Self-compassion is the most radically transformative practice that I’ve stumbled upon in more than 30 years of exploring Buddhism. It’s helped me to cope with many difficulties I’ve faced, ranging from the mundane challenge of a child’s tantrum, to financial problems and even serious illness. It’s helped me to become kinder and more compassionate not just to myself but also to others. In fact I don’t know of any other practice that’s changed me so much. I’d describe self-compassion as “lovingkindness squared.”
Self-compassion is simply treating yourself kindly, responding to your own pain with compassion in the same way you’d respond to the pain of someone you care about. “Self-compassion” is a bit of a misnomer; we give compassion not to ourselves as a whole, but to any part of us that’s suffering.
I’d like to outline five steps that are involved in cultivating self-compassion.
1. Drop the Story
The mind generates stories around our suffering. These may be stories in which we blame others, or tell ourselves that the discomfort we’re experiencing is unbearable or shouldn’t be happening. They may be stories of revenge, or stories that we are bad, or worthless, or are doomed to suffer. They may be stories about ways we can numb or escape the pain.
These stories themselves cause us further pain, and so as we notice them arising it’s wise to disentangle ourselves from them, just letting the words echo away into the mind.
Our stories are what the Buddha called, in a famous analogy, “the second arrow.” He pointed out that we’re all subject to discomfort and pain, whether it’s having our feelings hurt or having a toothache or experiencing loss. This is the “first arrow,” which arrives unexpectedly. This kind of suffering is inevitable. But our response to being hit by this arrow is often, the Buddha said, to indulge in the kinds of thoughts I described above, which he summarized as “sorrow, grief, and lamentation.” It’s these responses—our second arrows—that cause most of our suffering. Each thought like, “This is terrible!” or, “Why is this happening to me!” is a self-inflicted stab with the second arrow.
It can take a lot of practice to become mindful enough to stop these stories from arising, or even to catch them in the early stages. For a long time it may be that the first time we notice that something is up is when we’re in the middle of a reaction, having already created a full-blown inner (or outer) drama. So the first thing we do is to recognize that through our stories we’re creating unnecessary suffering for ourselves, so that we can drop the story line and become mindfully aware of the first arrow.
2. Recognize That Pain is Present
In order to practice self-compassion we have to notice that we’re in pain. But this may not be easy, because we have unhelpful habits such as taking our own suffering for granted, or denying our pain—perhaps seeing it as a sign of weakness—or just failing to notice it because pain is so common in our lives. We also may be so quick to jump to emotional reactions and stories—attempts to protect ourselves against suffering—that we don’t really acknowledge the suffering.
But whenever we’re frustrated, or angry, or lonely, or anxious, or longing, or when our feelings are hurt, we’re suffering. Every sub-optimal state we experience is a form of suffering. It’s important that we recognize this pain, otherwise we can’t practice self-compassion.
Let’s take an example: a friend saying something that hurts our feelings. First we hear the words and interpret them as an insult, even though they may not have been intended that way. Then the brain flags up the comment as something potentially harmful to you by creating a sensation of pain in the body, probably in the solar plexus. This is the mind’s way of saying “Here’s a threat! Pay attention to it!”
Another common place for painful feelings to arise is around the heart. The heart and gut are areas of the body rich in nerve clusters, and the brain generates sensations in those places as a way of catching our attention and provoking us to action. Sometimes feelings of hurt can be so strong it’s like we’ve been punched in the gut. No wonder we react strongly.
One fascinating thing that’s recently been found is that feelings such as the ache of isolation become less intense when we take pain-killers such as Tylenol. What we think of as “emotional” pain is just a special form of physical pain, induced in the body by the mind.
The kinds of internal sensations I’ve been discussing are what Buddhism calls vedanas. Vedana is a technical term referring to the pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral sensations that are generated to accompany every perception we have.
The mental processing that leads to the arising of these feelings takes place in parts of the brain that aren’t accessible to conscious awareness. We can’t, for example, choose not to be hurt. We do, however, have some ability to chose how to respond to the perception of hurt.
3. Turn Toward the Pain
We can choose to respond to pain with acceptance. In practicing self-compassion, it’s important that we learn to accept our pain—that we allow it just to be there, without having aversion toward it. To respond skillfully to suffering we have to be prepared to turn toward it.
Taking a mindful approach to our pain means recognizing that it’s OK to experience suffering, and even to take an interest in it. It’s especially helpful to notice, as precisely as we can, where the pain is located in the body, and to observe its size and texture, and how it changes from moment to moment.
