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  • Julius de Jong

Why We Need More Compassion (Episode 29-39)

And Trauma Awareness

When I watched The Wisdom of Trauma by Dr. Gabor Maté, I was blown away with Fritzi Horstman and her work with the Compassion Prison Project, featured in this documentary film. It was at that instance that I knew I’d had to talk to her to learn more about compassion and how (old) trauma can stay with us, until we address it and give it space to be processed. Until we allow it to be seen.


After six months since our first exchange, finally we managed to schedule our talk. During this, I asked Fritzi about her personal story, and where and why the Compassion Prison Project was born. Fritzi shared with me that reading the book ‘The Body Keeps the Score’ changed her life. After this, she realized that her behavior wasn’t who she was. She realized that her outbursts, irritability, at times harsh behavior, and interactions with others had nothing to do with who she was; it was all because of her trauma (Horstman, 2022). It was because of what happened to her. A month later, while visiting a prison, she realized what was true for her, had to be true for the people in prison too. ‘When I walked into prison, not only did I felt like they needed to be forgiven, but [they] also [needed] to be seen for who they are. This is what’s missing in our criminal justice system’ (Horstman, 2022). Instead of looking for the human in each other, we too often look at what someone did. What someone did, doesn’t define who they could be. Of course, people need to face consequences for their actions. However, the world becomes better when we can cultivate awareness and compassion for each other. Also with regard to past trauma. ‘Trauma is the invisible force that shapes our lives. It shapes the way we live, the way we love and the way we make sense of the world. It is the root of our deepest wounds’ (Maté, 2021). Similarly, trauma has shaped the lives of those in prison. Dr. Gabor Maté said about this; ‘[w]hen studying prison populations, you see a common preponderance of childhood trauma and mental illness. The two go together. So, what we have in prisons are the most traumatized people in our society’.


Compassion Prison Project

The mission of the Compassion Prison Project is to create trauma informed prisons and communities. Trauma informed means understanding the likelihood of someone (in prison) being traumatized, and understanding what happens to the brain, body and spirit when traumatized and how this puts someone in a constant state of fight or flight mode (Horstman, 2022). When constantly in a state of fight or flight, we don’t have access to the part of the brain that makes us human; the prefrontal cortex (Horstman, 2022). Without access to our prefrontal cortex, we cannot learn, understand consequences, or feel empathy. When in fight or flight, we’re only wired for survival.


Fritzi explained that the focus should be on healing those in prison so they can return to society and not create more victims. For this, we have to look at the whole picture, she said. We cannot look at one event which got them arrested and got them in prison (Horstman, 2022). Always there is an enormously strong influence of the (social) environment, upbringing, socialization, access (or lack thereof) to education which all are impacting the decisions people make. The story of Danny Trejo in his memoir ‘Trejo: My Life of Crime, Redemption, and Hollywood’ provides a striking example of this. It’s also a must read. It also shows how there is more to an individual then just his past experiences.


Adverse Childhood Experiences and Step Inside the Circle

As part of her work for the Compassion Prison Project, Fritzi recorded ‘Step Inside the Circle’. For this, she invited 235 incarcerated men to join in a compassion trauma circle. Every time I see that, I am touched beyond words, and I cannot hold back tears. What I believe happens there, is that people are offered a means to express their pent-up traumas; are being seen, heard, held, and felt loved and understood. Universal human needs are met. Yes, crimes have been committed which put these men where they are. But a bigger context is applicable. A context of trauma, and Adverse Childhood Experiences.


