March 4, 2024

Healing Compassion Fatigue with the Buddhist Practice of Maitri. ~ Kersti Burningham Lewis

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I’ve been a nurse for 23 years.

Twenty of those years I have worked with critically ill patients in the intensive care unit. Working in an intensive care unit is a unique and interesting place to work. As a nurse, I get to help people at a time in their lives when they are fragile and broken. When people come to us, we see them at their most vulnerable. We meet them where they are and do our best to nurse them back to health.

If they are too sick and we are not able to nurse them back to health, we hold their hand and listen and help them come to terms with what’s happening. Helping patients’ families understand what is going on with their loved ones is also a big part of the job.

It can be rewarding being an ICU nurse, with such a great capacity to be of benefit, but it can also be exhausting. It takes a toll physically, mentally, and emotionally.

A quote from Pema Chödrön has helped me as a nurse:

“Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It’s a relationship between equals. Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others. Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity.”

In caring for others as a nurse, I have had to face my own vulnerabilities. I realize that I, too, am only human and may one day be in my patient’s place in the hospital bed. I have empathy for my patients and have learned a lot of lessons from my interactions with the people I have cared for through the years. Being an ICU nurse makes you face the reality that life is fleeting and impermanent.

I turn to a practice I learned a few years ago called maitri to help me as a nurse and in my life in general. Maitri is a Sanskrit word that means loving-kindness—to feel compassion, kindness, goodwill, and love toward all beings equally. Maitri starts first with loving-kindness toward yourself.

I try to meditate morning and evening and am learning to calm my mind and be more present in the moment. Meditation helps me to slow things down and be more aware of how I am feeling and interacting in the world. Meditation helps me accept myself for who I am and where I am in life. I can appreciate the parts I like about myself and make friends with the parts of myself I don’t like as well.

By being more kind and loving toward myself, flaws, and all, it helps me be more kind and loving to other people. I can be more understanding and compassionate to the world because I have given that to myself first. The bigger our hearts, the easier it is to give ourselves and others grace.

This is the essence of maitri.

There is no denying that compassion fatigue is a real thing. The demands of the job of a health care provider are immense. We deal with trying situations and difficult emotions. We are often understaffed and overworked. The only salve is to be present in the moment and listen to yourself and how you are feeling. Being your own best friend gives you the resolve and strength to be there for others.

This article is focused on helping other health care providers, but this advice can really apply to anyone. Life is challenging for everyone. We all are confronted with obstacles and adversity in one form or another in our lives. If we can have loving-kindness toward ourselves, we will be more available to other people.

As Gautama Buddha, a philosopher, reformer, and the founder of Buddhism, stated:

“Happiness comes when your work and words are of benefit to yourself and others.”


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