On the fourth day of a two-week vacation, Lara Naughton’s life took an unexpected turn when she was kidnapped and assaulted by a man pretending to be a cab driver. Unable to escape, she relied on the only defense she had: compassion. It ultimately became the focus of her life’s work.
Today marks the publication of her memoir, The Jaguar Man. I am grateful to Lara for sharing her wisdom on healing, humanity, and one small change we can all make to cultivate more compassion…
How did you go about processing such a complicated experience?
As soon as I got home, I immediately looked to literature, because that’s where I get my guidance. I wanted to make sense of what happened, but I couldn’t find a book about rape that resonated with me. So I sat down and wrote it for myself. Writing was my way of figuring out how to think about the experience, about myself, about the man. It helped me shape and morph a new identity. That was going to happen one way or another, and I wanted to have an active role in it.
Were you surprised by what came up as you were writing?
I was surprised every day. I was surprised when something was difficult, and I was even more surprised when it was fun. Not ferris wheel fun, but fun that I could be the shaper of my own world. Ultimately, I was most surprised by how much I cared about the man. That became the focus of the book, and also the focus of my life. It was one of those instances where a horrendous situation can yield many positive results.
Your compassion for the Jaguar Man originally arose as a survival mechanism. Had you given much thought to compassion before that?
No. I’ve always tried to be kind, but compassion wasn’t something I’d considered in any deliberate way. I didn’t even know how to meditate at the time! But the Jaguar Man talked incessantly; he was so in the midst of his own pain, and he gave me that information to work with. My own personality has always been that of a helper, a teacher. So he allowed me to click in and apply it to this situation. It was only after I got home that I began asking questions about compassion.
Did you look at people differently after your experience?
I did. I started seeing everyone’s levels of pain, and their desire to relieve it. Since that experience, I’m more generous in recognizing that things are not about me. When I have the impulse to take something personally, I step back and say, something else is going on here. There’s an expression in compassion training, “just like me.” When you’re able to start seeing other people as “just like me,” you begin to respond very differently.
Can you tell us about your compassion training course?
The Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE) is part of the Stanford School of Medicine, founded by a neuroscientist who studies the effects of compassion on the brain. He teamed up with the Dalai Lama — not a bad partner! — and a team of psychologists. Together, they developed an eight-week compassion training course, which I am certified to teach. The class is based on mindfulness meditations, everyday practices, and lots of discussions and questions about compassion in our lives.
So what, exactly, is compassion?
Compassion is a very distinct emotion. It has a clear definition, which is recognizing the suffering in somebody else, wishing for it to be relieved, and having the willingness to help and act. It doesn’t mean you have to help, but it means you are willing.
What’s one way to cultivate more compassion in our lives?
Slow down and pay attention. Ask, “How are you?” and then stop long enough to listen to the answer. So often we ask, and then go along our way, and we have no idea that the other person is in pain. Or we don’t express that we may be suffering in some way. If you just slow down enough to listen, suddenly everything shifts. I see a need in you, and I can be present for that.
How can we feel more compassionate towards people who have wronged us?
The first step is recognizing that the person’s actions came from a place of dis-ease, and it is not personal. Things often feel personal, but they’re rarely about us. There are two ways to think about this: One is to feel compassion for yourself. Does the person still trigger some anger or disappointment or grief? Allow yourself to feel that and work with it. To develop compassion for another, you first must look at yourself. The second way is to consider Mettā, a loving kindness meditation. It goes like this: “May you be happy, may you be free from pain and suffering, may you know peace and joy.” You can direct this thinking towards yourself or anybody. I would also add, not everyone wants to feel compassion for someone who has wronged them. Any person who is harmed has a right to go through any process and have a large range of experiences. I think people come to compassion when they’re ready for it.
Perhaps the hardest question for many of us is, how can we cultivate more compassion for ourselves?
It’s hard work. It’s sitting down and breathing and asking, how am I feeling in this moment? And then doing the best we can to sit with it for as long as we can. If we were as awful to other people as we are to ourselves, we wouldn’t have many friends. The things we say to ourselves can be so cruel. It can be hard to recognize the suffering in ourselves. That’s what mindfulness teaches us, to be present in the moment, so we can notice what we’re feeling.
Your recent essay poses such an important question: Why is rape a women’s issue?
When I returned from my trip, I was so angry to only find information about rape in the women’s section of a bookstore — if I found it at all. I thought, “I’m the victim here, and it’s also my issue?” It did not feel like this was mine to fix. Why is every statistic focused on the women — one in six. Why do we not ask, how many men? There are men walking all around us who have done this, and we’re not talking about them. I think there’s no way we can eradicate or even reduce that number until we get to the source. This is a community issue. If we don’t also look at rape as a men’s issue, they don’t have any resources to turn to, and it perpetuates over and over.
One quote of yours that I’ve reflected on a lot lately is “hurt people hurt people.”
Behavior stems from a pain that already exists. If we’re not addressing the pain, then it will come out through violence. It has to go somewhere. People cannot live with that much pain for long, without it manifesting in an unhealthy way.
For anyone who’s currently struggling, could you share any thoughts on healing?
I think healing can happen in so many different ways, and that it ultimately comes from insight. We all have the hard stuff, none of us gets through this world without it. But it helps to remember that we all have the opportunity to re-frame our own story. I spent several hours with the Jaguar Man, but my life is so much bigger than that. We can tell ourselves a story of healing as much as we can tell a story of devastation, and ultimately the choice is ours.
Thank you so much, Lara.
Lara’s memoir, The Jaguar Man, is available today.