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A Healthy Dose Of Compassion

by Vicki McKenna(more info)

listed in chinese oriental medicine, originally published in issue 234 - November 2016

A Fragile Existence

As I write this article the world has recently witnessed terrorist atrocities in France  and in Germany along with horrendous bombing of Syria and  most of us will have reacted to the reports of those dead and injured with a pang of vulnerability - a fear at the fragility of existence. We are here for such a short time – emerging from the Void and seemingly we can be catapulted back into it without warning.  But whilst we may naturally respond to such traumatic events with feelings of fear, anxiety and even anger, most of us will also find awakened within ourselves a wave of tenderness - an upsurge of compassion towards all those who lives were taken and all who are suffering still.  And for good emotional health we need to be able to connect with and cultivate that upsurge of compassion – for the sake of others and starting with ourselves.

The Five Elements

The Five Elements, from Aromatherapy, Massage and Chinese Medicine

by Joanne Baker, originally published in issue 33 - October 1998


The emotion associated with the Earth Element, in Daoist Five Element theory, is referred to as “sympathy” by which is meant the nurturing, empathic compassion that a mother feels for her child. In Five Element theory someone who cannot give or receive  nurturing compassion, or one who craves it constantly for themselves and is overly compassionate without clear boundaries towards others, is said to have an imbalance in their Earth Element. When we display a healthy nurturing compassion towards ourselves and others, then we are seen to have a stable, well balanced Earth Element. 

Compassion is not always easy to access. When we hear of yet another terrorist incident or yet another country pouring out refugees we might close our eyes and our hearts to suffering perhaps experiencing what has been called ‘compassion fatigue’.  But this process of denial, shutting down, will ultimately only serve to separate and harden us on one level and do nothing to prevent us from feeling fragile and scared on a deeper level. Instead when we witness, open to and accept suffering we allow that wave of nurturing tenderness to emerge and from that healing follows. But this process of yielding to pain and suffering must start with ourselves first - we first of all need to open ourselves to our own suffering - connect with our own feelings of unworthiness, anxiety, insecurity. It is only when we begin to heal the Earth Element within ourselves that we may feel genuine  compassion for others.

Start Where You Are

A patient of mine, a man who had been brought up in a children’s home, found himself to be very tough on his own children.  If his kids, whom he loved deeply, experienced any challenges he would tell them to “get on with it”, if they were hurting physically or emotionally he would berate them - “don’t be such a baby”. His own childhood had been lacking in nurturance and so he was incapable of responding with a nurturing compassion to his own family. Furthermore whenever I sympathized with him for his tough upbringing he pushed my sympathy away wrongly interpreting it as pity - a sort of superior concern without true empathy.  His Earth Element had become badly damaged and needed help. Then there was another patient who constantly fretted and worried about her health - she felt as if no one understood her particular problems. Not only did she constantly crave nurturing for herself she felt overwhelmed by everyone’s suffering, giving out sympathy to all and sundry - often very inappropriately and without boundaries.  She was in an abusive relationship and instead of leaving she put her own needs last and stayed in that relationship as she feared that her partner would be lost without her. The truly compassionate thing in that situation would have been for her to let go of her fear and walk out. By walking out she would have shown  compassion towards herself and also towards her partner as it might have forced him to wake up to himself…. perhaps even seek help.

To cultivate compassion we have to develop and encourage healthy Earth within. This means establishing a firm centred foundation within ourselves through practices that root and still us. In this way we develop the balance and centeredness that characterizes the Earth Element. And by nourishing and caring for ourselves we come to feel confident, secure and stable - all the qualities of a healthy Earth Element. It is only from that foundation that compassion for all life can blossom and grow. 

Here are some suggestions to help cultivate  a healthy dose of compassion;

  • Look after your own needs, set firm boundaries  and do something nurturing for yourself every day;
  • Ask for help when you need it - reach out and connect - family and friends will be there for you but first we need to ask;
  • Encourage a strong connection with the Earth’s energies to strengthen your Earth Element and thus nurture yourself. For example become more aware of the contact between your feet and the Earth. As Thich Nhat Han says;” Walk as if you are kissing the Earth with your feet”. Try fifteen minutes walking meditation daily. Walk at a relaxed but slow pace. Focus on the sensations in your body as you walk. When your mind wanders bring your attention back to awareness of walking. Feel your foot move as the heel is placed on the ground and then it rolls forward  to the ball of the foot and toes. Notice how it feels as the foot lifts and moves forward.  Be aware of your arms and hips swinging, your body moving slowly and feeling relaxed;
  • Sitting meditation - start by simply opening to your own suffering - your own feelings of unworthiness anxiety, insecurity. Often we resist our emotional pain - we stiffen and turn away. This will only create more pain and suffering. Instead we need to start where we are by acknowledging our own feelings of distress, of low self-esteem, of an under nourished Earth Element; in yielding to these feelings we soften and feel a sense of tender compassion arising. This is not about sitting around feeling sorry for one’s self or hanging onto negative feelings. It is simply an acknowledgement of where you are at so that you may now start to let go of these negative feelings and heal yourself of your pain.  Simply observe the feelings, witness them and sense where they are being held in your body - often around the solar plexus. Let go of clinging to these feelings to focus instead on a deep rooted feeling of tender nurturance and compassion. This is your connection with your Earth Element within. Feel safe and relaxed and secure knowing that these feelings of compassion are  radiating within you and outwards to all beings.


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About Vicki McKenna

Vicki McKenna BA Lic Ac trained at The College of Traditional Chinese Acupuncture in Leamington Spa with Professor Worsley from 1981 gaining her Lic Ac. in 1984 and has been practising acupuncture in Scotland since then. Her book A Balanced Way Of Living; Practical and Holistic Strategies for Coping with Post Polio Syndrome is available from 


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