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Expanding tolerance for connection through compassionate exchange with Melissa Moore


Returning to ‘normal’ after the collective trauma of the global pandemic will take more than a vaccine. Hyper vigilance and fear of can narrow our window of tolerance for connection and prevent us from forming new healthy relationships. The ability to be fully present with others depends on a safe and empathetic container.  Compassionate exchange is a practice of reconnecting to the body, letting go of emotional reactivity and communicating from the heart.

In this episode of AIR I speak with Dr Melissa Moore, co founder of Karuna Training, about  contemplative psychology and the role of compassion in addressing the mental, physical and emotional challenges of post pandemic life, including social isolation, uncertainty and burnout. We also discuss how compassion can serve as the foundation for a renewed sense of community and civic life in these polarizing times.

Show notes


Episode Transcripts

Silas Rose  0:16
Hello, my name is Silas Rose, and you are tuned into Awaken In Relationship. Having tasted a bit of freedom, the past few months, at least here in the Pacific Northwest, it’s becoming clear that returning to normal after in the collective trauma that we’ve just been through in the past 16 months with the pandemic, will take more than a vaccine.  In many ways the public health restrictions we’ve been dealing with, to keep us safe, have also instilled a certain hyper vigilance and fear of others. Simple gestures of connection, like a handshake or a hug can provoke a lot of emotion. It’s been such a lonely time, for so many people. On one hand, we really want connection. But we might also fear it. The ability to open again, really requires a personal discipline to melt those frozen places inside and also an empathetic and safe container. Which is why I invited Melissa Moore co founder of Karuna training, to speak about compassionate exchange. Compassionate exchange is a practice and also a process really grounded in the Buddhist teachings and contemplative psychology. This conversation seems timely to me, because Melissa really goes into the view of intrinsic health and compassion for addressing the mental, emotional and physical challenges of navigating our way through a post pandemic world. We also discuss how compassion can serve as a new common ground in these polarizing times. So if you are feeling a little bit of that push pull where part of you wants to reach out and and connect to others again, and another part wants to kind of hide under the blankets because you’re feeling really raw, I know I’ve been there,  this episode is for you.
Melissa, good morning and welcome to awake in relationship.
Melissa Moore  2:48
Good morning, thank you for having me.
Silas Rose  2:51
You have kind of a unique training, both in Western psychology and also as a, you know, contemplated psychology. where did this journey begin for you?
Melissa Moore  3:03
 Well, I didn’t set out to study contemplative psychology actually was very haphazard. I wandered into Boulder, literally with a rock and roll band, the Ozark Mountain Daredevils and I went looking for a dance class and happened into Naropa Institute on 1111 pearl in 1979, and took a dance class, I hated it. I was very much fixated in a certain mindset about dancing. And in my mind, everybody in the room was awkward, and we meditated beforehand, which I thought was stupid. So I was very attitudinal. And the dance teacher told me at the end that if I ever wanted to take a class at Naropa, again, that I would have to forget everything I thought I knew about dance. So my first introduction to the spiritual path in what at the time was version two, or trumper, of Shea’s world was sort of a slap in the face. But it intrigued me and I think I was in such a state of mind that I needed that kind of wake up call. And then I met the janitor of Naropa at the time, and that night, he told me all about this very wild, Guru Trungpa Rinpoche and what he was up to. And then I found out in Kansas City where I was living at the time that there was a meditation group. So I went there. And again, I didn’t like meditating at all, was very difficult for me to sit with myself. So but I liked the scene. And I liked the people and this, I made a friend and she was taking refuge with Trungpa Rinpoche, the very next weekend, so I decided to go with her  He didn’t show up tiil  2 am in the morning. And this infuriated me, I thought, What does this guy think he is there for?  There were 400 people in the shrine room, at least. And he kept everybody waiting. And I went out in the middle of the night and went out on the boulder mall and went walking. And I came back and he still wasn’t there.He showed up at 2am. And I have to say, the one thing I remember from that talk was, Buddhists are so non aggressive, they don’t SWAT flies. And I thought, wow, because I missed it that I had been in an aggressive tailspin the whole time about his absence. And so it just impressed me so much. And then there was a huge party and I was very attracted to the party and the energy of what was happening at Naropa at the time, so I just came blindly, like so many decisions I’ve made in my life. And the I already had a BA degree. And there were only two masters at the time, one in Buddhist psychology, and one in Buddhist studies, and I wasn’t interested in Buddhism, strangely, so I went into Buddhist psychology, and it turned out to be the path of my lifetime. So I felt very connected to Trungpa Rinpoche just intuitively, and teams of horses could not have kept me from jumping in at that moment. It was very organic and unthoughtful. I was only 24 at the time.
