self-compassion

Forgiveness as a practice of compassion

A post-it note on a wooden desk, reading "sorry"

One of the emotional drivers of cruel and unkind behavior is resentment. Resentment is when we hold onto past hurt, locking ourselves into a pattern of blame. Unable to let go of the past we keep bringing up a memory of someone hurting us, betraying us, or failing to protect us. Every time we do so we experience the hurt anew. And every time we hurt ourselves we feel a renewed burst of ill will.

There’s something about this that I’d like to clear up, and that’s the misapprehension that we somehow store old emotions in the subconscious, from where they make appearances from time to time. This model dates back to Freud, at least, and is based on a model of emotion that we now know to be wrong. It’s a tempting view, however, especially given that we often, as I’ve described above, experience the hurt accompanying an old memory. But what’s actually happening, according both to Buddhist teachings on the mind and modern psychology, is that the feeling of hurt is being recreated over and over again, every time that the memory is triggered. Every time you feel the hurt, it’s a new hurt. Every time the hurt gives rise to anger or self-hatred, it’s a new emotion that you’re experiencing.

Also see:

We get trapped in cycles of resentment instinctively. It’s not exactly something we plan to do. It’s a habit we share with other animals. A favorite example of mine is crows, who develop resentment against researchers who have caged and banded them. They can maintain these attitudes—which involve scolding calls, accompanied by wing- and tail-flicking, and mobbing—for years. The signs of resentment they show spread through entire communities and can grow over time as new members of the community learn from others.

The example of the crows is a good reminder that we don’t choose to have resentment as part of our emotional make-up. It’s part of our genetic inheritance. And so it’s pointless and needlessly painful for us to blame ourselves for the mere fact of being prone to resentment.

We can also learn from the crows that resentment is about both punishment and protection. We want to punish those who have hurt us or those close to us. We want them to know they have done something unacceptable. The aim is to stop them from repeating the hurtful act. We’re trying to change their behavior. (Notice that we’re once more back to Punishment Culture.)

Resentment can be painful for those it’s directed at, but it’s certainly painful for us. In fact in many cases it causes us far more suffering than it causes the other person. There’s a saying in AA that resentment is like swallowing rat poison and waiting for the other person to die. A much older saying from the Buddhist tradition is that resentment is like picking up feces to throw it at another person; you might make them smell but the only person guaranteed to be punished is yourself.

These are useful reflections to bear in mind, because they help make resentment look less attractive. When we catch ourselves in the midst of resentful reactivity, we can help weaken the emotion by reminding ourselves of its consequences.

Forgiveness is the opposite of resentment. Forgiveness is a willingness to let go of ill will. And we can do this both because we want to stop hurting another person and because we want to stop hurting ourselves.

It can hard for us to forgive because we think that to keep ourselves safe we have to keep reminding the other person that they have transgressed so that they don’t do it again, and we have to keep reminding ourselves that this person has the capacity to hurt or harm us. For the first part of that we maybe need to ask ourselves, how much punishment is enough if we want the other person to know we’re upset that they hurt us? Do they already know? If not, will they ever? What would you need from them in order to be sure? Might you have already received it? Or received as much as you’re going to get? Is maintaining the resentment worth the pain you’re causing yourself?

It’s good to remember that you don’t need ill will to protect yourself from another person. If they have the potential to hurt you, you can simply know that, and be on the look-out for signs that they might do so. You can keep your guard up (if that’s needed) without hatred or resentment, simply by knowing. You can trust yourself on this.

However you don’t have to trust the other person. if they’re untrustworthy, remember that. Don’t give them your trust. Resentment doesn’t need to be involved.

Having talked about untrustworthy people who want to hurt or harm us, in my experience a lot of resentment is against people who have no ongoing desire to do us wrong. They may even be people we love and who love us. Especially in those cases, since loving relationships are so precious, I suggest being quick to forgive.

The self-compassion practices I’ve outlined are ideal for helping us let go of resentments:

  1. Recognize you’re causing yourself suffering.
  2. Drop the resentful story.
  3. Drop down into the body, find your pain, and accept it.
  4. Offer compassion and reassurance to the suffering part of you.

In this way you help heal the unhealed hurt, so that it ceases to ask, over and over again, to be protected by your ill will — a form of protection that can never truly protect you. Self-compassion gives our hurt the protection ill-will promises but can never deliver.

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A meditation for accepting aging

A man's hand reaching out to touch its reflection in a mirror.

An elderly friend of mine once said to me, “Aging isn’t for sissies.” She was talking mainly about the physical difficulties of getting older, and especially the aches, pains, and difficulty in doing things that were formerly easy.

