During a particularly difficult time in my life, I attended a meditation training. On the first day of class, the teacher shared with us a story from his study of mythology.
The story explored the relationship between chaos and creativity. The teacher spoke about the way excessive control can hamper the process of transformation. I asked him, “How would I know if the chaos is creative, or if it is simply going to mess up my life?”
The teacher looked at me, paused, and said: “You might consider that The-Great-Consciousness-That-Is-All-That-Is is gazing upon you with the utmost compassion and the highest love. Try looking upon yourself in the same way.”
I thought I was asking the teacher about my marriage. In the many years since that weekend workshop, I have learned that I was actually asking: “Am I lovable—regardless of whether or not I stay married? Am I lovable, even if I make a mistake?”
As I endeavored to put my teacher’s advice into action, I discovered that I had been withholding love and compassion from myself. I gradually realized that I thought I had to conform to rigid, perfectionistic standards in order to earn my own positive regard. While learning to gaze upon myself with compassion didn’t solve my problems right away, practicing self-compassion gave me the freedom to listen to what I wanted and needed without holding my own love hostage.
Self-love and self-compassion do not solve our problems. However, practicing self-compassion can help pave the way for creative solutions by bringing a much-needed tenderness to painful circumstances. At its roots, the word compassion means “to be with suffering.” Learning to be with one’s own suffering—be it from a loss of income, a relationship challenge, or the many frightening realities of a global pandemic—is not about fixing the outer situation. Self-compassion is a practice of loving ourselves unconditionally, of being with ourselves in those moments when we might easily abandon ourselves. It is exactly when loving ourselves is difficult that we need self-compassion the most.
Self-love and self-compassion do not solve our problems. However, practicing self-compassion can help pave the way for creative solutions by bringing a much-needed tenderness to painful circumstances.
Many of my students have written to me about their challenges in being quarantined at home during this pandemic. Their challenges range from emotional eating and exercise addiction to dysfunctional family dynamics (exacerbated in some cases by proximity, and in others by distance). Because of the disruption in routines and coping strategies, many people are suffering with loneliness, anxiety, anger, and grief. Hearing about these struggles reminds me that now, in the midst of difficulty, is a perfect time to practice self-compassion. During a time of chaos, an inner shift may be what’s needed—far more than any change in outer circumstances or behavior.
Practicing self-compassion is simple. The following six-step practice can be incorporated into your life in a formal way, as a seated meditation, or as a visualization. Or, you can use these steps informally, in the middle of a difficult conversation or while doing household chores.
1. Begin by acknowledging your suffering. Name the behavior, feeling, or circumstance that causes pain.
2. Make loving physical contact with yourself. Place a hand on your heart or your arm or anywhere that feels reassuring.
3. Scan your body for tension or strain. Feel where your body is registering the suffering you are experiencing.
4. Remind yourself that what you are going through is a part of a shared human experience. I tell myself, “I am not the first person to experience this; I am not going to be the last person who goes through something like this.”
5. Offer yourself compassion, tenderness, and love. A simple “I love you” or “May I be happy” might sound corny or forced at first, but it will initiate a flow of positive self-regard.
6. Receive from yourself the compassion and love. Soften any hard edges around your heart, let go of any mental cynicism, and allow the love in.
Self-compassion is the process of unconditionally asserting kindness, generosity, and love. It is not to be confused with making excuses, indulging ourselves, or denial. Rather, self-compassion generates the courage to tell ourselves the truth, to be accountable, and to make necessary amends without flinching because making mistakes no longer means we are unlovable. Making mistakes means only that we are human.
Self-compassion generates the courage to ask for help, because needing help does not indicate we are unworthy of love. Needing help reveals that we are like every other person who has needs beyond what they alone can fulfill. Self-compassion generates the internal spaciousness required to make decisions, to take risks, and to relax the grip that perfectionism can have on our attitudes and behaviors.
Self-compassion redefines life. Instead of life being about right and wrong, good and bad, self-compassion opens the door instead to choice and to experimentation.
In short, it makes life an expression of love.