How to be the ’empty cup’ that calls forth compassion and healing

As I’ve been preparing for this series of newsletters about compassion, I’ve been most surprised by two things —

First, by how hard it is to precisely define compassion in a way that really encompasses it — and

Second, by how well you can be guided in being compassionate by simple “do and don’t” -style rules.

Today I want to talk about the experience of compassion… And to give you the first surprising thing I’ve discovered about using compassion to bring healing to yourself and to others.

What is compassion?

Of course, I’m not in any way the first person to write about compassion — it’s a BIG subject. The Buddha said that “Compassion is that which makes the heart of the good move at the pain of others.” Some have described it as an “emotional resonance.” I think of it as “feeling for” or “feeling with” someone as they are going through difficulty.

But rather than struggle with definitions, let’s talk instead about the sensation of compassion — where the “rubber hits the road” in your experience.

How do you know if you are feeling compassion, for yourself or for someone else?

    – Compassion is the “awww” moment, when your heart is moved to say “awww, that’s rough” to someone.

    – Compassion feels like the “arms of your heart” reaching out to surround someone who is in difficulty.

    – Compassion is a feeling of flowing from your heart to someone who is in having a hard time.

Additionally, in the moment of compassion you have stepped away from judgments about whether or not the person SHOULD or should NOT be feeling the way they feel. You’ve also have stepped away from the great advice you’d love to give them, but that they are not in a place to hear.

You are simply sitting with them (or with yourself) in the authentic acknowledgement of how difficult something is.

Compassion “feels with” the upset, not “all of” the upset

Now let’s talk about pain. How much of a person’s pain do you have to feel in order to be compassionate with them?

You probably already intuitively know that, if you are being compassionate for someone who is upset, you don’t have to get as upset as they are, or feel as agonized as they feel.

Well, here’s something that is a huge relief for some folks:

You don’t have to feel every ounce of YOUR pain and upset, either, to have compassion for yourself, and to get healed.

I like to say that this is “feeling WITH the upset, but not feeling ALL OF the upset.”

Let me explain…

A lot of healing work emphasizes the importance of feeling your feelings fully. This way of thinking says that if you are sad, you should cry with your whole heart, and if you are angry, you should express it with your whole body.

While there’s a lot to be said for this approach, it also has drawbacks. Upset feelings are often scary, and most people have no interest in feeling and expressing them fully. Therefore, those folks will never get the benefit of that kind of healing work. In fact, they run from it.

Also, the “feel it fully” approach also requires a supportive environment in which to express those feelings. It also needs competent facilitation to help you find a new meaning through that expression. These things are not always available.

If you are working with some upset of your own, it is worth knowing that you do NOT need to experience the pain, anger, fear, shame, or whatever “fully” in order to get the benefits of self-compassion, and the healing that comes with it.

This is really good news.

So how much do you need to feel it?

So how much DO you need to feel those painful feelings in order to heal?

The answer is simple:

You must step in to feeling the upset enough to know, in your heart — that is, on an immediate, emotional level — that in order to get through this, you need something more than what you’ve been able to generate on your own.

Put another way, you’ve got to experience the upset enough to feel the urgency of your need for some new resource to come to you.

If you don’t do that, the “well of compassion” won’t be able to open to you. Instead of feeling a flow of love, your experience of compassion will be dry.

Put even yet another way (don’t worry, I have plenty more): If you are completely separate from the emotions of your upset, then your heart can’t open to your need for compassion … because your heart is NOT INVOLVED. You have to involve your heart in the upset in order to feel the compassion.

But, by the same token, you DO NOT need to become absolutely overwhelmed by the feelings of the upset, either. You only need to feel the upset enough to really be present with it, and to reveal your own need.

There’s a saying in spiritual healing that “Nothing pleads with the Divine on your behalf better than your own needy heart.” Whether or not you believe in a “Divine,” I do think it’s true that an authentic admission of your need helps open up the flow of compassion, whether it comes from Somewhere Else, or from deep in your own Heart or Mind.

How to do it

Here’s how you can start building your “muscle” of opening with compassion to yourself.

First, pick some upset in your life. You may want to start with a small upset; a problem with a coworker, frustration with morning traffic, a surprise bill that came that you weren’t ready for, or some other annoyance of life that is sticking with you today. It can also be an old upset… something that happened a while ago that isn’t wrecking your life, but that you still aren’t quite complete about.

It should be big enough that you actually are upset about it, but (to start) not the biggest upset of your entire life. (You can build to that later as you start to get this circuit really working for you.)

Second, imagine yourself, standing in front of you, experiencing that upset, almost as if you are looking at someone else who has that exact same problem as you do.

Allow yourself to step away from any judgements or advice you may have for this person, and let yourself feel the need of that person’s heart for something beyond what he can give to him- or herself.

Third, begin to notice how you can gauge and control how much or how little you feel the painful feelings of this person before you. You can touch the pain a little bit, a lot, or none at all. I think of it like a “slider switch,” that I can slide up or down to increase or decrease the intensity. Experiment with coming closer to the pain, and moving further away.

As you allow yourself to move toward the upset, ask yourself, “am I connecting with this person’s pain enough yet for their need to open my flow of compassion?” Remember, you only need to experience the upset enough to get your heart to open in compassion. You may be surprised by how little suffering that takes.

Once you start to feel the compassion — the sense of “aww, that’s hard” — notice how a Blessing Current starts to flow to that “you” in front of you. It may be a small flow at first, just a trickle, but that’s okay.

Let that Blessing Current guide you in delivering a blessing to that person before you. It may simply be a touch, as if you are putting your hand on his or her heart and letting a blessing energy flow in.

Or, you may experience some sort of freeing insight, or some new way of seeing the upsetting situation.

Or it may just be a general sense of a new peacefulness around the upset, and a new will to let go, and move on.

Whatever it is, let yourself experience the good feelings of that. That’s how self-compassion can bring healing.

Being the empty cup

I once heart Mark Silver, from, say that “It’s the empty cup that can be filled.” By acknowledging your need, without being overwhelmed by your pain, you can become that “empty cup” that attracts compassion and healing. You can even attract it from yourself… And that brings healing and peace.

About Dmitri


  1. I liked this piece but it is very “heady” and I had to read it a few times. Not judging just passing on my take on this.
    Great work you are doing and I always look forward to your posts.

  2. Dmitri, I am in love with this article. Being such an intensely feeling woman I find it very difficult to be able to make space for myself to feel things fully at times. I’ve held the story, too, that I have to feel everything fully to heal it and that just does not always work. So I practiced this exercise and I could feel it! I could feel that self compassion. I liked how you pointed out to us how many times we have seen a person who has come to that healing place ~ how they light up with awareness and a feeling of self-love, healing and release ~ and how this is normally a result of having had some deep compassion for themselves. Your words lodged into me. Thank you. And as I read, I also noticed, through your words, my beautiful son who has always had that natural compassion. I’ve been shocked his whole life at how natural, grounded and loving and compassionate he is when others are in pain. Since early childhood he could sit and hold space and send love in silence through his eyes and with a touch on the shoulder or holding of a hand. I had him read it too. I told him, Seamus, this is you! Dmitri is writing about you : ) Thank you again. I love your newsletters so much!

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