To add insult to injury, though, we often feel critical about our appearance as we age, as if it were a sign of weakness instead of an inevitable part of living. Getting older is not a personality defect; it’s an inherent part of being human.

The Buddha talked about aging a lot. He listed it as one of the descriptions of dukkha, which means suffering or unsatisfactoriness.

See also:

He also talked about youth as something we get intoxicated with. We become convinced when we’re young that we’re of a different nature from those who are old, forgetting that we’re all on a continuum. But because of this intoxication, which becomes a kind of addiction, we have difficulty accepting the fact of aging.

Today I led a meditation from in front of my bathroom mirror. I’m going to explain what i did, so that you can practice it as well.

To do this meditation you’ll have to be in a place where you can see yourself in a mirror. You should be able to see at least your face, but preferably your whole upper body. My bathroom mirror was ideal.

One thing that’s important but not obvious is that the place where you do this should be brightly illuminated. You don’t want to do this meditation in dim light, because looking for a prolonged period of time at your own face in a dark place can confuse your brain’s visual circuitry, leading to odd illusions. Let’s avoid that.

You could be sitting or standing depending on what’s convenient for you.

We’ll be meditating with the eyes open. And let the eyes be a little soft, by allowing the muscles supporting the eyes to be at rest.

You also shouldn’t stare, but should let there be a gentleness in your focus.

Also, don’t keep your eyes fixed on one spot. The image is your object of mindfulness, so let your eyes gently explore it.

With the eyes soft, notice the sensations of the breathing. And perhaps also seeing the rise and fall of the breath in the mirror.

And let your eyes be kind as well, remembering what it’s like to look with kindness, and reconnecting with that experience. And you might be able to see that kindness in your own eyes as you’re regarding your reflection.

Now, most of us judge our own appearance more harshly than we do the appearance of others. So we focus on blemishes, wrinkles, gray hair, and flesh that’s no longer as firm as it used to be. And we tend to judge those things.

When you see them in another person, they’re just part of that person’s appearance. They could have exactly the same blemishes and wrinkles and gray hairs and saggy parts as we have and we think they’re a beautiful person. We might love those features that they have.

So just see if you can appreciate the texture and the detail of your own appearance, without judgment, in the same kind and appreciative way that you would if this was another person you were seeing.

You can even drop in some words of appreciation. So seeing a wrinkle, a grey hair, or some other feature of the face, you can say to yourself:

“How beautiful that is! How beautiful is this sign of humanness!”

Repeat this a few times.

And you can say to yourself, to yourself as a whole now, not just talking to a feature as you did a little while ago:

“Aging is inherent in human life. May I meet aging with grace and dignity.”

Repeat this a few times.

“Aging is inherent in human life. May I meet aging with grace and dignity.

“Aging is inherent in human life. May I meet aging with grace and dignity.”

And there’s one more phrase I’d like to suggest, that we can say to ourselves. It’s

“May I support myself with kindness as I age.”

So repeat that a few times as well:

“May I support myself with kindness as I age. May I support myself with kindness as I age.”

And so you can just continue in this way for the rest of this period of practice, however long you’ve chosen to meditate for. Just keep regarding yourself with kind eyes, and be accepting and appreciative of signs of aging and other imperfections.

Guided Meditation

The following meditation is “Sitting With Bodhi”-style. This means that although the recording is ten minutes in length, you’re invited to continue for longer. I’d suggest that before you begin you set a timer for at least 15 minutes.

This recording is one of those I’ve recorded for Wildmind’s sponsors. If you’d like to find out more about what that means, click here.

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“Blessed is the man who knows his own weakness” — Isaac of Nineveh

Isaac of Nineveh

Isaac of Nineveh, who is also known as Abba Isaac and as Saint Isaac the Syrian, was an important figure in the 7th century Christian church. He is most remembered for his writings on asceticism.

One thing he wrote was,

Blessed is the man who knows his own weakness, because this knowledge becomes to him the foundation, root and beginning of all goodness.

These words are a powerful reminder of the importance of humility.

Humility is where we’re not afraid to admit our weaknesses to ourselves or to others. Humility involves self-awareness, because we need to know what our weaknesses are before we can admit to them. Humility requires honesty, in the form of a willingness to be open about who we are. And it requires trust: knowing that it’s okay to reveal our weaknesses to ourselves and to others.

