self-compassion

Grief as a spiritual practice

My sister, Fiona, passed away last month, unexpectedly. Yes, she was being treated for cancer, and had been for several years. But each time the cancer had reappeared in some new part of the body, the surgeons and doctors, with the aid of chemotherapy and radiotherapy, had managed to knock it back.

The last time the cancer appeared was in her brain. This distressed her. She didn’t relish losing her hair again, and this time she wasn’t going to be allowed to drive.  But she didn’t think she was at imminent risk of dying.

She’d finished having whole-brain radiotherapy, and had just started on at-home chemotherapy. It wasn’t the cancer that killed her. All the drugs she’d been taking — especially the steroids, it seems — had put too much strain on her system. She died of a heart-attack.

Everyone, herself and her doctors included, had expected her to be around for a year or two. She was only 58. She was aware she might not make it to 60.

She passed away at home, in the presence of her partner, which was a blessing.

For a life to end is a strange thing. All those memories, those unique experiences, feelings, thoughts; all gone. We are left, holding our end of a relationship, and yet our love has nothing to connect to. I’m not surprised people like to believe in an afterlife (Fiona did, having lost her youngest child) but that’s not my thing.

I’d like to talk about a few practices that I think are helpful in the face of death. Certainly I find them so.

Reflecting on death and impermanence

Buddhism reminds us to reflect on impermanence, and on death in particular. Among other things, the Buddhist scriptures encourage to reflect on the fact that we’re going to get sick and die. They remind us that we’ll be separated from everything that’s dear to us. And we’re encouraged to reflect that this is true for others as well. This isn’t meant to be depressing. It’s meant to enhance our lives by reminding us of what’s important.

One way to apply this is if you find yourself in a situation where things aren’t going the way you want them to, you can ask, “When I’m on my deathbed, will this matter?” So the person driving too slowly in front of you. In the big picture, it doesn’t matter. Your spouse leaving hair in the sink or socks on the floor: it doesn’t really matter. What does matter are things like allowing yourself to be happy, experiencing love, and doing something personally meaningful with your life. You want to get to your deathbed and be able to say, “That was a life well lived.”

But this practice also reminds us of death’s inevitability, so it’s less of a shock when it comes. Yes, we all know that life ends in death, but we’re also kind of in denial about it. So we need to keep reminding ourselves of how things really are.

Self-Compassion

When someone close to us dies, we experience grief. It’s painful. And we can either respond to this gried in ways that cause further distress or that help us to be more at peace.

When we believe (even unconsciously) that there’s something weak and wrong about being in emotional pain, we make things worse, because not only are we suffering but we’re judging ourselves for suffering, and this just heaps on more pain.

If we try to push the pain away, we suffer more. The pain will usually assert itself more strongly, because it’s trying to remind us that an important connection has been severed.

If we become distressed at being in pain, for example because we assume it’s going to get worse and worse, or tell ourselves it’s unbearable, then we’ll suffer more, because we’re adding fear on top of our grief.

How to Practice Self-Compassion

What we need to do is this:

  • Notice the stories you tell yourself that make things worse (“This is awful, I can’t bear it”) and drop them. Realize you don’t have to tell yourself these things.
  • You don’t just drop the story and go into a state of blankness. Instead you can become aware of the sensory reality of the body. Become mindful of your physical experience, which has a calming, grounding effect. Without the extra suffering imposed by your thoughts, you’ll instantly feel less stressed. Now you just have the raw physical reality of your grief.
  • Next, turn toward the grief and accept it. Accept that it’s a normal sensation to have. That it’s just a sensation like any other. That it’s just one part of you trying to communicate that something you love has been lost.
  • Accepting the grief, you have an opportunity to wish it well. Your grief isn’t an enemy. It’s a part of you that is suffering. And the most appropriate response to suffering is to offer support and warmth. So you can place a hand tenderly on the place where the grief manifests most strongly. You can regard it kindly and warmly, like you would a scared child or an injured animal. You can talk to it supportively and empathetically: “I know you’re hurting, but it’s okay. I’m with you. I’ll support you as best I can. I care about you and I want you to be at peace.”

And that’s self-compassion. It’s something I’ve written about on this site, and also more fully in my book, This Difficult Thing of Being Human.

Feelings Are Impermanent

When we get hit by an unpleasant feeling, sometimes we assume we’re going to be stuck with it. But that never happens. Feelings always pass. It’s hard to believe that when we’re going through grief, but it can be very helpful when we remind ourselves of previous strong suffering we’ve experienced. Where are those feelings now? Obviously, they’ve passed.

All feelings do.

Having Compassion For Others

Once we’ve met our own pain with empathy and compassion, we naturally recognize the pain other people are feeling, and we feel compassion for them too.

If we haven’t cultivated self-empathy and self-compassion, our attempts to be comforting to others often fall flat, or might even make things worse. Things like “She’s in a better place.” “There’s a reason for everything.” “Don’t worry, your grief will soon pass.” “God never gives you more than you can handle.”

All of these clumsy, yet understandable responses are ways of trying to “fix” grief. They rest on the assumption that there’s something wrong with the person who’s grieving, that the person who’s offering the advice has the answer to their problem, and that the answer is the correct set of magic words that can make the other person realize that they don’t have to grieve.

Real compassion doesn’t try to fix grief. It accepts that it’s normal. The aim is not to make grief go away, but to support the grieving person while they’re in pain. That support doesn’t have to be in the from of words. It can consist of simply being present. It can be helpful just to let the grieving person know you’re sorry, that you know nothing you can say will help, but you’re willing to help in any way you can. Sharing positive recollections can be helpful too.

Having compassion for others takes our focus off of ourselves.

Appreciating the Positive

Connecting with other people joyfully is helpful too. Funerals are great places to meet with long-lost relatives. This can bring happiness, and it’s okay to experience joy along with the grief.

