I’m eager to share some of the many very useful practices I learned while being trained in the basics of Mindful Self-Compassion (MSC) by its originators, Kristin Neff and Chris Germer, at a recent two-day workshop. This Sunday, June 24, at 6 pm Pacific, 7 Mountain, 8 Central and 9 Eastern, Practice Circle will explore practices that help open to and express compassion toward our own suffering. If you find you can give compassion to anyone but yourself, I think you’ll learn something useful Sunday night! To prepare, please read my article on the definition of self-compassion below.
Kristin Neff was the first researcher to study self-compassion; and, as with all contemplative research, she had to begin by coming up with a definition of what she wanted to study. Compassion itself is located in a spectrum of emotions that could include empathy, sympathy or pity – how are they distinct from one another, and how are they related? And do any of these mental states change when we go from feeling them for other people to directing them to ourselves?
I think the definition Kristin came up with is useful, not just for understanding what makes self-compassion distinct from other kinds of feelings, but also for helping us carefully observe our own intentions and emotions so that we can recognize when we are truly directing compassion toward our own suffering, and when we might actually be experiencing emotions that may feel quite similar to compassion but are in fact far less skillful in promoting our own healing and happiness. Here’s the way she defines the term:
“When we suffer, caring for ourselves as we would care for someone we truly love. Self-compassion includes self-kindness, a sense of common humanity, and mindfulness.”
Let’s look at the elements of this definition one at a time.
Mindfulness. This doesn’t mean that we necessarily are engaged in some kind of contemplative technique when we are self-compassionate. It means that we cannot have compassion for our own suffering unless we allow that suffering into our awareness with at least some degree of acceptance. In fact, the chief barrier to self-compassion is that we are typically so afraid of our own suffering that we will do almost anything to avoid being aware of it; we ignore it, push it away, distract ourselves, or numb out.
The wonderful alchemy of compassion is that when we can allow ourselves to truly open to suffering, that of others or our own, we can observe how that suffering naturally calls forth compassion and the desire to respond with kindness. In self-compassion, this requires us to gain some perspective on our suffering so that we can recognize that it is only part of our experience, and that there is also part of us that has the ability to offer a comforting presence. So mindfulness in this context is more than a mind-training method; it is an act of courage and compassion in and of itself. Next time you meditate, you might consider that the very awareness you bring to your moment-to-moment experience is really a kind of love.
Self-kindness. When we can’t avoid our suffering, we often respond with various feelings of shame and rejection. We often feel there is something personally deficient in us even when we’re experiencing unavoidable physical suffering, such as sickness or aging. We’re even more likely to respond with harsh judgement toward our emotional and mental suffering – why can’t we pull ourselves together and be as normal as everyone else seems to be? At such times, our inner voice uses language we would never dream of directing toward anyone else, repeating stories of our failures and inadequacies we may have been telling ourselves our entire lives. Such deep-seated habits of self-blame can be hard to overcome, and we may even think we don’t deserve to feel any other way.
The practice of self-compassion offers us an alternative. It offers us skills we can use to build new habits, to recognize the voices of harsh judgement are only thoughts we don’t need to believe, and that no one is in a better position to advocate for our own happiness that ourselves. When we can drop the judgement and accept our own suffering as it is, then kindness and the desire to soothe and comfort ourselves can arise.
Common humanity. One of the strongest ways to accept our suffering the way it is is to recognize that suffering is a part of being human. None of us suffers alone; around the world there are millions feeling just as you do right now. The suffering of a friend, or even a stranger, to which you respond with spontaneous compassion is no different from the suffering you face. Just as we all suffer, we all wish for the alleviation of our suffering, and to feel happy, safe, healthy, and at ease. You don’t deserve this less than any other person. Recognizing this universal fact is the key to releasing our feelings of isolation and self-blame and allowing our hearts to respond compassionately to ourselves.