7/8 Practice Circle: A Compassionate Friend

In a world in which hatred and blame seem to be winning, where can we find compassion and acceptance in the face of life’s suffering? We have a compassionate resource always available in our own hearts – in fact, the only place we can ever experience compassion is within ourselves. When Practice Circle meets again this Sunday, July 8, at 6 p.m. Pacific, 7 Mountain, 8 Central and 9 Eastern time, we will share another technique from Mindful Self Compassion (MSC) to help us access this precious resource — a Compassionate Friend mediation.

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It can be easy to offer compassion to a dear friend, and to accept the compassionate words and actions of a friend toward ourselves. But offering and accepting our own compassion is extremely difficult for many people – it can even feel selfish and wrong. We might feel that we’ve screwed up so badly in our lives, that we’re so much to blame for our suffering and misfortune, that we simply don’t deserve compassion from anyone, least of all ourselves. Any attempt to offer kindness and acceptance to ourselves may feel false, as if we’re letting ourselves off the hook for the mistakes we’ve made. And if we do that, we might think, what’s to keep us from screwing up again? The harshly judgmental inner voice with which we address ourselves feels like a form of self-discipline, the voice of our inner football coach or drill sergeant. Won’t we be weak without it?

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to behave more skillfully toward ourselves and others and to avoid repeating mistakes that have caused us suffering. But that judgmental voice inside is often coming from an inner conviction that there is something fundamentally wrong with us, that we are broken in ways that will keep us from ever being happy or deserving of acceptance and love. While the people around us seem to have their acts together for the most part, we live with the feeling of this inner lack, of simply not being good enough. No improvement in our behavior or conditions will ever fill that hole; and as we try to hide our fundamental deficiency from the outside world – indeed, as we condemn, numb or hide from it in our own minds – we create the sense of separation and alienation that leaves us feeling utterly cut off from other people, and from ourselves.

When we feel this way, what a gift it is to have a friend! One whose presence alone is enough to help us feel accepted and cared for, one who is willing to be with us in the most painful times in our lives, one who knows all about us and still lets us know we’re ok. In Compassionate Friend meditation, we use visualization to help bring that friend to our aid. We imagine the presence of someone who has shown us unconditional caring and support and allow ourselves to open to their loving presence. Even if you’ve never had the gift of such a friendship in your life, you can still imagine someone who accepts you just the way you are. And as we connect with that unconditional compassion and love, we come to recognize that the source of that soothing joy is nowhere except our own hearts. The Compassionate Friend visualization gives us a little strength and courage to be able to touch into our suffering with our own hearts, and to witness that, as we do so, suffering may be transformed into joy.

None of us is rich, beautiful, powerful or spiritual enough to avoid life’s suffering. Suffering, and the sense of alienation and powerlessness that come with it, are part of being human. Since this is true for all of us, we can at least give ourselves permission to drop the idea that it’s our own fault, and that our failures make us unlovable. The Compassionate Friend meditation helps us get comfortable with the profound realization that, as Gotama taught,

With thoughts pervading in all directions,
One cannot anywhere find
A person more deserving of love and affection
Than oneself. (UD 5:1)