Celebrating the deceased person’s life helps too. The montage of photos above is just part of what was on the brochure for my sister’s funeral. The images brought back a lot of happy memories, including the time she turned up unannounced at my flat in Glasgow, having just won a modelling competition (see the bottom left photo), and when I first saw her, in the arms of my mother as she left the hospital, when I was two years old.

We were also reminded of her lovely qualities: what a good friend she was, the way she loved books, how hard she worked as she went through university, her amazing ability to turn a house into a warm and welcoming space, and her wicked sense of humor (see the top right photo).

Sometimes, when they’re grieving, people feel bad about experiencing joy or humor, as if that’s a betrayal. The real betrayal is denying life’s complexities.

Light and dark can coexist.

Accepting That the Future Doesn’t Exist

This last thing has helped me in all sorts of ways with disappointment and loss of all sorts, including grief.

It might sound weird, but when you find yourself mourning the future — all the opportunities you’ll no longer have to spend time with that person — you can remind yourself that the future isn’t a real thing. It’s just an idea we have of what’s to come. When we lose someone, the future we lost never actually existed. And you can’t lose something that never existed.

Now this isn’t something to try to “fix” people with. You don’t go around telling them not to grieve because the future’s an illusion. This is a perspective for yourself to work with and reflect on. It’s not a way for you to “fix” your own pain either. This isn’t some magic form of words that makes your grief go away. Your grief will pass when it’s ready. It might never completely leave, and might keep putting in appearances for years to come. But it can reduce the amount of extra grief.

And if this isn’t helpful, stick with what does.

Above all, I’m glad that I talked to her not long before she passed. She was a very private person when it came to her health, and she didn’t like to talk about it, so we mostly communicated by email, usually briefly. But exactly two weeks before her death I called and talked to her on the phone. We had a warm exchange, and it’s good to have that as a memory of our last contact communication. I’m glad there was no tension; nothing to resolve. So remember: life is short. Death can happen anytime. Make peace now, if you can. Tomorrow might be too late.

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How to recognize, respect, and love your inner demons

This is the first time I’ve posted here in a while. Virtually all of my energy is going into supporting Wildmind’s community of supporters — people who make a financial contribution every month in order to support me to explore and teach meditation and Buddhism. This article is condensed from a couple of pieces of writing I’ve done for them. If you enjoy this, and you’d like to support Wildmind, you can read about the many benefits that our sponsors get by visiting this page.

I’d like to share one of the most powerfully transformative practices I’ve evolved over the years.

Have you heard of Māra? He’s a figure from Buddhist mythology. He’s often portrayed as having conversations with the Buddha and his monks and nuns. These encounters always end with Māra being recognized, at which point he vanishes.

Sometimes Māra is portrayed in art as a demon, but in the scriptures (and in the image above) he’s a good-looking young man. He’s often royally attired, and sometimes holds a lute. We can take this to mean that Māra is a smart smooth-talking Machiavellian.

The name Māra comes from the Sanskrit root, mṛ, which indicates death and destruction. That’s also where we get our words “mortality” and “murder.” Māra is the destroyer or murderer of spiritual practice, and the murderer of peace and joy.

In the scriptures he appears to spiritual practitioners, including the Buddha himself, trying to tempt them out of practicing, or sometimes distracting them or making them afraid. As well as appearing as a young man he can also appear as a fearful animal, such as a snake or wild ox. He can do things like throw boulders down a mountainside in order to cause fear. Or he can make loud and distracting noises happen. He can also create an unpleasant physical sensation.

Māra has lots of ways of distracting people, but he never, as far as I’m aware, actually harms anyone physically. I assume by this that even the earliest Buddhists regarded him as a psychological projection.

Recognizing Māra

If you recognize Māra, he simply vanishes. One time he challenged the nun, Uppalavaṇṇā, who was meditating under a tree, and tried to make her feel afraid that she might be sexually assaulted:

“You’ve come to this sal tree all crowned with flowers,  and stand at its root all alone, O nun. Your beauty is second to none, silly girl, aren’t you afraid of rascals?”

She recognized him, though, and showed him that he was out-classed:

Even if 100,000 rascals like you were to come here,  I’d stir not a hair nor panic. I’m not scared of you, Māra, even alone.  

Māra then disappears. This represents the way in which mindfulness can dispel unskillful or unhelpful thoughts.

And this has become my own practice.

When I’m getting annoyed, or despondent, or impatient, or anxious, just saying “I see you, Māra” — simply recognizing that Māra was trying to trick me — was enough to break his spell and return me to a sense of calmness and balance.

I’d highly recommend trying this. Whenever you’re suffering, or caught up in anger, despondency, worry, and so on, observe the thought processes that are taking place. Observe the feelings arising within you. And then say, “I see you, Māra.” Recognize the forces that are at work within you, trying to throw you off balance. And refuse to let them fool you.

Appreciating Māra

But there’s another aspect of this practice that I’d like to draw out. It’s an aspect that’s very important to me: acknowledging how clever Māra’s tricks are.

As above, the experience of unhelpful emotional arousal acts as a trigger for recognizing Māra. Any of the emotions I described above, and any others that lead to a sense of suffering, are signs that Māra is at work. Even mild distraction in meditation can be a trigger.

Now, rather than just saying, “I see you, Māra,” which is what people do in the scriptures, you can say something like “Nice try, Māra!” This is a way of letting those disruptive inner forces know that I’m onto them, and that I’m refusing to be manipulated.

You can marvel at how convincing Māra’s tricks are. After all, he had you totally fooled! The story that was causing you suffering was totally believable. It seemed that you had to respond with anger, or fear, or despondency, or whatever it was. Someone criticizes you? Well, of course you have to be annoyed and defensive. Money’s tight? Well naturally you have to worry. Something hasn’t worked out as planned? Who wouldn’t be frustrated?

And then the feelings you had were so vivid. They’re like really good special effects in a Hollywood movie. The crushing weight of despondency, the jangling buzz of anxiety, the hot upwelling of annoyance. Those feelings are not just vivid, but are powerfully compelling. It’s as if you had to act on them.

