The Rhythm of
by Gail Straub
Preparing the Ground for Conscious
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.
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
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
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.
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).
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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.
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
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
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
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
© Gail Straub.
Excerpted by permission from "The Rhythm of Compassion: Caring for Self Connecting with Society"
(Tuttle 2000). All
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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