Silas Rose  6:37
So how do you think Trungpa changed your understanding of mind?
Melissa Moore  6:43
Well, first of all, he pointed out that I had one and that it was the very thing that was coloring my experience in life. And I found out that wherever I went, my mind followed me. So that was the best teaching ever is that it took a little while, you know, I was a little dense, I was kind of chasing my indulgences, or any kind of party culture. It was sort of like walking into the mouth of a crocodile. And getting trapped, where you learn just enough that you can’t go anywhere because you know too much. That’s pretty much been the summary of my path my whole life. Just enough awareness that you you find yourself that it’s actually up to you, how you conduct yourself, and how your life turns out. So that that was a great teaching and incredible blessing and happened through complete circuit, you know, strange circumstances.
Silas Rose  7:41
So you went on to study contemplative psychology, and eventually, you coformed Karuna training. For those who are not aware of Contemplative Psychology what would be a definition?
Melissa Moore  7:53
Well, contemplative psychology is the study of the Abhidharma, which was one of the original turnings of the wheels, the teaching of the Buddha. And so really, you could say all of the study of Buddha Dharma is the study of Buddhist psychology. I would say, What’s unique about Karuna training is that we create the conditions so that you experientially apply it to your life and take it into your relationships, in the community that we create, over the course of two years, but also in your life in general, that there’s no way not to apply it directly to your experience, because we sort of forced the process aspect, which I think is a more apt way for Westerners to receive the Dharma because we didn’t grow up with these deities and these wisdom, energies that we tend to visualize in formal vajrayana practice. So we’re trying on another culture. But we have grown up in a psychological culture where we think deeply about a lot of things. And so that’s contemplative psychology, we’re teaching it in in a safe environment applied experientially, and you bet we basically walk people through the Abhidharma. And it has this additional magic with the five Buddha family mandola, which is directly from the vajrayana Buddhist tradition. So it’s deep mindfulness awareness practice with the Mahayana teachings on how to open the heart and the tantric teachings on how to transmute confusion into wisdom. So there’s a lot that the Buddha Dharma has already offered Western psychology. It’s infiltrated, miraculously in the last 25 years, and I think that The next phase will be this phase of emptiness training. And this notion of how we work with energies, not just our emotional energies, but the energies of the world, that we’re all having to look at, like the elemental energies of the world that we’re facing. I think the teachings are timely and appropriate, to say the least. And the methods help us meet the moment of what we’re facing.
Silas Rose  10:25
Is there any comparison in the Western tradition?
Melissa Moore  10:28
Yes, I think there’s a lot of what people would say like Jungian or positive psychology trends, where the emphasis is not so much on pathology, but on what’s right with us. And I’d say Buddhist psychology always starts from the perspective of what’s right with us. And we start with this notion of basic sanity, or intrinsic health. So many traditions in psychology have picked that up or develop them on their own. And I think Carl Jung also had a very deep understanding of the mystical relationship with phenomena and the interconnectedness of the world. And so I think that Western psychology, even though it’s a young science, has really merged with Buddhism. And at this point, in some sense, becoming fairly inseparable, if you look at the whole trajectory over time,
Silas Rose  11:25
Given the year we just had, I’m wondering, to talk a little bit more about what you mean by intrinsic health?
