Compassion and Therapy


“Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It’s a relationship between equals. Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others. Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity.”

― Pema Chödrön, The Places That Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times 

The teachings of Pema Chödrön set me on a path to be a better person and possibly a better psychotherapist and clinical supervisor. Seeing others as my equal, even those with whom I disagree or who cause me to feel distressed. Finding equanimity within is the foundational step to being able to have compassion, which I believe is similar to what Carl Rodgers called unconditional positive regard. As a therapist, if I cannot find this state, I cannot be fully present with my client.

Knowing my own darkness is another necessary journey. I know too well that those aspects of others that I find repugnant are merely reflections of my own shadow. Standing still and looking at other people’s shadows can allow me to see deeper into my own darkness if I do not separate my struggle from theirs. Even though we are all different, we share the same world, with similar problems and coping methods. Understanding comes from knowing myself and compassionately loving myself and then repeating that process for others. 

Spirituality & Religion

“I believe in God, but not as one thing, not as an old man in the sky. I believe that what people call God is something in all of us. I believe that what Jesus and Mohammed and Buddha and all the rest said was right. It’s just that the translations have gone wrong.” 
― John Lennon

In my formative years, conservative religion was a constant in my life. However, even as a small child, I was a questioner, and blind faith never sat well with me. My trepidations about religion did not mean I always hated church attendance for I loved singing and learning. My problem was I learned by creating pictures of the Biblical stories. I could see them, hear the conversations, and got to know the Biblical characteristics, all in my mind.

When religious rules and tradition cropped up, that did not match my internal pictures; I began to realize that those rules and rituals were other people trying to tell me how to act and believe rather than even part of the spiritual teachings. This disillusionment increased as I heard church leaders deride different beliefs, often telling fantastic stories to demonize the religion. My reaction was to strike back by learning about other religions by reading the materials from that religion and attending their services.

In my life long exploration, I believe I have begun to understand more deeply the difference between religion and spirituality. Humans need a system of belief to make sense of their existence and to lay a foundation for personal ethics and morality. I call this system of belief spirituality. In my definition, spirituality may have little or nothing to do with a belief in a supreme being, but rather foundation ideas about the meaning of life and the morality of living. On the other hand, spirituality may include all or some of the foundational concepts of any religion. The key is the application of these beliefs to day to day living. Without an attempt to apply spiritual concepts to living life, religion is merely a social group. Thus, a religious person can be spiritual, but a spiritual person may not necessarily be religious.

What’s Next

I have realized, thus far in life, I have always worked toward a goal. Even though reaching the goals were not as lofty as my original thoughts, the goals gave me purpose and direction. At this stage in my life, I miss having a goal to guide me to a new adventure.

I have been blessed by being able to learn many things in my life and had two meaningful careers and many exciting jobs, but what comes next. I am honestly unsure, my body is slowly failing, my memory is not what it used to be, but my spirit is still as vibrant as ever.

Thus, my big retirement question is – what is next? Can I find one more adventure? I am less interested in having a long life and more interested in having as much joy in life’s last years as I can manage. So, what’s next?

Born that way

I once was asked when I discovered I was a nudist. I pondered and responded, hmm, I think I was born naked. Nudity is our natural state of being. Wearing clothing is a human device. So, why are many freaked out about their own and other people’s bodies especially in the natural state of nudity? The Bible hints Adam and Eve began naked and after disobeying God lost their innocence. Is this original sin, this age-old loss of innocence the beginning of body shame. Can one mistake have led to eons of confusion and embarrassment about human nudity? If so, why isn’t this loss of innocence felt universally?

Young children must be taught to be embarrassed by their nudity and that of others, it is clear that such feelings are not inherently part of us. When my beautiful son was a small boy about four-years-old, he amazed me. It was a hot summer day in Bakersfield after moving there from my teaching gig in Oregon. Both my son and daughter were running about the apartment naked in pure delight. My wife’s mother was there, and she was particularly uncomfortable with my son’s nudity. At one point she stopped him and said, “If you don’t put some pants on, I am going to cut that thing off.” My son stopped, and retorted, “Then I will cut off your vagina.” I was so pleased that he owned his body, in all its nakedness. His penis was his and he was willing to protect it. He was innocent and had no shame.

What does it mean to you to be naked? For some, nudity is firmly connected to sexuality, privacy, and shame. I read a comment from a former student that said that nudists are usually people you would never want to see naked, which eludes to the idea that other people’s bodies exist for our visual entertainment. What makes a naked body in any shape, size or age less or more acceptable than the same body covered? Remember we are all naked under that thin layer of fabric. I am not immune to the entrancing allure of a young, fit body whether clothed or naked. But even though I see beauty, what makes all other sizes and shapes of naked bodies repugnant? Be careful for few of us are perfect in every way and acceptance of difference is power.

Why be nude when there are clothes for every occasion? Some activities like sleeping, swimming, and bathing seem silly in clothing. I am sorry I laugh to myself when I think of donning special clothing to get wet, swimming suits just don’t make much sense. It is good for your body to be freed from restriction and allowed occasionally to breathe. Seeing yourself naked is your first introduction to your own personal external reality. Your naked body is uniquely yours. My naked body carries the scars of my history on this earth. I am under no illusion that my body is beautiful naked or clothed but it is the container in which I reside. I believe I should know it, respect it, and allow it freedom when I can.

Accepting Differences

We are drawn together by our commonalities but learn from our differences. It is far too easy to think others experience life the same way we do or to see their differences as wrong or threatening, for difference often engenders suspicion and fear. If we look within we are all as different as we are alike. From fashion to the creation of laws we create a sense of expected norms, often where they are not needed. What might happen if we accepted our differences? What makes it so vital for us to be the same when sameness is an illusion?

