Unbroken, compassion, safety, self-love

Hold yourself with fierce compassion and safety.

From Unbroken—Book One: Remember Your Wholeness;

Excerpt from Section Three, We Rise:

Five agreements.

First Agreement: Hold yourself with fierce compassion and safety.

So fierce. Because there’s not enough going around. And you so need its healing.

First things first. What is compassion? Sounds good, but is it for us?

The English compassion is derived from Latin compassus: “to suffer together with.”

Compassion places us in immediate, non-judging, present-moment relationship to the objects of our compassion. It says, “I see you, I hear you, I feel you, you matter to me, I feel your suffering.”

 Religious and spiritual traditions worldwide recognize compassion as a bedrock human virtue. Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Judaism, indigenous North American cultures, and many others recognize how the highest expression of compassion is active—it’s what we do in the spirit of compassion, to understand and help relieve the suffering of others. If not relieve the suffering—some suffering needs its space and voice—then to hold it. Fiercely.

So, yes, compassion is very much for us. It’s who we are in our cores.

Compassion has a biology, with deep brain networks dedicated to it. The mirror neuron system translates others’ suffering into our own empathic experience. Prosocial brain networks support how we respond to the needs of others. Parental attachment and social bonding involve the pituitary neuropeptide, oxytocin, which deepens the ability for compassion and responding to others’ needs.

Compassion regulates the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS). It helps shift us out of fear and into social engagement. This shift improves resilience in many of our biological systems. Heart rate variability increases—this is a measure of how adaptable the heart is to cardiovascular challenges by varying heart rate. Blood pressure can also adapt more quickly, allowing for variations in blood delivery to vital organs based on need.

Compassion leads to a more resilient brain. We see this as improvements in cognitive function, intellectual abilities, focus and concentration, and mood.

Most importantly, the experience of compassion helps us feel safe. Through this direct, non-judgmental, present moment holding of our experience, of us, we feel seen, heard, felt, and cared about. We matter.

For our purposes we will be working with self-compassion. To create safety for ourselves. To feel seen, heard, felt, and cared about by us. To become our own compassionate witnesses. To hold all our feelings. To observe and shift our bodies, our minds, our equilibrium.

Compassion is necessary to release you from everything holding you back from remembering who you are, the Earth, herself. From living through challenge and change with growth. From releasing old stories that no longer serve. From unleashing your possibilities, your flow.

Compassion doesn’t erase fear, it helps you hold fear. It doesn’t remove pain, it helps you hold pain. It doesn’t protect you from challenge, it helps you rise to challenge. In this way, compassion leads you to the truth of who you are. Compassion will directly and immediately connect you to yourself, your wholeness, and your wisdom. A wise teacher put it this way: “When you see the truth, you feel hurt, and when you allow yourself to feel hurt, compassion comes. If you don’t allow yourself to feel hurt, you can’t feel compassion. That’s how our organism functions.”

That’s the paradox of compassion. It’s not all feel good. It hurts. Holding the truth can hurt. Growing, healing, connecting to our wholeness hurts. Present moment awareness and engagement that compassion allows, that we must have to fully experience our human lives, contains it all, remember? All our shit, all our glory.

Everything we practice will begin and end with compassion. It’s in our agreements, our tools, our muses, and it’s part of our first foundational steppingstone.

With love and fierce compassion,


Karyn Shanks MD


Karyn Shanks, MD, is a physician who lives and practices in Iowa City. Her work is inspired by the revolutionary science of Functional Medicine, body-mind wisdom, and the transformational journeys of thousands of clients over her twenty-eight year career. She believes that the bones of healing are in what we do for ourselves.

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