So you can applaud Māra. “Great special effects, Māra! You really had me going there!” Admire the whole process of reactivity. It’s amazing!

There are a couple of reasons that I think this act of appreciation for Māra’s work is important and powerful. One is that appreciation is a skillful state of mind. Even if what you’re appreciating is Māra (who is not skillful), the appreciation itself is still skillful. (It’s not like you’re approving of what he’s doing.) Since appreciation is a skillful state of mind, this helps reinforce your new-found freedom from Māra’s (unskillful) world of delusion.

The other reason that appreciating Māra’s work is helpful is is that you’re appreciating it as a delusion.  You’re recognizing that the feelings that motivate you, and the thoughts and emotions that arise from those feelings, are all illusory.

Seeing the illusory nature of reactions while they’re actually happening is a powerful and liberating practice.

This perspective finds support in teachings like the one where the Buddha compared form (this includes forms we perceive in the world and also those we imagine in the mind), feelings, perceptions, emotions, and consciousness to various illusion-like phenomena:

Form is like a lump of foam;
feeling is like a bubble;
perception seems like a mirage;
emotions like the non-existent core of a banana tree;
and consciousness like a magic trick.

(I’ve tweaked the translation here for the sake of clarity.)

These are the famous “five skandhas (aggregates)” which constitute our experience and which we take to be our “selves.”

Feelings have no substance. Neither do thoughts or emotions. They’re like mirages, dreams, bubbles, or conjuring tricks. They arise within us only as patterns of sensation, caused by the firing of neurons. Why be scared by a bunch of neurons firing?

In talking about the skandhas in the above quote, the Buddha doesn’t mention Māra. Elsewhere, though, he says that they are Māra:

How is Māra defined? Form is Māra, feeling is Māra, perception is Māra, emotions are Māra, consciousness is Māra. Seeing this, a learned noble disciple grows disillusioned with form, feeling, perception, emotions, and consciousness.  

It’s by seeing the illusory nature of the skandhas — seeing them as tricks, designed to make us react — that we’re able to disengage from reactivity and find peace.

That’s what’s happening when I admire Māra’s tricks.

Sending Love to Māra

The other night I woke up from an anxious dream in which the US had turned into a fascist state. Once again I recognized Māra and offered him congratulations on how vivid and convincing his special effects were. It wasn’t just that the dream was realistic. It was that the feelings of anxiety in my body had convinced me that something was really wrong.

But at this point I brought another aspect into my practice, which enriched it even more

Māra isn’t literally a demon who’s out to get me. Our inner demons aren’t demons. They’re us. Marā’s a part of my mind, and he’s trying to help, within his definition of help. To this particular Māra, fascism isn’t just something I should be concerned about. He thinks I needed to panic about it. He thinks I needed to be in a state of fear. He thinks he needs to give me good dose of suffering to help me get motivated. He’s misguided in this, but he doesn’t know that. So he’s not my enemy. In fact he needs my compassion. So I regarded Māra with loving eyes, offering him kindness.

Now, even though I was watching the anxiety from a  place of calm and peace, and didn’t feel touched by it, my body was still reacting as if it was in danger. So I embraced it within my loving gaze as well.

Now I felt completely at peace. And although the anxiety that had arisen could conceivably have kept me awake for hours, I was at this point so at ease that I fell back to sleep within minutes.

So I’m going to suggest that every time you feel upset by something or know that suffering it present, recognize that Māra is at work. Don’t just recognize him, but feel some honest appreciation for how convincing his attempts are to get us to suffer. And don’t just admire him, but offer him compassion, and offer your whole being compassion.

And as the scriptures say:

And thereupon that disappointed spirit
Disappeared right on the spot.

And within two or three minutes of being woken by an intensely anxious dream, I fell sleep again, and was untroubled for the rest of the night.

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Self-compassion in the kitchen

Unmindfulness Increases Our Suffering

I’m making dinner for my children while they do their homework in the other room. I’m chopping vegetables and putting together a peanut butter sauce and also frying tofu and stirring rice. I’m not a natural at multitasking, and balancing all these tasks is stressful.

One of the kids asks for a drink, and I feel a surge of annoyance. Can’t they see I’m busy?

I heave a sigh and say, rather testily, “I just put the juice back in the fridge! Can’t you just wait two minutes?”

Now my child is upset, and I have yet another thing to take care of. I feel annoyed, but also disappointed with myself for having expressed my irritation. I’ve taken my original stress and added a whole bunch of new sufferings to it!

Mindfulness Leads to Freedom from Suffering

I’m making dinner for my children while they do their homework in the other room. I’m chopping vegetables and putting together a peanut butter sauce and also frying tofu and stirring rice. I’m not a natural at multitasking, and balancing all these tasks is stressful.

But I’ve been training myself to be more mindful of my feelings, and I’m starting to notice the stress building up in my body. I notice that there’s a tense edge to the way I’m thinking. I sense that emotionally I’m being hard on myself, like I’m becoming angry with everything.

In short, I’m aware that I’m suffering. I notice this just as a fact, not as a judgement. It’s normal to suffer. That’s OK. It’s just what happens sometimes.

Letting my awareness drop down into the body, and away from my thoughts, I can sense a painful knot of tension in my midriff. That’s where the suffering part of me is expressing itself. That’s how it’s communicating with the rest of me, trying to get my attention.

I regard this suffering part of me with an inner look of tenderness. It’s the same look I’d have for my children when I feel particularly loving toward them.

I say a few words: “I know this is hard for you. I just want you to know that I love you and want you to be happy.”

All of this takes just a few seconds. All of the time I’m doing this I’m still chopping and stirring.

When one of the kids asks for juice, I tell them, kindly, that I’m in the middle of something, and that it’ll be a minute.

I realize that part of what’s going on is that I’m overwhelmed with tasks at a time when I’m tired and my blood sugar is low. I experience this realization as a relief. It’s not that the world is a horrible place. It’s not that my kids are trying to make my life difficult. It’s not that I’m failing as a cook and as a father. What I’m feeling is just the physiological effect of trying to do a complex task when I’m hungry and tired from working all day. And so I continue cooking, feeling supported and cherished.