Melissa Moore  11:31
Well, intrinsic health is unconditioned by any circumstances, even a diagnosis or impending death. intrinsic health is this resource that we have within us, that allows us to synchronize ourselves in the present moment, and access our strength and the world strength simultaneously, because we’re not separate from them. So it’s about coming into alignment, in the present moment with natural strength and wisdom that we possess already, that, you know, this wisdom doesn’t belong to us, but we’re part of it. Right? So it’s nothing that we can access from ego itself. But it’s wisdom that’s available to us, It’s strength is available to us unconditionally. So intrinsic health take some time, because we’re not trained, unfortunately, in intrinsic health in kindergarten, it would be a very different society, if we were like, if we were taught to embrace our health things, instead of taught to embrace what’s wrong with us, so that we go out and purchase whatever it is we need to feel better would be better. And, you know, I, I’m like everyone else. Even though I’ve been teaching this for 27 years, I have to remember about intrinsic health, because the science of the time, and the blaring trumpets are that things are, we’re in a doomsday situation. So coming home to ourselves, and connecting to them elements and natural wisdom of the world is so appropriate for this moment.
Silas Rose  13:16
Certainly nature has been a real resource for me personally, during the pandemic.
Melissa Moore  13:24
 COVID was a phenomenal teacher to us collectively, because one of the things that taught us right away was our interconnectedness. So I think that there’s a certain kind of need for us to build capacity within ourselves to meet the moment. And that’s where meditation comes in, where we really learn to be with our self when we’re uncomfortable. I think that’s the best thing that meditation offers us is the ability to meet ourselves, when we don’t feel like being with ourselves, you know, and be friendly with ourselves instead .
Silas Rose  14:00
Yeah. there’s so much coming at us on a daily basis. rit eally feels like there’s this collective freezing happening right now. I feel that’s how compassion comes in. as something to kind of  melt those frozen places inside compassion is a big part of your work, and Karuna training, specifically, this practice, compassion exchange. Let’s start with first talking about what you mean by ‘exchange’?
Melissa Moore  14:28
It’s a big topic. So we use the word exchange in contemplative psychology as both a noun and a verb. So when we use it as a noun, it means that we have access to an energetic feeling state, have another through exchange through the nonverbal and then we intentionally use it, we use we offer ourselves in exchange as a kind of Bodhisattva activity as an activity of compassion, so it’s this unspoken, non verbal aspect of communication that’s happening. huge percentage of communication isn’t verbal. It’s happening energetically between us, right? We have a feeling about things that are happening that is informing what what our experiences. And so in contemplative psychology, through meditation through training the mind to be present, we attend to that unspoken energetic exchange with the world. So you know how, when you’re in a relationship, if you wake up in the morning, and your partner is in a bad mood, and you walk out to have coffee, and you experience their bad mood, you instantly feel it right, and you begin to make things up. Right? They’re mad at me today, they didn’t, I didn’t do the right thing. I didn’t take out the trash, or there it is, again, whatever we’ve made up in our mind, right, our mind runs wild. That’s this, this, this exchange energy is the source of projections, we make a lot of stuff up out of it, entire relationships are driven by it. So what we try and do in contemplative psychology is bring that meta level of exchange present, constantly, first to ourselves through awareness, to be non judgmental, about what our exchanges nonreactive, in a state of equanimity to hold what we’re experiencing, and be curious, instead of habitual, be curious, what is that? What are they going through. And that also attunes us this capacity to exchange this capacity to feel the feeling of others is the seed of compassion. And passion means that you aspire to alleviate the suffering of another, if that’s its true, meaning that you actually care enough that you don’t want to see another suffering, and you would do anything possible to alleviate that. That’s what compassion really means. We use it in America right now is self compassion, all these different things. But really, compassion is really other focused with our gaze raised outward, we’re not concerned with self when. And we have another word called maitri or loving kindness towards self, which is a precursor to compassion. Because if we’re not friendly enough to ourselves, and our own way that we work with our own energy, there’s no way you can genuinely be compassionate towards others. Because there isn’t space, there is a kindness. So the first step is making friends with oneself and one’s own energy and one’s own habitual reactions. And then to become into a practice of training ourselves to be in equanimity in non judgmental awareness with others energy to be curious about it. So exchange is how all that happens. Because, of course, we’re not talking about these kind of levels of transference happening, you can’t you can’t speak through all of that it’s just happened so quickly, between people
Silas Rose  18:11
It really sounds kind of like an emotional contagion.
