Cultivating Self-Compassion

A number of years ago a friend shared with me a startling insight, which piqued my curiosity. As I was petting my friend's playful pup, Mazie, she said, "You know what I realized the other day? I never speak to myself the way I speak to Mazie. Mazie has peed on the carpet, teethed on all my shoes, and barked incessantly throughout the nights at moving shadows. And, yet, I absolutely love her and forgive her again and again." My friend's insight was met with with a tickle of goosebumps, which scampered down my neck and arms. Whenever my body responds in such a way, I know it's a call to lean in and deepen my attention. (*** This post continues the theme I began in Super Moon, Super Discovery.)

Back then, I was well aware of the fact that I spoke to myself in such a critical tone that bordered on self-loathing but up until that point I had never questioned an alternative way. I grew up with cats and at the time was living with a cute and cuddly troublemaker named Joplin. Joplin had shredded our couch, coughed up hairballs on just about every surface, knocked over plants and yet I loved her unconditionally. I began observing the startling disparity between how I spoke to Joplin versus how I spoke to myself. One voice had the crushing tone of Cruella de Vil while the other voice reflected the sweet and cheerful intonations of Mary Poppins. It seemed I reserved a kind, caring and patient voice for animals and children but entirely neglected myself.

One day, after I had mercilessly beat myself up with repeated jabs of contempt and judgment, I walked over to a framed photo of myself as a child and collapsed on the couch. That photo is paired with this post. I looked at my younger self and the tension in my body began to thaw. How could I look upon that face and continue to berate myself? The words, "It's okay, I got you" softly tumbled out as tears streamed down my cheeks and plopped onto my lap. Underneath that choppy stream of self-criticism was a deep yearning to be held and loved unconditionally. And so, I began to do just that. I pressed the framed photo against my chest and repeatedly whispered the words "It's okay. You're alright. I got you." This was my first taste of self-compassion and it marked a pivotal moment for me. Ironically, it happened long before I was introduced to metta or the loving-kindness practice.

Within the insight meditation tradition, metta or the loving-kindness practices can help us cultivate compassion for ourselves as well as others. When we're caught in the violent vortex of judgment, blame, resentment etc. or replaying a hurtful experience ad nauseam, it can be a call to practice loving-kindness. Those of you who have been reading my blog for a while know how often I rely on the RAIN practice in moments such as these. In the formal metta practice there are suggested phrases we can offer ourselves, which I will speak to in a future post, but I have found it enormously helpful for myself and those I work with to imagine oneself as a child. Recalling yourself as a young, playful, inquisitive child can begin to soften the edges of your heart. I firmly believe that the spark of our inner child is still within us as we move through the ages gathering experiences, knowledge, memories, and....wrinkles. We all want to feel safe, loved, seen, and heard. We want to know we matter. As you recall yourself as a child or look at a photo of yourself from your childhood, what words might you offer him or her? What comforting words might help soothe that pain or raw vulnerability? Try saying the phrase or word more than once. Repeat it slowly and softly. It can also help to rest a hand upon your heart to make that caring connection more visceral. Maybe, no words come to mind but a warm, loving presence aches to be felt. Maybe that loving presence has the weight of a heartfelt hug or has the feel of sunlight. Whether it's words or a felt sense, let yourself rest in this inner refuge.

Lastly, on those days when I find myself completely stuck in the muck and self-compassion feels light years beyond reach, I will grip onto Danna Fauld's poem, "Self-Observation Without Judgment" until the storm passes. In my next post, I will share some of the latest research on self-compassion and how practicing self-compassion actually strengthens our resilience.

Self Observation without Judgment

by Dana Faulds

Release the harsh and pointed

inner voice. It's just a throwback to the past

and holds no truth about this moment.

Let go of self-judgment, the old,

learned ways of beating yourself up

for each imagined inadequacy.

Allow the dialogue within the mind

to grow friendlier, and quiet. Shift

out of inner criticism and life

suddenly looks very different.

I can say this only because I make

the choice a hundred times a day

to release the voice that refuses to

acknowledge the real me.

What's needed here isn't more

prodding toward perfection, but

intimacy - seeing clearly, and

embracing what I see.

Love, not judgment, sows the

seeds of tranquility and change.