The kindness I’m showing myself spills over into the way I’m cooking. I enjoy the actions my body is doing. I enjoy the colors and textures and smells. It affect the way I’m relating to my kids. I behave to them in a way that’s calm and kind. They know I care about them and there’s a loving connection extending from the kitchen to the living-room and back again. A minute or two later, I get them their juice.

The Power of Self-Compassion

Being mindful of our feelings creates a “sacred pause” where we are less likely to respond with habitual volitions like anger, judgement, or blame.

Mindfulness of feelings puts gives us a chance simply to observe what’s happening. It gives us an opportunity to avoid doing things that will just cause more suffering for ourselves and others.

This sacred pause we create in moments of mindfulness not only allows us to temporarily let go of our reactivity. It also allows a space in which more creative responses can arise. It allows us to relate with patience and kindness to the parts of us that are suffering. And it gives us an opportunity to support ourselves, empathetically.

And when we support ourselves with kindness and compassion, we’re more likely to respond to others with those emotions.

The sacred pause gives us a chance to practice wisdom, with the kind of reframing that I illustrated above (recognizing that its normal to suffer, that the irritability is the result of physiological circumstances, rather than being a deep personal failing or a sign that the world is a horrible place).

Four Steps to Self-Compassion

Self-compassion isn’t  always easy to practice, but the steps are simple once we’ve remembered to use them.

  1. Notice that you’re suffering. Let suffering become a trigger for self-awareness.
  2. Drop the story you’ve been building (“This is so frustrating! Why can’t the kids leave me alone while I’m busy?”)
  3. Drop down to observe your suffering as felt sensations in the body. These are mainly around the heart, diaphragm, and gut, usually.
  4. Offer kindness to the part of you that is suffering, by talking to your pain, looking (with your inward eye) at it with loving eyes, and even with a loving and reassuring touch.

To practice these four steps it’s helpful to imagine or remember stressful situations. That gives you a safe space in which to memorize and practice the four steps so that they become second nature. Rehearsing in this way makes it more likely that in the future we’ll spontaneously respond with compassion and kindness to ourselves and others.

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The self-compassionate way to get things done

A parent shaming us by comparing us unflatteringly with a sibling; a boss humiliating us in front of colleagues when a task isn’t up to their expectations; a partner repeatedly complaining about some household task we haven’t done yet: these are all attempts to “light a fire under our ass” in order to get us to achieve more. Most of us have had this ploy used against us so many times over the course of our lives that we’ve internalized this motivational strategy.

Our inner critic punishes us verbally when it thinks we’ve under-performed. It castigates us for being lazy when we haven’t gotten around to starting some task. Yet despite all this internal criticism, most of us still have a hard time motivating ourselves to do things. When self-criticism fails, the answer is usually more self-criticism. “How,” we might wonder, “would I get anything done if I didn’t give myself a hard time?”

Self-Compassion = Less Procrastination

Yet many studies have shown self-compassionate individuals to be more effective than people who are self-critical. They are also less prone to procrastination. Psychologists at St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas, compared college students who preferred to begin their assignments early to those who tended to leave them to the last minute. By now you may not be surprised to learn that those with high levels of self-compassion had much less of a tendency to procrastinate.

Procrastination is, in fact, not really a problem of time management but a problem of emotional management. Think about what it’s like just to contemplate a challenging task. Often we’ll find that feelings of anxiety, restlessness, or dread arise. When we’re unable to handle those feelings we try to avoid them by avoiding the task itself. Learning to support and encourage ourselves in the face of discomfort allows us to face challenging tasks rather than avoid them.

Developing Self-Compassion for Your Future Self

One fascinating way that self-compassion helps us to be more motivated is when we develop compassion for our future self, treating it as a friend. I stumbled across this practice while trying to motivate myself to deal with household tasks. Often I would be about to head to bed when I would realize that there were still dirty dishes on the kitchen counter. I was simply too tired to deal with them, so I’d shrug and leave them until the morning. But it was very unpleasant to wake up to the mess I’d left myself.

Faced with my resistance to do late-night cleaning, I started thinking about how Morning Bodhi (I gave him a name to make him more real to me) would feel about waking up to this messy kitchen. From past experience I knew he’d find the mess dispiriting. I also knew that Morning Bodhi would feel happy and grateful waking up to a clean kitchen. So I would wash the dishes, feeling good knowing I was helping Morning Bodhi. Morning Bodhi, of course, was grateful to Evening Bodhi. Having empathy for our future self makes self-discipline easier, turning it into an act of self-care.

No Self-Empathy, No Self-Control

This compassionate approach to self-control is supported by neuroscience. When Alexander Soutschek of the University of Zurich in Switzerland used magnetic fields to shut down a part of the brain long known to be involved in empathy—the rear part of the right temporoparietal junction—he found that he’d also disrupted his subjects’ ability to exert self-control. Impulsiveness, or lack of self-discipline, arises when we’re unable to relate compassionately to our future self.

Self-Compassion Looks At What Benefits You Long-Term

Self-compassion involves considering whether or not your actions will contribute to your long-term happiness and well-being.

Short-term thinking leads to us letting ourselves off the hook and giving up easily; this feels unpleasant now, so I’ll stop doing it. Self-compassion, on the other hand, is about what will benefit you in the long term: this feels unpleasant now, but how will I feel later?

It’s a myth that self-compassion reduces our motivation. In fact the opposite is the case. Self-compassion is one of the most effective ways to motivate ourselves.

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Liking yourself is not the antidote to hating yourself

You might think that the antidote to self-hatred is liking yourself. But is that desirable, or even possible? We all contain impulses such as jealously, hatred, and greed. What would it mean to like them? Are we supposed to approve of them? To give them free rein and act upon them?