Melissa Moore  18:18
It is, it’s like the ability in the present moment to access the space that we are inseparable in, there’s a non dual aspect in our interaction that we can tap with a trained mind and not get lost. That’s the trick. Because sometimes when you talk about emotional contagion would be like you would tap into another’s emotion. And then you would be taken over by their emotion, which is an untrained mind, instead of the capacity to tap another’s emotion and very lightly reflected back to them. We call that a compassionate exchange, we’re giving back a reflection of what we’re experiencing using our own body speech in mind as a kind of thermometer for their experience. And what happens in that is that people feel heard, because you’re not interpreting, you’re not making things up. You’re not adding labels, you’re not giving advice you’re not trying to fix. You’re just mirroring what you’re experiencing is in as clean a mirror as you can be. People feel heard. And I think that we talk and we talk and we talk to one another. And what I notice is that we are starving to death, for heart contact, for genuine, true exchange for to be held and to be heard and to be felt by another person. People have those rare relationships in their life and they’re very precious, or they had them with a parent at some point, but we we long for that as human beings To be met. And so compassionate exchange is really the practice of meeting the experience of another, directly and openly without judgment. And that’s incredibly valuable to people, because people really don’t want to be told what to do. And if they want advice, they’ll ask for it. And most of the time, when we talk to our friends, we want to help them. So learning how to really communicate as a clean mirror is what Karuna trainings is really all about. And it takes some time, because we’re very conditioned in our reactivity,
Silas Rose  20:57
 When it comes to heightened emotions, there really is this kind of addictive quality. And often, it seems like there’s only two options in terms of relating emotional one is to express or to suppress. What’s the third option?
Melissa Moore  21:20
The third option is to stay with the energy with contemplative awareness,  with a spacious spiritual awareness around the energy. So we have practices in Karuna, that help almost give your training wheels on how to meet energy, first thing we have to do is get out of the head and into the body. The body doesn’t add thoughts to the problem, you know, usually we try to think our way out of our emotions, we feel panic, we get a bad email, we want to think our way through it. That’s the worst thing you can do. It’s like adding fuel to the fire, but instead learning how to drop out of the head and into the body and feel the energy directly as it is manifesting. And that means I’d be very curious where it’s landing in the body, what’s it doing the minute of course, you pay. emotional energy is dynamic by nature, it moves unless you suppress it. Or if you act it out, you’re adding fuel to the fire, it gets bigger. But if you suppress it, it also gets bigger in a different way. So meeting the energy and feeling the energy is allowing the dynamic nature of energy to move through ourselves, to wake us up to shake us up and inform us we have emotions for a reason, they wisdom, but we don’t access them as wisdom, unfortunately, because, again, we’re not taught how to do that in kindergarten, i always feel like everything I’m teaching should be taught in kindergarten, but like how to work with emotional energy, it’s like having a very sophisticated heating and cooling system, and not knowing how to use it. Right? We never read the directions. We don’t really know the full capacity of our emotional awareness system. And I think that one of the great contributions of contemplative psychology is a very well thought out system of integrating the wisdom of our emotions in the moment, instead of being reactive and suppressive.
Silas Rose  23:35
What a typical session look like, either through Karuna training, or I’m thinking more specifically, if someone was to applyit in the home or work?
Melissa Moore  23:45
Well, one of the things is in Karuna, we don’t train them. We leave that to Naropa, which is very much another process of, you know, therapists need to have a wealth of information about diagnoses to be able to fit into the system, to be able to help people in that regard. Karuna has uncouple that aspect of the training and just taken the Buddhist psychology piece in created a process oriented program, we do give a practice called compassionate exchange. And that compassionate exchange can happen in a moment with strangers on the street where you open your heart and you offer yourself as a presence to bring forth the intrinsic health that is always there. That might happen with a stranger in the grocery store. If you feel compassionate, someone’s having a bad day you might reflect something to them. Or there’s an actual practice that we do called compassionate exchange that looks a lot like therapy, but it’s practiced from a relationship of equals. So the practitioner is called a compassionate friend and never do they take a stance of knowing we’re not making any interventions, it’s very much creating a container, and a reflective container for people’s basic sanity. And that is what we do in groups called speaking from the heart, or we do it in individual or one on one sessions with people so that we learn how to create a container. How to have a mutual agreement with someone around what we’re talking about is very important. You know, we go into these conversations with people, we never say, do you want to talk about this? Do you have the space in your mind and your heart to touch on some of these difficult topics, right now? And they might say, No, I don’t, and then it’s not the time to have the conversation. And then we also have to be very attuned to discerning, like, there’s a lot of practice when we’re having a difficult conversation with someone or we’re providing they’re having a difficult time and you’re providing space for them. One has to discern what you’re working with what’s going on here. If someone’s spinning out in an emotional freefall, that’s not helpful. So there’s lots of ways in which we learn to set the container. We call it a safe container so that we can do reflective listening, and there’s no script. So what each session looks like, has completely to do with the energy of the two people practicing. But what happens at the end of compassionate exchange is one feels deeply heard.
