The first time I experienced compassion, I was thirty-seven years old. My older daughter was an infant, and she was, even by infant standards, incredibly demanding. She wanted to eat every two hours, 27-7. She needed to move, so I would sit on an exercise ball for hours at a time – often nursing her while I was sitting on the ball. One day my husband came home after 12 hours of work and said, “you were sitting on that ball when I left, and you’re still sitting on it. It’s like you haven’t moved.” And I couldn’t decide whether to laugh or cry – I really hadn’t moved, except scarfing down the food he’d so thoughtfully left for me, or using the bathroom – it had been a very long day. I loved my daughter, and I was so grateful to be a mother – and I was also so, so exhausted. So by three am, when she’d woke up at nine, eleven, and one, I was at the end of my rope. I wanted to cry and yell in frustration.

And then something in me cracked open. I knew in my own body how hard all of that was for her, too. My body literally flooded out with compassion for this tiny baby who had so little control over her environment, and such enormous needs. All the frustration was replaced with love.

It’s not something I could have chosen – I wasn’t deciding, “I’ll choose to love her,” although I had been making that thought-choice through the long day. It was a physical gift – I could literally feel it, the way you can feel cold water moving through you when you take a drink on a very hot day.

And it shifted me forever – it’s not that I never got frustrated with her again, and now that she’s a teenager, I have to physically re-direct myself of that experience of compassion sometimes! But I was able to return to it – compassion became a well in my body that I could drink from again and again, and not just in my interactions with her, but in my interactions with (almost) everyone. My heart opened up, and stayed (mostly) open.

It took thirty-seven years and total physical exhaustion for me to experience compassion – not empathy, not pity, not seeing-things-from-her-perspective, but true physical compassion. But I am so very grateful for that experience, and for all the experiences of compassion since. Compassion doesn’t always make my life easier – sometimes I want to harden my own heart because it feels like it would be simpler, and because I had a thirty-seven year habit of hardening when I could have opened. But it makes my life richer and more open and more … real.