The idea of liking “ourselves” seems badly put. When I look at myself I don’t see any one thing. I see a broad range of phenomena, some that promote my wellbeing and others that sometimes compromise it. There’s no one “self” there to like.

I have plenty to work with. I have skillful impulses, of course. But I also have destructive or harmful habits such as irritability, a desire to be “right,” depressive doubts about my own worth, and so on. These cause suffering for me and also for others in my life.

But hating these things is pointless. Hating these aspects of myself would just be introducing more unskillfulness and conflict into my being.  To hate ourselves is to be at war with ourselves. And in such a war, who can be the winner? Hatred, as the Buddha observed, can never conquer hatred.

That doesn’t mean that I approve of these impulses or want to express them. If I was to give those habits free rein, I’d just end up with even more suffering in my life.

I certainly don’t like these potentially destructive habits. To like something means we have pleasant feelings associated with it, and I don’t experience pleasant feelings with regard to my irritability, self-doubts, and so on.

I can accept them, though. And I can be kind toward them.

Practicing acceptance simply means that I accept that these things are a part of me. They are part of the broad range of emotional responses that I have inherited as a mammal and as a human being. I didn’t choose to have them. It makes no sense for me to judge myself harshly for having these habits. I don’t need to hate myself simply for being human.

An audience member at a discussion between two Buddhist teachers described how she came to see that it was possible for her to have compassion for herself:

I’ve been thinking a lot about loving myself, but I felt like I would have to like everything about myself to love myself. But then I had a realization … that I could just have some compassion toward myself. I don’t necessarily have to like every part of myself.

It’s possible for us to relate with kindness and compassion to every part of ourselves, including those destructive tendencies I’ve described. I can recognize that they are born from suffering. Our unskillful habits are simply ways of trying to deal with painful feelings that have arisen. Irritability tries to keep at bay some source of distress. Jealousy wants us to have for ourselves a benefit that someone else has access to. Doubt tries to analyze what’s not going right in our lives. Every single unskillful impulse any of us has represents an attempt to find peace and happiness. The problem with them is not that they are “bad,” but that they don’t work.

One of the most radical things the Buddha said was that if letting go of unskillful habits caused pain rather than brought us peace, he wouldn’t have taught us to do it. He didn’t seem to see them as inherently bad. He’d have encouraged us to keep on going with our greed, hatred, and delusion if they actually made us happy. But they don’t.

Our task is to find better strategies. This is what developing “skillfulness” involves—finding ways of being that actually bring about peace and harmony. To lack skill means aiming to create happiness but instead bringing about suffering and conflict.

When we react to our unskillful tendencies by hating them we’re treating them as if they were enemies. They aren’t. They’re just confused friends. They’re trying to benefit us, but most of the time failing. Once we start to empathize with what these confused friends are trying to do for us, we can find more skillful ways to accomplish the same aims. Mindfulness and self-compassion are the most powerful tools we have for doing that.

Our irritability and hatred maybe trying (and failing) to keep some source of distress out of our experience. We’re trying to push the distress out of our lives. Mindful self-compassion helps us see that it’s not the unpleasant feeling that’s our real problem, but our resistance to it. It allows us to be present with painful feelings until they pass, naturally, and can open up the way for us to have fondness and appreciation for whatever it was we were irritated by.

Jealousy may want us to grasp for ourselves some benefit that another has access to (this is of course painful), but self-compassion can help soothe the pain of grasping and also help us feel a sense of abundance; there is so much kindness we can show to ourselves! And this can allow us to feel glad for the other person.

Self-doubt may be a clumsy way of trying to discover if there’s something wrong in the way we are. Mindful self-compassion can help reassure the uncertain part of us, seeing that there’s nothing going on that we can’t work with, reminding us to trust in our practice, and helping us to see our inherent goodness.

In all cases empathizing with our unskillful tendencies helps us to be happier.

Practicing self-compassion is like learning to be a kind and wise parent to ourselves. If our children act badly in some way, they do not need either our hatred. That wouldn’t be helpful for them. Neither, however, should we blindly approve of everything they do. That wouldn’t help them either. When our children act badly they need our kindness, our empathy, and wise guidance.

And this, too, is how we need to learn to relate to ourselves if we want to flourish and be happy in the long-term.

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From fear and denial to love and acceptance

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In the opening words to his book “The Road Less Traveled,” the late psychiatrist M. Scott Peck says:

Life is difficult. This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult – once we truly understand and accept it – then life is no longer difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters.

I’d put this less absolutely than Peck does: once we know, understand, and accept that life is difficult, it becomes less difficult. This difficult thing of being human is made easier when we accept the inevitability of suffering.

I’d like to offer a series of suggestions to help you see the truth of this. And so I invite you to read the following points slowly and with care, allowing yourself time to take each suggestion on board, testing them in the heart and comparing them honestly with your own lived experience.

Drop any defensiveness or desire to be seen as perfect, and allow yourself to feel your own vulnerability. Let go of any desire to see yourself as “succeeding,” and let yourself be gloriously, humanly imperfect.

I suggest you spend at least a minute on each of these thoughts, and perhaps a bit longer on the final one.

  • First, as you read these words become aware of your vulnerable human body, with its beating heart, and the constant rise and fall of the breathing. This body is aging, and prone to injury and illness, as are all human bodies. Recognize yourself as an embodied, living being who will not be on this earth for long. If this is at all uncomfortable, see if you can regard those painful feelings with kindly eyes.
  • Next, allow into your awareness that your feelings are important to you. Perhaps in this moment you’re not feeling much, but sometimes you suffer, and sometimes you are happy. Consider the reality of this, recalling moments of happiness and of unhappiness, recognizing yourself as a feeling being.
  • Consider that you want, as your deepest desire, to find some kind of wellbeing, or happiness, or peace, and to escape suffering where that’s possible. When you remember times you’ve been unhappy, was there a desire to be free from that suffering? When you remember times of peace, happiness, or wellbeing, was there a wish to remain in that state? Recognize yourself as a being who desires happiness as your deepest yearning.
  • Now, remind yourself that happiness is often elusive, and that you experience suffering far more often than you’d like, were life ideal. Recognize yourself as a struggling being—as someone who is doing a difficult thing in being human.
  • Finally, try saying the following words to yourself for a few minutes: “May I be well. May I be at ease. May I be kind to myself and others.”

