Why Self-Compassion is the New Mindfulness
Compassion Practice: Picture Your Best Self
Imagine your life five years from now when you are living, as you would like to be, according to your values. What will you be doing? Who will be in your life? Where will you be living? Write this letter from the future to someone important to you (living or dead, known or unknown) describing your life, as it is at that time, in exquisite detail. Take as long as you need to do this, making it as concrete as possible.
- Read over the letter and extract three values that are important to you.
- How close on a scale from 1 to 100 (with a 100 being completely) are you to this life you would like to be living?
- What is a small, concrete thing you could do in the next 48 hours to bring you five points closer to that life? Make sure that the task is stated in positive and behavioural terms. Make sure it is achievable!
Exercises like this can bring awareness and intention to how we are living. They can help us focus on cultivating who we want to be from a place of kindness and self-care. Throw away the stick and pick up a jelly donut.
Did you know self-compassion is the new black? Last year it was mindfulness
but this year, attending without judgment is out and compassion for you as an antidote to your perceived low self-worth, failure, or any other form of suffering is definitely in. This is perfect for those of us living in the west where we are so often sick with, as meditation teacher David Loy would say, our “sense of lack.” That loathing one might argue could be a result of our tendency to privilege the individual and his or her autonomy and accomplishments over the community and our interdependence. The idea that we can do everything ourselves and should is absurd. I mean, look around you. Do you have shelter and food? Did you build the former and grow the latter? Likely not, and even if you did where did you get the building materials, the seed, and tools? Our interdependence is always staring us in the face but we so easily miss it, focused on our self-importance, negative (“I’m so horrible”) or positive (“I’m so great”).
I have a secret I’m going to share with you that I tell the people who come to the Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy groups I lead. You are not so special or so bad. I’m sorry. You are ordinary. I find that such a relief. Trying to live up to some unrealistic standard of who I should be and what I should accomplish is ultimately exhausting and demoralizing. Whose standard is it anyway? It just becomes a metaphorical stick with which we can beat ourselves when we don’t meet those expectations. On top of that, it is so easy to think that being nice to ourselves is weakness or wimpy. Pulling up our bootstraps, and maintaining a stiff upper lip are ingrained in our culture. Staying with the tough familiar is often much easier than changing the way we respond.
I once attended a self-compassion workshop and found myself critical and rejecting of the exercises, thinking, “This is a bunch of crap.” The idea of hugging myself or stroking my face, saying words like, “Soften, Soothe and Allow,” softening around the tense areas of body, “like around the edges of a pancake,” and putting my hand on my heart while recalling a difficulty made me squirm with dis-ease. I didn’t want to be like a pancake. I didn’t want to practice loving-kindness to myself, the people I don’t like, or all beings. An acquaintance and I were talking about it and she said she often jokingly substitutes, “May all beings be peaceful” with the phrase, “May all beings have a jelly donut.”
It took a while to figure out that what was underneath all of this discomfort and cynicism was the thought, “self-compassion is self-indulgence.” This was an interesting recognition and invoking curiosity about this reaction led to the awareness: I don’t like to be vulnerable or weak. Okay, so who does? But the reality is that we are all vulnerable creatures. In the words of a psychiatrist colleague of mine, “We are just little mammals and there are some things we should stay away from.” This is good advice for many situations, one of which is our harsh stance toward self. Ask yourself, “What is the impact of all that loathing, sense of lack, and self-criticism?”
So, this is where self-compassion and ultimately compassion for others comes in, because believe me, those expectations we have for ourselves usually have their counterpart in our expectations of others. Researcher and author Kristin Neff expresses self-compassion as being composed of three parts: “self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness.” So mindfulness isn’t exactly out—it’s contained in the C word. Willem Kuyken et al (2010) found that MBCT treatment effects for depression are brought about by increased self-compassion and mindfulness as well as a separation of the link between reactive depressive thinking and bad outcomes for the illness. It then stands to reason that cultivating self-compassion may result in a happier, kinder you.
Recently, I was teaching a mindfulness and self-compassion workshop (we so often do what we need ourselves) and there is a values exercise derived from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy in which you imagine you are at your own funeral and someone is giving your eulogy. You consider what you would want them to say, to help you consider how you are living or not, according to your values. We were about to do this exercise and I remembered a number of people in the group had just experienced the death of a child, partner, or parent. Amazingly, the thought came to me that given all their recent losses, it might be wise to change the exercise as follows to one taken from Solution Focused Therapy, a method of therapy that is goal oriented, focused on the future rather than the past. Many of us, when in distress, become problem-saturated. Solution Focused Therapy helps us to think about how our situations, relationships, lives, etc., could be better rather than delving into what makes them so bad.
– Patricia Rockman MD CCFP FCFP
This piece was originally published on Mindful.org as Why Self-Compassion is the New Mindfulness
The photos were taken by Patricia Baron
Patricia Rockman MD CCFP FCFP is an associate professor with the University of Toronto, department of family and community medicine; cross appointed to psychiatry. She is the past chair of the Ontario College of Family Physicians Collaborative Mental Health Network. She is a medical psychotherapist and leads MBCT groups. She has been educating healthcare providers in stress reduction, CBT and mindfulness-based practices for over 20 years. She is a founder and the Director of Education and Clinical Services at the Centre for Mindfulness Studies and the developer of the MBCT Core Facilitation Certificate Program.
I have practiced Buddhist mindfulness meditation for 50 years. I have had many extraordinary experiences with this meditation. (I have written a book on these experiences called The Path of Love.) One thing I have learned from a Tibetan Buddhist is that infants are born Enlightened. You may have noticed that infants are in a profoundly loving state. Infants love both others and themselves with complete self-confidence, a state of mind that can be recovered through mindfulness meditation. You may try the following meditation: Imagine the presence of a glowing ember in your heart representing your memory of being in this state. As you breathe in, imagine the ember becomes brighter. As you breathe out, imagine the ember becomes a fountain of love that pours through your body. You can try this for a half hour. This meditation should be practiced in private. It can place you in a vulnerable state of mind, so come out of it slowly and share it only with a very close friend. Close the meditation if it starts to bring up negative associations.
I believe that the future of Buddhism is that it will become a psychology that has an in-depth knowledge of this earliest state of mind and develops childcare methods that prevent a child from ever losing this Enlightened state of mind. The work of Maria Legerstee is a good beginning. I have recently published a book called How Mindfulness Meditation Works. It should be available in a few weeks. There is much work to be done to bring this ancient practice into a scientific understanding.