Understanding our weaknesses helps us compensate for them

If we understand our weaknesses we are able to compensate for them. Here’s a minor example. Let’s say I’m aware that I have a weakness for a particular kind of snack (that would be potato chips). I can avoid walking down the supermarket aisle in which they’re kept.  I can ask my partner not to buy them for me. Knowing my weakness helps me to avoid its pitfalls.

Or let’s say I know I tend to be unkind when replying to someone who’s criticized me. I can be mindful that it’s wise to wait until I’m in a calm, clear, and kind state of mind before replying.

A weakness understood is a weakness we can work around.

You might notice that I talk about strategies for overcoming weaknesses. That’s very deliberate, because I find that the concept of will-power is overrated. I’ve written about this elsewhere, for example with regard to social media addiction. Rather than simply try really, really hard not to get sucked into social media, I found it much easier to create barriers between me and the object of my craving.

For example I could:

  • Not keep my phone by my bedside so that I didn’t pick it up first thing in the morning.
  • Have my phone switched off overnight so that I was more conscious about turning it on.
  • Turn off notifications so that I’m less tempted to open an app.
  • Not have social media apps on my phone at all, so that I had to access these services through a browser.
  • Block social media sites in my phone’s browser, so that I could only access them on my computer.

Those kinds of strategies helped me break my addictions to Facebook and Twitter (neither of which I use any more). This successful strategy was not based on willpower. It was based instead in an awareness of my weaknesses combined with a strategic approach to overcoming them.

Expressing our vulnerability leads to intimacy

Being aware of our own flaws helps us to develop more trust and intimacy in our closest relationships.  A few years ago I realized that some traumatic early childhood incidents had left me with an over-sensitivity to any hint that I didn’t matter to other people. For example, if I greeted my partner when I came home, and she didn’t reply (usually she was absorbed in something) I’d get hurt and irritated. The same would happen if I’d cooked a meal for us and she didn’t comment on whether she liked it or not. And since she spent a lot of time living on her own, she habitually turns lights off when she leaves a room, even if I’m still in there. I can get very reactive when I’m suddenly plunged into darkness.

Also see:

Realizing that my reactivity went back to early childhood incidents helped me to be more understanding of it. It allowed me to practice self-empathy. I could see that in being reactive it wasn’t that I was a “bad person.” It wasn’t that I was “failing” at being a mindful and kind partner, or at being a Buddhist. It’s just that my mind was wired at an early age to be scared of being ignored by those closest to me.

Knowing my weaknesses makes it easier for me to forgive myself. It’s also easier for my partner to be forgiving of me, because I can tell her, “I”m sorry I snapped at you; my sensitivity about abandonment got triggered when you switched the light out without checking whether that’s what I wanted.” She can understand that.

Revealing our weaknesses to each other helps us to be more understanding and empathetic to each other. We no longer see each other as “bad partners” but as flawed human beings who want to be kind to each other in the face of our internal obstacles. Revealing our flaws to each other, we learn to love each other’s flawed nature.

Understanding our weaknesses helps us to be tolerant

Weaknesses are part of the human condition. We all have them. Weaknesses are not “sins” that condemn us. Recognizing this, we free ourselves from the burden of pretending to be something we are not. We no longer feel the need to defend our bad behaviors. We can just explain them.

Recognizing our own weakness makes it easier for us to be tolerant of others’ weaknesses as well. We no longer try to hold them to an impossible standard. We understand, in Voltaire’s words, that “We are all formed of frailty and error.” And therefore, as he enjoins us (continuing his train of thought) “let us reciprocally pardon each other’s folly.” We can recognize that we are all doing a difficult thing in living this human life. Knowing this, we can support each other rather than try to make life even harder.

When other people mess up, as they will, we can recognize that they’re not fundamentally different from us. We all have brains that misunderstand things. We all have conditioning that leads us to over-react to certain events. We all contain selfish craving, ill will, and confusion. These are what we’re working with, and our tools for working with them are very imperfect, so that changing ourselves isn’t always easy.

Accepting our weaknesses helps us to see things as they really are

One of the central teachings of Buddhism is the concept of anatta, or not-self. Sometimes people translate this as “no self,” but the Buddha never said that there was no self. He even said that holding the view that there was no self was a source of suffering. When he talked about anatta, he pointed to many aspects of ourselves — our perceived physicality, our feelings, our thoughts, our emotional habits, and even our consciousness — and says we should regard these as “Not mine; not me; not my self.” What he encouraged us to do was to stop trying to define who we are.

