B. from Vassar College.
- Karen talks about how she began practicing compassion, how she had to reframe her outlook and definition of compassion, and why it was such a challenge at first.
- We describe what practicing compassion can look like; it's positive impacts and benefits on the self, as well as seeing the enlightened spirit inside each person.
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Karen Gifford: [00:00:06] Try to see the enlightened being in every person you meet today.
Intro: [00:00:11] Welcome to The Resilient Lawyer podcast. In this podcast we have meaningful, in-depth conversations with lawyers, entrepreneurs and change agents. We offer tools and strategies for creating a more joyful and satisfying life. And now your host, Jeena Cho.
Jeena Cho: [00:00:35] This is The Resilient Lawyer podcast; meaningful, in-depth conversations with lawyers, entrepreneurs and agents of change. The Resilient Lawyer is inspired by those in the legal profession living with authenticity and courage.
[00:00:46] This podcast is about ordinary people making an extraordinary difference. This is episode number 38 and I'm your host, Jeena Cho. In this episode I have Karen Gifford with me, and we're going to chat about compassion towards ourselves and others; which we both have struggled with it, in perhaps slightly different ways, sort of different flavors to it.
[00:01:11] So Karen, you've been meditating for about 20 years and you didn't really start to practice compassion maybe until about five, six years ago. Why was it such a challenge for you?
Karen Gifford: [00:01:25] It's a good question, why it was such a challenge for me. But compassion practice really did not seem appealing to me in any way. Like at all, for so long. And it was only really when a very close friend of mine talked to me about how meaningful it was to her, that I even really gave it a chance.
[00:01:48] Meditation was very inward and not so much-outward facing for a long, long time. And then the idea of having compassion for others, I think I framed it in a way that was maybe not accurate. And that that was part of the issue for me, was that I confused compassion with like, pity.
[00:02:22] And I really felt like you know, to me pity is sort of looking down on people and putting myself above them; and so that felt uncomfortable. I think also just temperamentally, I'm a super optimist; I like to be a doer. I think that I'm very attracted to positivity, and so compassion was problematic for me in that sense too. That it meant really looking at the dark side of life, which we all experience. So I think both things were blockers.
Jeena Cho: [00:03:09] So maybe we can sort of put the practice of compassion into a context. So when we're talking about compassion, can you explain what that means?
Karen Gifford: [00:03:19] Sure. So holding compassion for someone is seeing our common humanity, would be how I would now frame it. And just connecting with that. And someone may be in a very different circumstance from myself, but I can still imagine how I might feel in that situation. And I certainly had analogous challenges and struggles. And at the end of the day, we're all human beings faced with this world that ends in death, that inevitably has suffering; that is mysterious and that is wondrous, but sometimes it's also baffling. And that human condition is something that also connects us all.
Jeena Cho: [00:04:11] Why was the compassion practice so unappealing initially?
Karen Gifford: [00:04:17] I really do think it had to do with being open to that darker side of life, and really recognizing that this is something that we all face; that it is part of the human condition. Maybe (this is just kind of coming up for me now as I'm thinking about it) I think another aspect of my resistance to compassion practice was having a concern about what I would have described as wallowing and suffering. Like oh you know, these bad things happen in life, people face challenges, they have heartbreak, there's tragedy; but why spend a lot of time focusing on that?
[00:05:02] You know, the reality is we do face those things. And whether we spend a lot or a little of our conscious time focusing on them, we still have to integrate those experiences. We still have to rise to challenges that come up, you can't just react by pushing them away. And yeah, I was very comfortable pushing them away for a very long time.
Jeena Cho: [00:05:27] Yeah, and I feel like the compassion practice kind of shines light on different parts of yourself in a way that I wasn't expecting. So when I took the compassion cultivation training class, one of the exercises the teacher asked us to do was, when you're walking through a Safeway or your local grocery store to just randomly look at strangers and just wish them well. So you would just silently say something like, "May you be happy," or just kind of recognizing that common humanity. And I remember being like, what?! Why would anyone do that?!