In reality, all aspects of ourselves lie on a continuum. The variance of some differences is readily apparent, as the difference in height. While, other variations are harder to see, like personality or culture. The problem comes not from lack of sameness but in our attaching false values to differences. I happen to have dyslexia, which makes reading and writing to be a challenge for me, however adapting and working around this attribute has strengthened me. While teaching at a University, I heard professors correlate poor spelling to a lack of intelligence, rather than seeing it merely as a difference.

We do not need to throw away of judgment about all differences? No, that would be an impossible task. However, the first step might be to increase our awareness of judging others for things that do not affect us. Ask yourself, how does the way another person appearance affect me? Can you look beyond skin color and clothing to see the person? Or how does it injure me if others have different tastes in food, music, or expression? Accepting these external difference may open your mind to see people as they are rather than as you wish they were.

Once we open our minds to differences, we may see personal variations that are more profound than surface differences. Can we accept that others may have differences in who they love and how they express love? Some people clammer to be social after a long day at work, while others have an equal drive for solitude. When we begin to look more deeply, we must be aware of our desire to rank attributes making some desirable and others problematic.

So what are we to do? We can get to know people and allow them to teach us about themselves, which requires asking more and assuming less about others. To make it safe enough to know someone we must present as little judgment as we can while being aware our prejudices will rear their ugly heads. We must understand not only how people present themselves but also what people believe, and perhaps the reasoning behind their beliefs. We need to see the fear within ourselves and others that drive stereotypes and erroneous judgments. Maybe when we can accept others, we can also be allowed to be ourselves.

The Journey Begins

It has been a long road finding myself, and the journey not completed yet. This blog chronicles aspects of that journey, what I have learned, and things I am still grappling with today. I don’t propose to have answers to life for others, only things that make sense to me and have given my life purpose. If you find anything I write offensive, I am sorry for it not meant to offend.

A major theme in my life has been feeling different from others in a myriad of ways and those differences causing me to hide aspects of myself for fear of being rejected. I was a sick child and had open heart surgery at age six in 1960. In those early years, I lived much of my life in my imagination and thus often played alone, occasionally with one other child, but seldom with groups of children. I never thought much of this, for it felt natural. However, developing my imagination and playing alone was the beginning of my life long journey as an introvert, which continues to this day and weaves its way through every aspect of my being.

As a preteen, I discovered the marvelous feeling of being naked. I believe it may have begun by sleeping naked, which my mother found offensive. However, her offense did not stop the practice. Soon I expanded to taking solo trips into the foothills to explore being naked in the sandy crags of the arid hills above my home. I knew that this was “wrong,” but at the same time it was exciting and freeing for me. It became my first internalized secret about myself.

At about the same time I discovered masturbation. The first explorations were extraordinarily awkward, and orgasms were almost a mistake rather than planned. I quickly fell in love with the tension of my sexual drive but again never shared this with anyone. It became another one of my secrets. As I grow older, I find it odd that human beings hide aspects of themselves that are actually almost universally practiced. Why wouldn’t a person with a healthy sexual drive at least occasionally masturbate? It is practical and pleasurable.

Even as a young child, I had a keen interest in sexuality and sensuality, but my early understanding of female anatomy was nonexistent. In my preteen years, I had no idea what female genitalia looked like, and I was extremely curious. One day, I found a manila envelope full of magazines stuffed in the trash can at my home. I still do not know whose stash they had been, but they quickly became my treasure. The magazines where of nudists and I was excited to finally see a woman naked. However, I became dismayed when I found that someone had carefully scribbled over the area I so wanted to explore. I went as far as getting an eraser to try to remove the markings to allow me to see what was being hidden. At that point, I had no idea about pubic hair and thus created holes in the pictures in the search for new knowledge. It was some years after that incident before I got the chance to gain first-hand experience with female genitals.

Romance and attraction also blossomed early for me, and I became attracted to girls far before I ever discovered sexuality. I first had feelings for a girl in Kindergarten and repeatedly was attracted to girls throughout grammar school. These childhood attractions were a tad more than passing friendship and actually contained vague romantic twinges. They were fervent territory for my imagination, and I believe a place where I developed my love for feminity. At the same time, I seldom felt connected to the world of boys. My heart surgery kept me from playing “rough sports” as a child, though I often fought with my older brother. Here again, I was a bit of a loner, until I found performance. Singing and being in the theatre was the first place I felt a small sense of belonging.

I have few memories of my earliest days of performing. However, once I found a picture of myself in a cowboy outfit and my mother regaled me with the story of me singing “I Want To Be a Cowboy for Jesus” at a revival meeting. I do recall that the only part of going to church I enjoyed was singing. Performing became a place where I received attention and they were the only moments I felt as though I might be acceptable, or even more. Church and performance are two diverse aspects of my story. I tried wholeheartedly to belong within the structure of conservative religion but it always felt wrong to me. I would repent, pray and try to be a “good Christian” according to the church’s rules and precepts, just to feel again and again that I did not belong there. Performing was a place I could belong but it had built-in impermanence. When you are cast in a show you belong until the show is over, then it is time to move on to the next one. The gaps in between became my nemesis.

Back on the romantic front, my first real girlfriend was in my freshman year of High School. She and I were both quite shy and awkward. However, I will never forget how I asked her for our first kiss and how exciting that kiss was. Along with the growth of my romanticism was a growing feeling that I wanted to never offend anyone, especially women. That fear of offensive was a two edge sword leading me to be considerate but a bane when it came to being assertive and asking for what I wanted and needed.

And thus my journey of remembrance and exploration begins. Is it self indulgent, yes, of course, it is. If that bothers you, please go elsewhere. I write to understand this lifetime and I hope, in my musing, to possibly help others to better understand and accept their own differences. Please feel free to leave me messages about your experiences. Thank you!