The Compassion Trauma Circle is a powerful instrument and process which Fritzi conducts in prisons. It’s basically a quiz about first childhood experiences. The principle is simple. All participants together make a big circle. Fritzi then calls out a particular Adverse Childhood Experience (ACEs). For your understanding, the top ten of these are physical abuse; emotional abuse; sexual abuse; physical neglect; emotional neglect; parents divorced or separated; domestic violence; parent or caregiver addicted to drugs or alcohol; parent or caregiver who is depressed or mentally ill; and a household member ever been incarcerated. According the United States Center for Disease Control and Prevention, ‘ACEs and associated conditions, such as living in under-resourced or racially segregated neighborhoods, frequently moving and experiencing food insecurity, can cause toxic stress (extended or prolonged stress). Toxic stress and ACEs can change brain development and affect such things as ability to focus, decision-making, learning, and responses to stress. This is turn can lead to health-risk behaviors, social and physical problems and possibly early death’ (Compassion Prison Project, 2022). The experience of ACEs results in disrupted neurodevelopment, social, emotional, and cognitive impairment, adoption of health-risk behaviors, disease, disability and social problems, and early death. During our call, Fritzi shared with me and the listeners and viewers that she has 8 of the top 10 ACEs. She had to live with the shame of her father being an alcoholic, her mother being mentally ill, and being beaten every day (Horstman, 2022). She takes this experience working with the people in prison. She also provides an example of a different way for dealing with this.


Back to the circle. After an ACE is called out, whomever has experienced that particular ACE, steps forward in the circle. This is an enormously powerful process. The power of it, according to Fritzi Horstman, lies in lifting the wall of secrecy around what we’ve experienced (Horstman, 2022). This helps the development of awareness, and with this newfound awareness, one can start making different decisions and start living in a new way. Furthermore, this process helps people to feel heard, seen, important, and that they matter. I believe that owning publicly, as done in these circles, this hidden part of trauma carried inside of oneself, for the world to see, has healing qualities. Please watch the video below and witness the power of this process. While being part of Step Inside the Circle, a 76-year-old imprisoned man referred to this day as one of the best days of his life. I believe that tells something. Both about this process, but also about the hardship of his life. This, I believe, deserves compassion.

The next video, ‘Honor Yard’, as embedded below is also very much worth the watch. This short documentary goes into the impact of childhood trauma by examining its symptoms.

In the process of facilitating Step Inside the Circle and Honor Yard and her broader work for the Compassion Prison Project, Fritzi aims to open her heart as much as possible to everyone. She said something interesting in this regard; ‘I open my heart to everyone, as much as I can, as much as my ego will get out of the way so I can love them’ (Horstman, 2022). Our ego often gets in the way too much from what actually matters and is meaningful. Developing awareness about this will certainly make us better people, and connect more fully with others.


How understanding and awareness lead to compassion

Compassion in its essence is about the ability to feel sympathy and sorrow for someone else who is suffering misfortune of bad luck, combined with a desire to alleviate this suffering. We can cultivate compassion for others, and ourselves. Compassion always requires awareness. It requires us to be out of our trance of self-importance and self-absorption. We need awareness in order to see things for what they are. As Fritzi mentioned during our talk, we are all miracles (Horstman, 2022). We just need to be present enough to see it. From there, we can develop kindness and the willingness to help both ourselves, and our fellow human beings. With awareness, we can see things and people for who they truly are. Not what we fear them to be.


Recently, I’ve finished the amazing book ‘The Happiest Man Alive’, by Auschwitz survivor Eddie Jaku. What he said in relation to this rings very true to me; ‘[k]indness is the greatest worth of all. Small acts of kindness last longer that a lifetime (Jaku, 2021). His personal story, which I strongly recommend reading, is a true inspiration and testimony to the concept of compassion. Especially, when we consider the horror, this man had to endure and witness, throughout his life before and during the second world war in Europe under the Nazis. Because of his personal experiences, Eddie has developed awareness to the suffering of others and the energy and drive to help alleviate this. All compassion is preceded by us to stop and recognize suffering. Both of ourselves, but also of others. We can’t be moved by pain if we don’t acknowledge its existence in the first place (Neff, 2015).


A numbed society

To be present in the here and now can be a confronting experience. It is because of this, that many people find distraction or escapes. We watch Netflix, drink, take drugs, or find other distractions in order to numb ourselves from what we (morally) cannot tolerate. ‘A lot of these survival [numbing and] strategies will go away if we don’t abuse each other’ (Horstman, 2022). The reason we’re here is to deal with the difficult parts. We all, in more or less extend have faced some form of trauma during our lives or have been confronted with trauma that has been passed on to us through our parents, or our parents parents, or even further down our past generations. In the here and now, with presence, we get to decide and to break the chain. The work with Step Inside the Circle is an example of this process of breaking the chain, or at least, contributing to this process. To be able to break the chain, we need to develop awareness.