Accepting our pain in this way means that we’re no longer stabbing ourselves with the second arrow—no longer creating stories that intensify and prolong our suffering. Instead, we’re simply mindful of the first arrow. If we find that the stories start to creep in again, and that thoughts are arising, we keep letting go of them, just as we do when we’re meditating.
The Buddha pointed out that another way we turn away from pain is to pursue pleasure. Often we’ll do that through numbing ourselves with food, or alcohol, or busyness, or television. We may not actually get much pleasure from these activities—it’s the pursuit of pleasure that’s the distraction. As long as we’re leaning into the future, seeking pleasure, we’re no longer being with the pain of the present moment. So, just as we need to drop our stories, we need also to drop our avoidance. The most effective way to deal with discomfort is to turn toward it.
It can be hard to turn toward pain in this way. In evolutionary terms, pain evolved as a protective mechanism. The whole point of pain is to alert us to the fact that something is wrong, so that we can escape the painful situation. The way I think about turning toward our pain is this: imagine that a friend has turned up on your doorstep in a state of distress. What do you do? Well, hopefully you won’t respond with aversion, trying to get rid of the discomfort by slamming the door and running into the house. Ideally, you’d invite your friend in, sit them down, and take a kindly and compassionate interest in what’s going on with them.
Sometimes it can be useful to say, “It’s OK to feel this. Let me feel this,” just to remind ourselves to stay with our discomfort.
Being mindful of our feelings in this way creates what we call “the gap.” This is a pause—I think of it as a sacred pause—in which we can choose not to let our normal reactions kick in. Instead, we create an opportunity for compassion to arise.
4. Give Your Pain Compassionate Attention
Having accepted a painful feeling mindfully, the next stage is to give it your compassionate attention. This means treating your pain with the same gentleness and kindness with which you would treat a friend who is suffering. Sometimes I think of my pain as a small, wounded part of me that is in need of love and comfort—like a small animal.
To relate to your pain compassionately, wish it well. Talk to it. Soothe it. You can use the same phrases you would use in lovingkindness or compassion meditation, saying things like, “May you be well; may you be happy; may you be free from suffering.” But sometimes those words can seem hackneyed, so I’m more likely to say something like, “I know you’re in pain, but I’m here for you,” or “I love you, and I want you to be happy.” With intense suffering I’ll sometimes resort to the deep trust expressed by St. Julian of Norwich: “All will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of thing will be well.”
5. Respond Appropriately
As you become more skilled at recognizing and accepting your pain, and with responding to it compassionately, you’ll find that it’s easier to respond in an appropriate way to situations that give rise to pain in the first place.
There are no rules for how to respond. It depends on the situation, on your skills in communication, etc. But when you’re mindful of your pain and cultivate compassion toward it, you’ll discover you have more creativity at your disposal than you’d imagined possible. You’ll probably find that having responded with empathy and compassion toward yourself, you’ll quite spontaneously behave the same way toward others.
These five steps can be worked through very quickly. I’ve run through them while driving at 65 miles per hour on a highway: Someone cuts me off, I start up with an angry storyline “Idiot! How dare you!” I realize that this is causing me to suffer, drop the story, notice the pain that (it’s usually fear, located in the solar plexus), accept it, and then send it some compassionate thoughts (“May you be well; may you be free from suffering”). And my having done that, the anger vanishes and I find that I’m not only compassionate toward myself, but to the other driver as well. This may take just a few seconds.
I’ve found it useful as well when I’m stressed. For example while I’m cooking and being bombarded with demands from my children. I’ll notice a knot of tension building up in my gut, give it a moment’s compassionate intention, and find that the desire to snap at the kids has gone. It works for sadness, depression, and anxiety. Self-compassion is the Swiss Army Knife of spiritual techniques.
One myth I’d like to dispel is that if you’re reacting to a situation, it’s too late to find the gap. The pain of the first arrow doesn’t disappear just because you’ve started reacting to it! Every time you let go of your stories and drop your awareness down into the body so that you can notice your initial feelings of hurt, fear, etc., you are bringing the gap into being, and with it the freedom to respond creatively.
It’s only through treating my pain compassionately that I’ve realized the extent to which the way we treat ourselves is related to the way we treat others. Once we are able to respond to our own pain with compassion, we find that compassion for others flows freely. It’s lovingkindness squared.