Silas Rose  26:36
We are living in a very polarized time. As a Canadian, I spend a remarkable amount of time thinking about American politics.  I get the sense that there’s a there’s a real addictive quality to outrage and drama. And that’s that’s very much by design and for talking about social media algorithms, and certainly partisan politics. How can compassion help us to find find common ground again?
Melissa Moore  27:11
I think that to lead one’s life with the heart of compassion, is is an aspiration to do it all the time, takes realization really, right. But to have that aspiration and to remember it to have practices and rituals in one’s life, where we remember that that’s our aspiration, and what we’re tuning to, and that’s our, our mission in life, so to speak, I think that compassion, as I said before, is the ability to feel the suffering of others and aspire to help, you know, so that is the driving force behind our advice, giving and everything, it’s coming from a good place. So what’s more helpful is to aspire to live one’s life with a very big hearted view, and to cultivate patience, and a kind of generous spirit. So what I have to do is, even with all these teachings in me, for all these years of I read headlines early in the morning, which sometimes I do, I don’t sleep, and I wake up and I read headlines. And of course, I have to walk myself back from the edge, and go through a process of remembering that there’s so much fear. And I know the fear in myself. So I have to come home to the fear in myself, because compassion means that we, we feel the feelings of others equally. It’s not like Oh, poor person, I feel so bad for you. That’s not compassion, that’s sympathy. But if you’re really feeling compassion for a homeless person, for example, you feel your own homelessness, we all have a homeless person inside of us, and to be willing to touch that fear and look in the eyes of a homeless person. That’s compassion, and to offer money from a place of one’s own homelessness. That’s true compassion. And that that’s a huge ask, right? Because we’re warding that off all the time. So this that’s why it has to be a path of practice to wake up these benevolent aspects in us like loving kindness, kindness, just like you know, we noticed that we’re snarky, sometimes in our mind, just to notice is huge. Just to own it in the moment and say, you know, that’s not how I really want to be. I don’t want to be this bitchy person, I want to be a kind person. So we often have to talk ourselves back into what we know and what we aspire towards. And then I think it’s conditioned. I think the 4 limitless ones, loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic Joy, joy that is joyous for another’s benefit, like training ourselves to be joyous when someone else’s succeeds, instead of competitive, but what we didn’t do but to turn ourselves to, to to joy, sympathetic joy, and equanimity, to stand in a non judgmental bias when we meet someone who’s raging about the opposite politics we have, and just to stand there and look at them and feel the fear they have in the fear we have simultaneously. That’s really what’s happening in this polarity. It’s fear meets fear, right? And to go there, and maybe even express it, you know, maybe that’s helpful. I don’t think there’s formulas.
Silas Rose  30:56
You have a book coming out soon. What can you share about that?
Melissa Moore  31:02
Well, I’m still struggling with the title. But right now, the title is the Diamonds Within Us. Contemplative psychology, uncovering brilliant sanity. And I just went through my first structural edit. And it’s, it’s, it’s a process of getting a book out. The thing is, is that I had the outline for the book 15 years ago, and COVID is what gave me the space in time to actually do it. So I’m very grateful. And more importantly, it was so good to write. The process of writing in this time has been very therapeutic to figure out how these methods right now are helpful for this moment. And that’s pretty much what the book is offering contemplative psychology is a path for the times we live in,
Silas Rose  31:55
We will definitely having back on once it’s out there in the world. Thank you so much, Melissa, for this conversation.
Melissa Moore  32:02
I’d love that. Thank you. Thank you so much Silas, and thank you for doing your work in the world.

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