Many of us tend to assume that our faults and weaknesses define us. In many people’s way of thinking, having a flaw or weakness — some habit that causes suffering to oneself or others — means that there’s something wrong with us. They think that they have a self that’s flawed: that there is something fundamentally wrong with them. This is shame, in the sense that psychologists use the term — meaning that we believe we are unworthy because of something we’ve done, of because of some trait we possess. We don’t just see the trait as being unhelpful or harmful — we see ourselves as being fundamentally bad because we contain it.

This belief that our flaws and weaknesses define who we are can lead to us trying to conceal what we’re really like.  We become dishonest, trying to hide parts of ourselves from others, and even from ourselves. When our faults do slip out into the public eye we try to rationalize them or explain them away, perhaps by blaming others (“It was you that made me angry”).

The Buddha’s teaching of anatta — not-self — suggests that there is no permanent, unchanging self or soul within us. Rather, what we perceive as the self is an ever-changing collection of physical and mental elements. This means that who we are is not fixed, but is indefinable. It is something that is different in each moment. We can never define ourselves. We can’t define ourselves by our weaknesses; they are not intrinsically who we are. We can’t define ourselves in terms of anything.

Accepting our weaknesses is part of the process of opening up to the reality that we don’t have an unchanging “self” with fixed characteristics.

Accepting weaknesses doesn’t mean being passive

Accepting our weaknesses means just what I’ve said: that we see them as facts to be taken into consideration, and as things we need to work with.

As I’ve explained, we can work with them by:

  • Observing our patterns of reactivity, and gently letting go of them.
  • Being conscious of weaknesses and learning how to compensate for them.
  • Being honest about them.
  • Relating to them with more compassion and understanding, so that we don’t torture ourselves.
  • Using self-awareness to help us understand how they create suffering in our lives.

At the same time as we’re doing all these things, we can be cultivating skillful qualities of wisdom, compassion, and equanimity.

We’ll never get rid of our flaws entirely. Life etches them deeply into the structure of our brains, and I consider the notion of even the “perfect Buddha” being as being a myth. (He was only perfect insofar as he was completely free of selfish craving, ill will, and delusion. He wasn’t omniscient and he sometimes made mistakes.) But we can’t get rid of our weaknesses entirely.

And we don’t have to. Accepting our weaknesses, confessing and explaining them to others, forgiving ourselves for having them, getting to the point where we can stop them from causing major suffering for ourselves and others, and above all continuing to develop skillful qualities alongside them; that’s enough. That’s enough for us to live lives that are meaningful, joyful, and beneficial for the world at large, and for those who we’re closest to.

But the first step is knowing our weaknesses. As Isaac of Nineveh points out, this  knowledge becomes “the foundation, root and beginning of all goodness.”

Wildmind is an ad-free, community-supported meditation initiative, supported by sponsors. If you find this website helpful, you’ll love the access that Wildmind’s sponsors get to the meditation courses and other resources that I make available to them. Click here to learn more.

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Can empathy be unhelpful?

Hand holding the stub of a burning candle in the upturned palm. Before long, the person's hand will burn.

One of the members of Wildmind’s community reminded me recently of an article, “The Surprising Downsides of Empathy,” that appeared on the BBC website two-and-a-half years ago.

The article says:

In recent years, researchers have found that misplaced empathy can be bad for you and others, leading to exhaustion and apathy, and preventing you from helping the very people you need to. Worse, people’s empathetic tendencies can even be harnessed to manipulate them into aggression and cruelty.

Empathy generally has a pretty good press. Most, people, although not all, would suggest that we need more empathy in the world. The hold-outs are often those who take a “tough love” approach and think that we are mollycoddling people (especially young people). I suspect, however, that many of those people are often just unkind individuals. I also think they misunderstand the nature of empathy, but since I want to write today about misunderstandings of empathy I’ll leave that there for now.

The BBC article quotes researcher Paul Bloom, who famously wrote a book called “Against Empathy” several years back. I previously commented in this blog on an article drawn from that book. One thing Bloom wrote in that article was:

It is worth expanding on the difference between empathy and compassion, because some of empathy’s biggest fans are confused on this point and think that the only force that can motivate kindness is empathetic arousal. But this is mistaken. Imagine that the child of a close friend has drowned. A highly empathetic response would be to feel what your friend feels, to experience, as much as you can, the terrible sorrow and pain. In contrast, compassion involves concern and love for your friend, and the desire and motivation to help, but it need not involve mirroring your friend’s anguish.

Bloom is perfectly correct to point out the difference between empathy and compassion. The two are not the same. Empathy is a state of feeling something in response to another person’s feelings (you’re talking to someone whose child has drowned) or in response to their situation (you hear about someone whose child has drowned). Despite what the article I’m quoting states, empathy doesn’t necessarily require an act of imagination. If someone tells you their child has drowned, you will (as long as you’re not a psychopath) feel touched by their situation. You don’t, hearing that awful news, have to imagine in detail what it’s like to be in that situation.

