“A human being is part of the whole, called by us ‘universe’, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separate from the rest-a kind of optical delusion of consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.” – Einstein
We seem to be at a time more than ever when we are the most connected yet the most disconnected. Many connect effortlessly via texting, messaging, and social media, and their lives our out there for many to view. Yet are we really connecting with each other in a way that fuels happiness, life satisfaction, motivation, and mental well being? I would argue, not fully.
To give and receive compassion and cultivate its full benefits; happiness, life satisfaction, motivation, connectedness, mental well-being, I feel we need to be present with ourselves and for the most part physically present with others. Yes, we can cultivate it via technology, but I hope we can all agree that physical touch and proximity are much more impactful than connecting via technology. It is in these physically present moments where mirror neurons can fire via eye contact and physical touch and lasting connection with compassion occurs.
So, what is compassion and how do we practice it? Thich Nhat Hanh states “compassion is a verb, it is not a thought or a sentimental feeling but is rather a movement of the heart.” Further in Pali compassion is defined as “the trembling or quivering of the heart.” You may have also heard compassion defined as “to suffer with”. This type of openheartedness can be scary and we may doubt our abilities to be this present with ourselves and others. And to be honest at times, we may not want to go to this place. We may be feeling a certain way; unhappy, stressed, anxious, angry, hopeless, sad and these emotions can drain us and cut us off from wanting to be openhearted to ourselves and others. This is why compassion practices are just that, practices, and practices that are courageous and imperfect.
Kristin Neff is the expert in Self-Compassion and says it is “extending compassion to one’s self in instances of perceived inadequacy, failure, or general suffering or giving ourselves the same care and kindness we’d give to a good friend.” And much like the metaphor around self-care that talks about when on an airplane, if there is an emergency, put the oxygen mask on yourself first before helping someone else. This idea I believe is similar with compassion practices. We must practice self-compassion before we can fully and honestly give compassion to others. A favorite quote of mine to exemplify this is “The Buddha said that if we truly loved ourselves, we would never harm another. For in harming another, we diminish who we are. When we can love ourselves, we give up the idea that we do not deserve the love and attention we are theoretically willing to give to others.” Again, remember compassion is a practice and therefore we are not perfectly loving towards ourselves and others at all times. The practice is to notice, catch, and pause when we are being the opposite of self-compassionate and compassionate towards others. When we find ourselves being judgmental, cutting off or isolating, or self-absorbed or over-identifying to negative emotions, this is a time to slow down and practice self-compassion.
Kristin Neff outlines three elements of Self-Compassion and has many exercises and meditations on her website for you to try out http://self-compassion.org/category/exercises/#guided-meditations.
The three elements of Self-Compassion and their opposites are:
1. Self-Kindness vs. Self-Judgement (Fight)
2. Common Humanity vs. Isolation (Flight)
3. Mindfulness vs. Over Identification or Self-Absorption (Freeze)
I included the Fight, Flight, Freeze because what helped me with embracing this practice is understanding some of the research behind it. Often people feel that being kind to oneself is too soft and will not propel us or motivate us to make change. They misinterpret self-compassion as just accepting the status quo. Self-compassion is a way of relating to ourselves and yes embracing ourselves flaws and all. It is accepting ourselves honestly as we are. And acceptance does not mean agreement.
So, I may be unhappy with my physical health and want to be healthier and using self-kindness vs. self-criticism as a motivator will be more effective. Research shows that being self-critical actually undermines our motivations. We tap into our reptilian brain and feel threatened (fight response) and attack the problem and the problem is ourselves. When attacking ourselves and in that fight response we are releasing cortisol leading to high levels of stress or even depression to deal with the stress. Self-compassion elicits the opposite response, instead of feeling threatened, we feel safe. Self-compassion via loving kindness creates the optimal mind state to do our best and change. It taps into our mammalian brain or care giving system. This is warmth, gentle touch, and soft vocalizations which release oxytocin and opiates, the feel good hormones. I always think of how I teach children or pets. I don’t berate them and criticize them, I often lower my voice and am encouraging to create a space of comfort and safety. This ideally allows them to feel motivated and willing to take a risk, maybe make a mistake and ultimately learn and grow. So, why not turn this practice towards ourselves to support a growth mindset vs. a fixed mindset that can leave us stuck.
So, how do you practice self-compassion? You work to recognize and allow all your feelings and thoughts to rise to the present mind and choose to respond with love and care and encouragement. My favorite sayings by Chris Germer are “What we resist persists” and “What we can feel, we can heal.” So, when faced with a failure, insecurity, perceived inadequacy, or sense of suffering work to soften and not resist what is happening. When you resist and fight it you are more likely to tap into the reactive and often fear based fight, flight, freeze response. I encourage you to practice mindfulness and get curious, feel your feelings, and heal and change and grow and thrive!
One last great tool is the RAIN of Self-Compassion by Tara Brach
Recognize what is going on.
Allow the experience to be there, just as it is.
Investigate with interest and care.
Nourish with self-compassion.
“If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” – Dalai Lama