“If your compassion does not include yourself, it is incomplete.” —Jack Kornfield
In the yoga community, when we talk about compassion, karuna, we typically think of our attitude toward others. We talk about being compassionate toward animals and the earth with our choices. We practice extending compassion and loving-kindness to the people in our lives and those in need.
But what about compassion toward ourselves, especially during difficult times?
A few months ago, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. It came as a huge shock; I am under 40, had no risk factors or family history, and have spent much of my adult life focused on wellness. Yet there it was.
I wasn't sad or frightened; I was angry. Why me, when so many other people don't take care of their bodies and never get cancer? I love my life; why should I have to deal with this?
My practice made me realize I could love my life including cancer, not in spite of it.
While the physical effects of both the cancer and its treatment have impacted the asana portion of my yoga practice, looking at how I might deepen the rest of my practice made me realize I could love my life including cancer, not in spite of it.
A few things I've learned about self-compassion during illness:
1. Give yourself permission to let go of “why.”
Unless determining the cause will help with part of your treatment, let it go. Lying awake wondering what did it or beating yourself up about the past isn't helpful. When those thoughts come up, look at them for a moment, and let them leave. We move forward when we face forward. Looking back in anger or confusion helps no one.
2. Give yourself permission to need.
We all have ideas about what we should need, or what's good for us. What we need during our regular “healthy” times may look quite different from what we need when we're sick. You may need more rest, or rest at times when it's inconvenient. The food you can tolerate or find soothing may not fit with how you're used to eating. The length and intensity of your yoga practice may change at times. While there is a big difference between self-care and self-indulgence, give yourself permission to adjust to these needs; they are temporary, but they are important.
3. Give yourself permission to self-identify as a whole person.
You are a whole being. You are not defined by any one piece of what's going on in your life. You are not your job. You are not your age. You are not your relationship status. You are not your weight. You are not your health issues. You don't need to postpone your joy until a difficult time has passed. You are a magnificent whole person right now.
4. Give yourself permission to set boundaries and stick to them.
Cancer, and illness in general, is something people have many internal stories about. That doesn't mean you have to take all of it in. Everyone has different emotions about their illness, and they definitely shift and change on different days. Some of my boundaries included cutting people off if they launched into a chemo horror story; thanks, but no thanks. Another dealt with my own attitude and sense of humor. I love my life, including this piece of it, and I want to surround myself with friends who will laugh along with me if I make jokes about throwing a going-away party for my breasts, not ones who make sad, somber “you poor thing” faces every time I walk into the room.
When many people speak, they are airing their own personal baggage instead of attempting to truly communicate. This is a great time to learn both your personal boundaries, and how not to take things personally.
5. Give yourself permission to surrender.
People often talk about fighting cancer, and it does feel like a fight at times. A fight to feel normal when you're incredibly tired. A fight to feel beautiful when your hair is falling out. A fight to believe that everything you're doing is going to beat this disease and restore your health. But it can also be about surrender. Give yourself permission to surrender to the love and support of your friends and family. Give yourself permission to surrender to healing—inside and out. Give yourself permission to surrender to the present moment, with everything it holds, instead of always striving.
Give yourself permission to look at your whole life, including the difficult parts, and fall more deeply in love with it every single day.