[00:06:04] That is just a crazy practice, I do not understand this practice at all. And then I started to sort of notice the resistance and it's like, okay why am I so resistant to just wishing others well? And I think part of it was you know, if you're sort of wishing others well you have to sort of then notice other people. Where most the time we sort of walk through life with blinders on, where we never really notice the cashier at our local grocery store. Where all the people, we can sort of walk around in this tunnel vision.
[00:06:39] I was very comfortable living in that tunnel vision image of the world, you know?
Karen Gifford: [00:06:45] Right, people can't be cardboard cut-outs anymore.
Jeena Cho: [00:06:48] Yeah.
Karen Gifford: [00:06:49] If you're relating to them at deeper level, they have to become 3-D. Yeah, no that's a great point. That's a great point.
Jeena Cho: [00:06:59] Yeah and also I think part of it is I didn't want to really notice other people in that way. And also I just felt like, oh like that's going to make me go soft. I don't know, I just felt like it would somehow make me sort of lose my edge. If I became that compassionate towards others, I would become like those bleeding heart, touchy-feely humans; and I am not that.
Karen Gifford: [00:07:26] Right. No, I mean I think that's what I was getting at a little bit when I was saying I felt like this would be somehow like wallowing in sadness, right? Like you know, if you do that where is that going to lead? It's not going to get your brief written.
Jeena Cho: [00:07:44] Totally. So you had a conversation with your friend about compassion, and then how did the compassion practice start to get folded into your life? What did that look like?
Karen Gifford: [00:07:56] My friend told me about doing a practice really, really similar to what you've just described, about offering good wishes to someone, you know a stranger in a storm. She did it on public transportation on the bus, she would pick one person to send good wishes to everyday. And then she was saying how that really lightened her whole day, like she'd get to work and feel so much lighter and happier than she was used to.
[00:08:24] So I think just hearing that from her, then I started trying it a little bit. At the time she said that to me I was taking a yoga class, and the yoga teacher said something like, "Try to see the enlightened being in every person you meet today." And I didn't really know what that meant, but it was kind of inspiring too; that there is an enlightened being inside each of us was a pretty interesting thought. So I started by sort of combining that, like trying to see the light in each person that I met and also wishing them well.
[00:09:08] And it was very palpably different. If I did that for a little bit in my morning routine, just strangers who I encountered sending them good wishes in that way. I definitely noticed that it re-framed the day in a very nice way.
Jeena Cho: [00:09:26] Yeah, and I think I've been really surprised by the positive impact it's had on me. And I think this is something that I wasn't expecting, I think if I'm doing compassion practice towards others I thought somehow it would benefit them. But I wasn't expecting the benefit that it had on me, like what you're saying. And in that class, one of the things is that you find sort of, a stranger but like someone that you see on a semi-regular basis. Like the cashier at your local grocery store or the bank teller or whoever. And so I picked this guy, this cashier that I see all the time at our local Safeway.
Jeena Cho: [00:10:06] You know and he's just like a, very like friendly person so I always sort of noticed him. But you know now I would see him and I would do my like, be happy or whatever the little saying is. And, I don't know, it just like really..
[00:10:21] It was so funny because you know I hate making small-talk with strangers, it makes me feel anxious and I feel really uncomfortable. But that really dissipated once I sort of picked him as my object to offer compassion to, And you know, once I saw he had a wrist brace I took notice of that and we had a conversation about it. And a few weeks later he didn't and I also noticed that.
[00:10:45] And then once I was at our community garden and I was gardening, and I heard his voice. And I was like, this is so weird I'm hearing Art's voice. And so I walked over and I saw he was coaching the little girl's basketball team. So the next time I saw him at Safeway I was like, "Hey I saw you coaching your girl's basketball team." And he's like, "Yeah, I've been doing it for like 10 years, and I coach like four different leagues." And so I feel like now I have this little insight into this person's life that I wouldn't ever have before.