The first four activities help you empathize with yourself. Through them you sense yourself as a being in need of support, worthy of support. And this empathetic awareness of yourself provides a grounding for being kind to yourself. The phrases—“May I be well. May I be at ease. May I be kind to myself and others”— are ways of showing yourself support. By the time you got to the fifth suggestion you may have felt that you actually wanted to offer yourself kindness and encouragement, and that you wanted to offer yourself support.

These reflections open us up to experiencing our own vulnerability, and this can be an uncomfortable process. It may be, for example, that heartache or sadness arose. That’s a common response. These reflections can put us in touch with yearnings that we have, perhaps out of duty or fear, long suppressed. We can spend much of our lives pretending to ourselves that we’re much happier than we actually are. We can pretend that suffering is an unfortunate accident we’re on the verge of recovering from. It can be frightening to take on board the truth that we frequently suffer, and that we’re not fully in control of our own lives.

Should painful feelings of sadness or heartache arise, it’s wise to accept them and show them kindness. If they do appear, that’s a good sign, because it shows that we’re getting more fully in touch with the reality that life is difficult. Empathizing with ourselves, and being kind toward ourselves, is essential if we’re to accept that reality, because it allows us to let go of the fear that leads to denial.

These reflections help us to more from fear and denial to love and acceptance. Allowing ourselves to be vulnerable lets us see how challenging and difficult life is, but it also allows us to empathize with ourselves and to offer ourselves kindness and support as we do this difficult thing of being human.

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The gift of a compassionate “no”

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Last night when I was talking with a friend, she mentioned the need for us to be careful about our boundaries and not to say “yes” to every request for help that comes our way. I’m writing a book on the practice of self-compassion at the moment, and my first thought was, “Wow! I’ve completely forgotten to include anything in the book about boundaries. I’ll have to add something as soon as possible.” Writing this article is my first step in that direction.

My own bias may be one reason I hadn’t thought to include something about compassionately saying “no” to requests for help. This tends to be a gendered issue, since there are more pressures on women than on men to be helpers and pleasers. I hear from a lot of women who take on doing far too much because have difficulty saying no. They want to be “agreeable,” which is an interesting word since it implies that being likable is the same thing as agreeing with someone. Women have also often been taught that it’s “selfish” to take their own needs into account, although I have to say that this has affected me as well.

In fact, setting boundaries is something I’m still working with. I sometimes take on too many responsibilities, and often that’s to do with bad planning. But bad planning is just another term for “neglecting my needs.” Sometimes when requests come in, I’m excited and don’t want to miss out. And then I don’t sufficiently think through how much I’m likely to have going on, and so I end up overbooked. Other times, though, it’s just that one task takes me longer than I’d anticipated, and so I’m still up to my eyeballs in that work when it’s time for me to start other work I have planned. And unexpected things do happen…

However, I do consciously work at not over-scheduling myself, and quite often do say no to requests. And so I’d like to say a bit about that in case it’s helpful.

Be Mindful of Your Habits

If we don’t protect the boundaries or our time and energy, we’re not practicing self-compassion. The first thing is to become mindful of the habits that surround responding to requests. Do you have a desire to please? Are you worried about what people will think of you if you say no? Are you worried about hurting their feelings? Or are you like me and you’re excited to be doing something new and afraid of missing out on an opportunity? Mindfulness gives us an opportunity to pause before we act, so that we can consider whether it’s wise for us to act on our desires and fears.

Why Are We Concerned About Approval?

Those fears can be strong. If we’re conditioned to think that what another person thinks of us is more important than our own wellbeing, then it can be hard to say no to them. So we need to really ask ourselves, Why is it so damned important that other people approve of us?

Often we want others to offer us approval because we don’t offer it to ourselves. Many years ago, I realized that I was doing too much because I was seeking approval from others. And so I adopted a slogan: “I am my own source of validation.” This was a reminder to me to remember to appreciate myself—not just for the things I was doing but for who I was. Even just a short period spent appreciating my skillful qualities, appreciating the efforts I’d put into doing something, or celebrating what I’d achieved (“Yay! I wrote 2,000 words today!”), changed how I felt about myself. I felt much more secure and more confident in my own worth. I was also much less inclined to be disappointed if I didn’t get appreciation for others when I expected it, and was more careful about making promises I couldn’t keep.

This was important both for myself and for other people. Not only did I become stressed when I took on too much, but I tended to do a bad job with or neglect some of the tasks on my to-do list. I’d start off trying to please people and end up disappointing them.

Be Concerned About the Right Things

And if I am going to be concerned about what other people think about me, maybe I could upgrade those concerns. I think it’s more valid to hope that they value me for my integrity rather than my compliance. Many people will find it inspiring if you offer them an example of how to practice self-compassion. Courage is inspiring, and self-compassion shows courage. Maintaining healthy boundaries by saying “no” can be a courageous act in which we demonstrate both that we care and that we matter. To exemplify this for others is a gift. Ultimately, though, what other people think about us is up to them. Our happiness doesn’t depend on everyone liking us.

How To Say No

Of course we should be kind when we say no. We should be aware that others have feelings and not act in a way that we know will be hurtful. But if a person feels disappointed, it’s up to them to deal with their feelings, not us. I stress that I’m talking about a mindful and compassionate no. I’m not talking about saying no in a harsh or condescending way.

You might want to experiment with not apologizing. You’re under no obligation to do something to help another person. It’s a favor. Now it’s lovely to do favors when we can, but it’s not always possible or advisable. And when that’s the case, you’re not doing anything wrong by saying you’re not able to help. You have nothing to apologize for.