Trauma awareness

When traumatized, we cannot focus on the future. During our talk, Fritzi shared an example of her sister, who too is traumatized. After having sent her a lot of money, she proceeded to spend it all instead of investing it in her future or making a visit to the dentist or the vet. When we’re in fight or flight mode because of trauma, people are not in a place where they’re calm and able to make balanced decisions (Horstman, 2022). However, to change this, we need to develop awareness. Discussing awareness, Fritzi said the following: ‘when I learnt I was traumatized, it gave me the ability to be compassionate with myself and say hey “you’ve had a hard road Fritzi”’ (Horstman, 2022). By having recognized this within herself, she is also able to recognize the trauma in others, such as the people in prison she works with. In line with the premise of acknowledging the existence of something, as a prerequisite for doing something about it, trauma awareness is a central theme in the work of Fritzi Horstman. This is essential, ‘because you can’t heal what you don’t know you have’ (Horstman, 2022). She has received many remarks underlining the importance of this from the men she has worked with, stating they had no idea they were traumatized, or that they had no idea that violence wasn’t a normal part of life. Often times, their behavior and ways of being were developed due to a lack of good role models. This too is strikingly articulated in ‘Trejo: My Life of Crime, Redemption, and Hollywood’, as mentioned before.


Cultivating compassion

The book 'Radical compassion' by Tara Brach offers a good insight into compassion, and the work for cultivating it. According to Brach, ‘“[r]adical compassion” means including the vulnerability of this life, all life, in our heart. It means having the courage to love ourselves, each other, and our world. Radical compassion is rooted in mindful, embodied presence, and it is expressed actively through caring that includes all beings’ (Brach, 2019). She offers a clear process for achieving compassion and releasing painful beliefs and emotions that keep us from being ourselves.


This process, or practice, consists of four steps; Recognize, Allow, Investigate, and Nurture, together forming the acronym RAIN. This process can offer a reliable way to find healing in times of pain and grief, or for dealing with trauma. Especially, in the midst of emotional pain. In a nutshell, this process can be summarized as follows:

  • The first step is to simply Recognize (R) what was going on inside of oneself, the circling of anxious thoughts and guilty feelings;

  • The second step is to Allow (A) what is happening by breathing and letting be. Although what is experienced might be highly uncomfortable, it’s important not to fix or change anything and, just as important, not to judge oneself for feeling anxious or guilty;

  • The former steps enable the the third: to Investigate (I) what feels most difficult. Now, with interest, one can directed one’s attention to the feelings of anxiety in his/her body. For example; physical tightness, a pulling and pressure around the heart. From there, one can start asking questions about what the current beliefs are underlying this anxiety. From there, one can ask what it most needs now, what you most need. This leads to the fourth step;

  • The fourth step of RAIN, Nurture (N), is about addressing this anxious part inside of oneself with reassurance and compassion. It’s about softening, relaxing and letting go of tension and anxiety (Brach, 2019).

The importance of community for being seen and validated

As humans we are by definition social beings. We need each other for love, friendship, and cooperation. ‘Everybody needs empathy, everybody needs to be seen, and everybody needs to be part of the community’ (Horstman, 2022). ‘Trauma separates you from yourself and from community, and it tells you that something is terribly wrong with you’ (Horstman, 2022). This ultimately leads to hopelessness, which is a recipe for crime and desperation. However, being with other people, listening to other people, and being heard by other people helps us heal trauma. It helps us to be seen and validated for who we are. They key to being in a circle with the process of Step Inside the Circle is that everyone sees each other, thereby meeting an essential human need; the need to be seen and heard. Seeing everyone, being seen, and being in community are essential elements for healing (Horstman, 2022). This process of serve and return is something that a mother does when smiling at her baby. The baby smiles in return. This process offers validation to the child and is critically important for its development. Similarly, in society, we need each other for validation and for smiles. This helps establish us as people and lays the base for compassion. Both for others, and ourselves.