[00:11:19] And you know, I mean I feel like it's somehow made my life feel a little bit richer and a little bit fuller, just by sort of noticing this one particular person in a very unexpected ways.
Karen Gifford: [00:11:38] Well what comes up for me when you say this is what you have said many times, and it's just a terrific insight. Or you know, certainly not one that I had had or thought about; is that whatever you're sending out into the world, whether it's if you're angry or compassionate or whatever it is, you're the one who's feeling it.
[00:12:00] And so, you can't be angry at somebody without the anger being in you. And you can't be compassionate toward someone without all of those good feelings and good wishes being in you. So, it stands to reason that taking a stance of compassion towards other people would have good effects for yourself.
Jeena Cho: [00:12:23] Yeah. I remember this one woman in class, in the compassion class, talking about how she would have to sit in traffic a lot, like you know many of us do living in the Bay Area. And so when she was stuck in traffic she would pick one of the cars that's surrounding her car and she would start doing compassion practice. And she was like, she came into class so excited one day and she was like, I don't think about how awful it is to sit in traffic. And she's like, now it's an opportunity to practice compassion towards this stranger, and it completely changed her relationship to sitting in traffic.
Karen Gifford: [00:12:56] Oh my goodness, I have to try that.
Jeena Cho: [00:13:02] Which, you know I feel like that's a higher level, but yeah. But I think you have a choice, right? In every moment, you have a choice. You can either be like, super angry and frustrated and pissed off that you have to sit in traffic.
[00:13:16] Or I don't know, maybe you don't do compassion practice, but I think there is, right? Like you're actually sharing this common human experience with other people that are sitting in traffic with you. Because we are literally all in the same boat, like sitting in traffic with you.
Karen Gifford: [00:13:30] And she saw it as an opportunity, which is really awesome. Like you're sitting in traffic and instead of going grumble grumble, you're like oh boy.
Jeena Cho: [00:13:41] Yeah, yeah. I think that's a great thing to practice whenever you're standing in a line you know, not just in traffic but like standing in long grocery lines, or just standing in queue somewhere, anywhere.
Karen Gifford: [00:13:55] No, that's a great idea.
Jeena Cho: [00:13:58] Do you still do compassion practice in your meditation?
Karen Gifford: [00:14:02] On and off. It depends; I don't know what's going on for me. One thing that I do notice, is it's a really nice thing to do (for me) towards the end of my meditation. Like maybe even after the bell goes off, just to spend a moment sending good wishes. What I tend to do is first think of somebody (this is relatively classic) who I love a lot. And then think about someone who's more just generic.
[00:14:43] And I know traditionally then you're supposed to think of somebody who is challenging for you, but I don't always do that. Those challenging people I tend to need to really consciously engage that like, oh I'm going to have compassion for this person; I'm going to see our common humanity. It's you know, not something that just instinctively comes up for me. But you know, who knows where my practice will end up going.
Jeena Cho: [00:15:17] I love that openness.
Karen Gifford: [00:15:20] One point that does come up when you're saying this is, one thing I would encourage anybody listening to do is to have an open mind about some of these practices that seem non-intuitive. You opened this segment by talking about the fact that I did not do compassion practice for probably 15 years of my meditation practice. And yet, it ended up being something that is very meaningful to me. So circling back to some of the practices that you didn't like when you first started meditating, and just you know trying them on again and seeing if they fit now is a really useful thing to do. You know, it keeps your practice fresh.
Jeena Cho: [00:16:02] Yeah. And I don't think there's any need to like, force yourself to get to the next level.
Karen Gifford: [00:16:07] Oh absolutely.
Jeena Cho: [00:16:10] I think what you're talking about, like starting with someone that you love. I mean, you can spend a long time just doing that. And then you can then move to that sort of neutral person and spend a long time doing that. And I don't think there's any need to hurry through and try to get to the most difficult person in your life, to offer compassion to.
Karen Gifford: [00:16:29] Right, it's a practice, right? So you can keep practicing.
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