I rode into the Casabranca favela (slum) in Rio de Janeiro knowing full well that, in an hour or so, I could ride right back out and slip into the tidy stream of life outside of poverty and danger. I felt a little apprehension at getting my hands dirty like this, but I could humor my hosts and find out how people live here and what the healthcare providers who work here face on a regular basis. I was literally “slumming” for the first time in my privileged life.
And of course, it was messy, stark, meandering and daunting as the living spaces, piled on top of each other, extended as far up the hillside as I could see. But there was a kind of spirit here that I saw in the eyes of the people. The children playing in the street, the women toiling in their living spaces and the hard-working healthcare workers in their bright white uniforms and their playful smiles and cheerful attitudes. My physician colleagues back home in the US struggle to help their privileged (by contrast) patients stay healthy and alive. I could just imagine what it’s like to do the same for people who may not always have fresh water, enough healthy food or even vaccinations for infectious diseases that we get routinely at home.
And then we sat. I joined a tiny weekly mindfulness group led by Berenice, a psychologist who is part of the “collaborative care” team in this small primary care clinic in Casabranca. Three young women and the 10-year-old son of one of those women gathered in a small consultation office, closed their eyes and dropped their awareness onto their breath. After a few minutes we moved on to the quintessential mindfulness exercise: the raisin. One woman, who had not done the exercise before was dismayed that she was only given a few raisins in the bottom of a cup. “This isn’t enough to eat!” she said laughing. The others nodded knowingly and smiled.
We explored the raisins together and then we explored the experience. The group went on to share how they are noticing mindfulness unfolding in their lives (all have been coming for some time to this weekly group with Berenice). They shared brief stories of noticing their old patterns and being able to shift course and choose options that work better for them. One woman with the tendency to get angry at her husband reported that she could begin to see the anger arising and take a breath to shift her old pattern of expressing the anger impulsively and hurtfully. She was clearly excited at this new development, and there was a softness to her realization that warmed the very obvious deep inner strength that she possesses naturally. It was a winning combination and unexpected in a place where I expected not to encounter hope, joy or resolve for something better.
The little boy said he used to get bullied more but now he is able to not react as much when he is upset and walk away from situations. His face lit up when he reported quite proudly that, because he is staying out of trouble more, he gets to actually speak at church on Sundays. His beaming face filled me with love and compassion and made me think of my own son at that age and how tender and full of love our hearts can be, even in the lap of poverty and in the shadow of privilege.
And then there was the woman with the plastic earrings. I didn’t catch her name, but her earrings caught my eye. Neon bright green lacy discs about three inches in diameter dangled from each ear. My first thought was that you could probably buy a pair for a dollar at home. My privileged mind wanted to scoff at the gaudy, cheesy, cheap decorations, but it couldn’t. She told a story of a problem with “nerves” (a syndrome in some Latin cultures that roughly equates to anxiety) and she showed numerous scars on the inside of her forearms where she had scratched or cut herself over the years. She didn’t say a lot. She didn’t have to. None of the marks was fresh and there was a kind of solid self-confidence to her that intrigued me. I kept looking at those earrings and realizing she wore them with pride and a kind of commitment to her own worth as a human being. She had made an effort to make herself attractive, not for the world around her, but for her and who she sees inside. I saw her smile warmly at the little boy telling his story and could see her love for humanity in that look.
And those earrings looked perfect on her. The radiance, the lack of self-consciousness, the spirit of a Carioca (a resident of Rio) all shone through because she could embrace her true nature as a glorious, lively, perfectly imperfect human being who simply wants to be happy and free from suffering.
Mindfulness is a powerful and transformative practice. I have known that for as long as I have been practicing and teaching it, but even more than that, I could see quite clearly that what emerged from each of these people, including Berenice herself, was a clear and growing inner strength that came from loving themselves just a little bit more, and by extension, standing strong and resilient in the face of conditions that have crushed many others. It is the little triumphs, in the moments of awareness, that foster our sense of friendliness toward who we are that allows us to shake the bonds of shame and self-criticism, commit to doing right by ourselves and our fellow human beings, and put on our own version of those dayglo earrings as an act of kindness and a manifestation of our deep connection to the good of ourselves and humanity as a whole.
This is what Kristin Neff and Chris Germer refer to as the “yang” of self-compassion. The active, motivating, protecting, providing aspect of self-compassion that says “no!” to injustice and opens us to moving through the world with purpose and intention to care for ourselves as we would for our loved ones, and to proudly don those plastic earrings. The comforting, soothing and nurturing “yan” side of self-compassion is there too, to support us through our suffering and to soften our touch, but the active side often is overlooked.
This is the unique and ultimate human privilege that every one of us possesses. The capacity to simply include ourselves in the circle of compassion and to see that our struggles, our challenges and our deepest fears about ourselves actually bind us together with every human being on the planet. When we feel bad, flawed, irreparably broken and unlovable, it hurts, but it stems from this deep desire within us to BE loved. I want to be loved as much as those people in the group and as much as you do, and we all want to be free from suffering. We share the privilege of being able to honor that in ourselves no matter what we own, where we live, or what our history held.
In this short venture into the favela, my privilege, as a white, middle-aged, financially comfortable man actually afforded me the opportunity to see how those with the least privilege can teach us all a lesson about the most important privilege: to be able to give ourselves compassion whenever we suffer, to love who we are as individuals and as human beings, and to proudly wear our own version of those plastic earrings. I am grateful to all my teachers for this realization, especially those four people in that little room.
I am inspired by my new friends here in Rio who provide healthcare to the residents of all the favelas in Rio and they are hungry for self-compassion training to help them weather the overwhelming challenges of their work and how it can benefit their beloved patients. With economic conditions the way they are in Brazil, this is quite a challenge. My dream is to find funding from around the world to underwrite more self-compassion training here and ultimately to bring MSC teacher training to Brazil to support this amazing work. If you know of people or organizations who might fund this work, I would be thrilled to be connected to them. Please simply email me directly at steve@centerformsc and I will happily follow up. Stay tuned. In the meantime, if YOU would like to donate to the non-profit Center for Mindful Self-Compassion, go here to do so.