When decline someone’s invitation, we can thank them for the opportunity they’ve offered us. We can express appreciation for their confidence in us. Or, we can tell them we’re honored, and that we’d love them to ask us again when circumstances are different. Or we can say we feel torn, or that we wish we were able to help. But we don’t have to apologize. There’s nothing inherently wrong with saying no. Delivered in the right spirit, a “no” can sound like appreciation and feel like gratitude.

If you find this article useful, perhaps you’ll make a one-time or recurring donation to Wildmind to help support our work.

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You do not need to be ashamed of being imperfect

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash
We’re all subject to conditioning that affects our ability to be happy and sometimes makes us miserable. This conditioning actually starts before birth. Research has shown that your grandparents being exposed to stressful circumstances can change the way that your genes are expressed, so that genes that leave you feeling more anxious might be more active, while those that can made you more mellow remain switched off. We don’t choose to have such things happen to us. It’s not our fault.

We also don’t choose our early childhood conditioning. How much our parents hold us, how they communicate with us, whether they are loving or not, whether they are cruel, whether they are consistent in their affections — all these things change the very structure of our brains in a way that can leave lifelong scars.

Growing up in a household where affection was not expressed freely and where criticism was common, I have been left with certain insecurities. These include anxieties about whether I’m valued, loved, or liked. I can be hyper-sensitive at times to signs that I’m not appreciated, and this can cause me to react in ways that make me less likable — a classic self-fulfilling prophecy. This make me suffer, and it makes others suffer as well. Your early experiences may well have been different from mine, but we all have conditioning that makes us suffer, and we didn’t choose it. These things are not our fault. And so we don’t have to feel bad about being flawed. Our conditioning is not us, but is something that has been done to us. To recognize this liberates this from self-blame.

None of this means that we have permission to act badly. As adults we have to take responsibility for how we act. No one else can do that for us. If we want to be happy in the long-term, we need to become more aware of our early conditioning and understand how it affects our behavior, especially where it impacts others.

Recently I saw a social media post where a young woman wrote,

Me, dating at 21: ‘So, what do you like to do for fun?’

Me, dating at 27: ‘How aware are you of your past traumas and how actively are you working to heal them so that you don’t project that shit onto me?’

When I read that I wished that at the age of 27 I could have been so aware of the importance of past conditioning. But, I reflected, my conditioning was such that in my twenties I was in denial about such things. There’s no point blaming myself even for that.

There’s also no point me blaming my parents for not being more affectionate and for being overly critical. They too were simply living out their conditioning, in a time and culture in which most people didn’t even think about how the way they acted affected their own and others’ wellbeing.

You do not need to be ashamed of being imperfect. We were all made that way. You do not have to be ashamed that it’s so hard to work with your imperfections: the very tools you have for doing this are imperfect. We are all truly doing a difficult thing in being human.

Recognizing the many ways that we’ve been set up to suffer — by our brain structure, by our genetic and epigenetic inheritance, and by our childhood conditioning — is an important aspect of self-empathy, and thus of self-compassion. We’re all flawed. We’re all suffering. We’re all doing this difficult thing of being human. Understanding these things allows us to give ourselves a break. You’d do this for a person you loved. Why not do it for yourself?

If you find this article useful, perhaps you’ll make a one-time or recurring donation to Wildmind to help support our work.

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A “feeling crap” meditation

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I’m sure that sometimes you feel crap.

The other week I was feeling particularly crappy. I have an idea what was causing me to feel that way, but that’s not particularly important. The thing is that I was feeling crap, by which I mean I felt sad, tired, and sometimes despairing.

The last thing I wanted to do, really, was to sit in meditation and experience how crap I was feeling. But I know from past experience that that’s the most helpful thing I can do. And so I sat on my meditation bench so that I could find a better way to relate to feeling crap.

I settled in to meditate, I noticed the dark, heavy feeling around my heart. I noticed that there was an attitude of resistance around this feeling, since I didn’t particularly want to experience it. But it’s best if these things are allowed into experience. So I let go of the resistance as much as possible, and turned to face the darkness.

My meditation practice kind of has a life of its own. Sometimes I really have no idea what’s going to happen. I just have to see what my subconscious comes up with. This particular day, as I let go of my resistance and turned my attention toward the discomfort, a mantra of sorts appeared.

“It’s OK. This is just how you’re feeling right now.”

Breathe in. Breathe out.

Breathe in. Breathe out.

“It’s OK. This is just how you’re feeling right now.”

And so on.

As these words appeared, I recognized what they were doing.

“It’s OK”

This is offering reassurance. It’s as if these words encode the message, “It’s OK to feel this way. It’s OK to turn toward the feeling. You’re on the right track. You got this. Deep down there’s really nothing to fear. Keep going.”

“This is just how you’re feeling”

This is saying that in a way, feelings are sensations like any other. If you touch something warm, you’ll feel warmth. If you touch the point of a thorn, you’ll feel pain. If you’ve wanted something and you didn’t get it you’ll feel disappointed and sad. If you’ve been criticized you’ll feel hurt. It’s just how things are. You’re not failing for feeling these things.

This is also a reminder that resistance, as they say, is futile. Resisting your pain—that sense of wanting desperately to not be experiencing it—doesn’t help. In fact it’s worse than unhelpful. It actually creates more pain. Resisting pain is like responding to having a stone in your shoe by pounding your foot with a hammer.

Sometimes you find that 50% of your pain is coming from the resistance, and sometimes you discover it’s more like 95%. The way to find out is to let go of the resistance.

So in saying “this is just how you’re feeling,” you’re facing how you feel as a fact, rather than as something to be resisted. And so you can start to drop the resistance and experience whatever discomfort remains, which becomes more bearable the more you are able to face it without trying to run away from it or make it go away.

“Right now”

Feelings change. Everything changes. Remember that time many years ago when you felt awful because you got dumped? And that time you were really worried about money? Those feelings are gone now. Even if they’ve been replaced by similar feelings, those new feelings won’t last. “No feeling is final,” as Rilke said.