Shame and compassion

‘You are incarcerated by your past’ (Horstman, 2022). The past is what happened to you, but it is no longer relevant in the now. However, in many occasions, we have shame about things we’ve done, or things that have been done to us. Shame is part of the steel cage where we keep our trauma tucked away. Trauma leads to the cultivation of this built-in shame that one is worthless and has no value (Horstman, 2022). Shame keeps trauma in place. Instead, be vulnerable, because when one can release the shame and the notion of secrecy, we can be seen and heard, and let go of trauma. The shame and denial about experienced trauma holds us hostage and stands in between ones current self and the perfect being (Horstman, 2022). Therefore, do not let shame be the impediment of compassion, and face it with brevity instead.


How to bring more compassion into your life

‘If you come from your head instead of your heart, you’re going to stay in the same place’ (Horstman, 2022). Become aware, and stop this. Get into your heart. ‘Stop the violence to yourself. You are perfect. Look at yourself in the mirror, and tell yourself that’ (Horstman, 2022). Get used to the idea that you’re a miracle, as its true. Anything else is a lie and fear based, and based on old programming, says Fritzi Horstman during our talk (Horstman, 2022). ‘You might have done some crappy things, but you just have to stop doing them’ (Horstman, 2022). Have integrity, be your word, and honor your commitment. Have integrity with yourself. Love yourself, treat yourself and take care of yourself (Horstman, 2022). When we can take care of ourselves, we’ll start acting from our frontal cortex, instead from our fight or flight impulses. If we change ourself, we will change the world. If we learn to be kind to ourselves, we can learn to be kind to others. The two go hand in hand, actually. So please, give this a try?



Image: Still from Step Inside the Circle of the Compassion Prison Project.

 

Interview


To learn about compassion, and the importance of addressing and recognizing trauma, I have had the honor to talk to Fritzi Horstman. She is founder of the Compassion Prison Project, aimed at creating trauma informed prisons and communities. Her work has touched me deeply, and shown me how we are all human beings, before anything else.


Fritzi is also a filmmaker and producer, known for the Grammy award winning ‘The Defiant Ones’, a four-part documentary series about Jimmy Iovine and Dr. Dre. Apart from this, Fritzi produced much more, and is able like no other to vividly display both the vulnerable and pure humanity in all of us, and how we need each other.


Also in our talk, she shared openly about herself, and her own experiences, embracing vulnerability. She leads by example in in this regard and certainly taught me more than a thing or two about compassion and the awareness required for this.


I believe anyone can benefit from hearing this talk, but especially those with hardship and trauma in their past. May this help to gain and have compassion, and recognize that we are not what happened to us.


Website Compassion Prison Project: https://compassionprisonproject.org

Compassion in Action Podcast: https://compassionprisonproject.org/compassion-in-action-podcast/

Personal website Fritzi Horstman: https://www.fritzihorstman.com/about




 

Sources


Bloom, Paul, 2018, Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion. https://amzn.to/3CeZuWD


Brach, Tara, 2019, Radical Compassion: Learning to Love Yourself and Your World with the Practice of RAIN. https://amzn.to/3sCUnwq


Boyatzis, Richard, Melvin Smith, and Ellen Van Oosten, 2019, Helping People Change: Coaching with Compassion for Lifelong Learning and Growth. https://amzn.to/3vyExEP


Chödrön, Pema, 2010, Comfortable with Uncertainty: 108 Teachings on Cultivating Fearlessness and Compassion. https://amzn.to/3KdgDma


Gilbert, Paul, 2014, Mindful Compassion: How the Science of Compassion Can Help You Understand Your Emotions, Live in the Present, and Connect Deeply with Others. https://amzn.to/3Cf0GJB


Jaku, Eddie, 2021, The Happiest Man on Earth: The Beautiful Life of an Auschwitz Survivor.https://amzn.to/34d03Uq


Maté, Gabor, 2021, The Wisdom of Trauma. https://thewisdomoftrauma.com, accessed on March 2, 2022.


Neff, Kristin, 2015, Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself. https://amzn.to/3MiZZDC


Trejo, Danny, 2021, Trejo: My Life of Crime, Redemption, and Hollywood. https://amzn.to/3494aRc


Van der Kolk, Bessel, 2014, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in The Healing of Trauma. https://amzn.to/3HD6o9l

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