So that was my meditation the other day. I sat with “feeling crap,” and as I repeated the mantra the feeling lifted. It didn’t go away entirely, but that was OK. I’d realized that it was all manageable. I didn’t need to resist anything. I could experience it fully, without being overwhelmed.

And then just yesterday I guided a couple of friends through this same meditation, because one of them was feeling really crap.

And we went a bit further.

We put our hands on our hearts, where the crap feeling was strongest, and we talked to our suffering: “I just want you to know I care about you, and I’m here for you. I love you and I want you to be happy. It’s OK. We’ll get through this. You’re doing OK. I know you’re feeling bad, but I’m going to take care of you.”

My friend who was feeling crap said she felt less crap after doing this. And that made me feel happier. The other friend suggested I should call this my “feeling crap meditation,” and so here we are…

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Five ways to forgive yourself and let go of painful regret

I’ve seen many people suffering because they can’t forgive themselves. Maybe they hurt someone in the past, or allowed someone to get hurt, or missed an opportunity, or made a bad choice. And they torture themselves about it.

Sometimes people hold onto these regrets—and the pain they cause—for years or decades, and have great difficulty letting go of them. And regret festers. It’s like a wound that never heals, and that, like an abscess,  poisons our entire being. It can turn into self-hatred—the belief that we, in our very core, are bad or unworthy.

Now there’s no way to instantly forgive ourselves. It’s a process that can take years. But I’d like to suggest a few things that can help with this important practice.

1. Know that you did the best you could

The past of course is past, and we all know we can’t really go back and change things, but we can end up replaying events over and over in our minds, wishing we’d made different choices.

When I recently told someone who was suffering because of regrets, ‘You did the best she could,” she pulled a face. I said to her, “You don’t believe me, do you?” She said I was right. “So you think that if you had a bit more mindfulness or a bit more compassion, things would have turned out different, right?” Right. “But did you actually have, at that moment, a bit more mindfulness or a bit more compassion?” Well, no. “So you did what you could with the resources you had available to you.”

That’s all we can ever do.

This perspective is deeply counter-intuitive for many people. We’re wedded to the idea that we could, had things been different, have acted differently. And it’s true that had we been a different person we would have done something different. But we weren’t, and we didn’t. So obsessing about an alternative version of the past is pointless and a source of pain.

We can talk about having free will, or the ability to choose, but in any given moment we can only choose from the limited options available to us. And at times our very ability to choose can be severely constrained. There are certain situations (panic, extreme stress) when the mind has great difficulty considering alternatives to pre-programmed courses of action: defense, aggression, retreat, paralysis. Our options can be extremely limited. Right now we might not be able to completely forgive ourselves, but we can take steps in that direction.

With practice we can learn to develop our mindfulness and our ability to stay in (or come back to) balance so that we have more flexibility in how we behave. We can increase the options available to us. But practice is something we do now, not in the past. And it affects how we act in the future and not, again, in the past. The past is past. You did the best you could with the resources you had at hand. The best you can do right now is to accept that what happened happened, and resolve to do better in the future.

2. Do the right thing — now

When we’re caught up in regret and self-blame we’re focused on wanting to do the right thing — but in the past, which is the one time period we can have absolutely no effect on.

So focus on what you can do right, right now. This is the only moment you can directly affect. And how you relate to this moment determines your future happiness and wellbeing.

Self-hatred is toxic. It undermines us. It makes us miserable. It weakens us. The right thing to do right now is to bring as much mindfulness, compassion, forgiveness, and wisdom into this moment as you possibly can. To the best of your present ability, let these qualities manifest in you. You’ll be a better person as a result — not in the past, but in this moment and in moments yet to come.

3. Be a friend to yourself

If you were witnessing a dear friend torturing themselves over past actions, what would you do? Would you tell them they must be a terrible person because of the mistakes they made? Probably not. Would you tell them they’re broken? I doubt it.

You’d probably suggest to them that it’s unhelpful that they give themselves such a hard time. You’d probably tell them they were making themselves suffer unnecessarily. You’d probably suggest that they be gentle on themselves, and that they let go. You’d probably tell them about the good qualities you see in them, and suggest that their mistakes don’t define them.

In other words you’d suggest that they relate to their past in a more wholesome way. So why not give the same advice to yourself now? Be a friend to yourself.

4. Recognize that you need to forgive yourself in order to forgive others

The way we relate to ourselves tends to form the pattern of how we relate to others. If we have difficultly being empathetic and kind to ourselves we probably won’t do those things with other people either. If we judge ourselves harshly we’ll probably judge others too.

And the converse is true. If we want to be better to the people around us that we love — if we want to love them better — we need to work on loving ourselves better. Taking care of yourself, you take care of others.

5. Love your regret

In Buddhist psychology, regret is a skillful volition. It’s a positive thing! Regret is what’s skillful in us encountering an ethical slip. Regret is a sign that you want to be a better person. It’s a sign that you have ethical values.

When we don’t understand this, we tend to freak out. When we experience regret we take it as a sign that we’ve failed, or that we’re bad. Because regret, although skillful, is a painful experience. And it’s natural for us to assume that when we’re in pain, there’s something wrong.

The important thing is to learn to deal with the pain of regret in a way that doesn’t cause us more pain. So we can understand that regret is a natural and important part of being a human with ethical values. We can be mindful of, and accept, the pain of regret. And we can be kind, supportive, and compassionate to the part of ourselves that’s suffering. In other words, we can practice self-compassion.

So these are a number of things you can bear in mind to help you let go of shame, regret, and self-blame. Again, there’s no magic bullet. You’ll make progress a little at a time as you gain insights into the pointless painfulness of self-blame and as you learn how to bring your focus more into the present moment.

And if you’re interested in learning more about forgiveness and other spiritual practices, please check out Wildmind’s Meditation Initiative, which will give you access to many of my online course, including Forgiveness: The Art and Science of Letting Go.

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