Compassion is  the desire to help alleviate suffering. We can see the active nature of compassion in the root of the Pāli and Sansrit word karuna. This comes from the verb karoti, which means “to do.”

Empathy isn’t enough. We need compassion. But does that mean empathy is bad, or useless?

The BBC article seems to suggest that it is.

Bloom uses the example of an adult comforting a child who is terrified of a small, barking dog. The adult doesn’t need to feel the child’s fear to help. “There can be compassion for the child, a desire to make his or her distress go away, without any shared experience or empathic distress,” he writes.

So according to this, we don’t need empathy. We can just have compassion.

To Have Compassion, We Need to Have Empathy

But is that the case? Let just imagine an adult who completely lacks empathy. To them, the crying child is probably just an annoyance, and they shout at the child, terrifying it even more. This adult doesn’t understand what it’s like to be afraid. They don’t know what it’s like to be helpless and to need help. Nor do they understand that the child needs adult reassurance. They don’t recognize that a child can’t turn off its fear by force of will. To know these things requires empathy. To know those things is empathy.

This highlights that empathy actually is at work in Bloom’s example. The compassionate adult knows what the child is going through and what it needs, which is empathy. They know what it’s like to be helpless and to be in desperate need for support and reassurance. It’s because they’re empathetic that they offer compassion.

See also:

The idea that empathy requires us to re-experience the child’s terror is a red herring.

Often in talking about situations where a “good thing” (like empathy) leads to a bad outcome (like being paralyzed because of taking on someone else’s pain) you’ll hear that the problem is that the person is “too empathetic.” I believe this is a mistaken diagnosis.

No virtue on its own is complete. Take generosity, as an example. It’s a good thing to be generous. It helps us be happier; studies have shown that giving something to another person can be more satisfying than receiving the same thing ourselves. But what if you’re so generous that you give away the resources that your family need for basic survival? Does that mean you’re “too generous”?

There’s No Such Thing as Too Much of a Virtue

I don’t actually believe in the concept of having too much of a virtue. What I do believe is that you can lack other qualities (also virtues) that are necessary to stop a good quality such as generosity from being toxic. For example, prudence and wisdom are qualities that balance generosity, telling you what the consequences of continued giving are (“Wait, I have to pay the rent next week”) and so suggesting limits.

“Empathic distress” is another of the ideas that can grow out of the idea that you can have too much of a virtue. Clearly, if you take on board so much of a person’s suffering that you paralyze yourself and are unable to help them, that’s unhelpful. You’ve taken a situation where one person is in trouble and needs help, and turned it into a situation where two people are in trouble and need help.

In vividly imagining distress to the point where you paralyze yourself, you’re no longer practicing a virtue. You’re doing what the Buddha called indulging in “grief, sorrow, and lamentation,” which is a cause of suffering. An ancient Buddhist commentary in fact says that “sorrow is failed compassion.”

Missing Virtues

So what virtues are missing, so that empathy is turning into  something toxic?

As with generosity, we need to balance empathy with wisdom. As an example example, Bloom shows that people will want a girl who has been brought to their attention to skip the queue for life-saving surgery. They empathize with the girl and want to act compassionately. But they ignore the others ahead of her in the queue, who might be in even more urgent need of surgery. It’s easy to ignore them, because they’re anonymous.

Wisdom considers that the other people in the queue are deserving of care as well.

We also need to balance empathy with ethical awareness of what’s right and wrong. In another study, people were willing to inflict pain on someone who was competing in a mathematics competition with a financially strapped student. The researchers had encouraged them to empathize with the student, but not the student’s competitor. Ethics (the Buddhist variety, anyway) tells us that even if we feel motivated to punish another person by inflicting pain on them, we shouldn’t, because violence is wrong. Ethics also embodies wisdom, because it tells us that another person’s suffering is as real to them as ours is to us; why then would be inflict unwanted pain on an other when we would dislike having that pain inflicted upon us.

Most of all, though, empathy needs to be balanced by self-compassion. When we see that another is in distress, we can be moved by that. That “feeling moved” can contain an element of discomfort. Self-compassion teaches us how we support ourselves emotionally as we experience suffering. It also helps us recognize when we’re bringing too much suffering upon ourselves — suffering that’s more than we can cope with and that isn’t necessary in order for us to be helpful.

All of the “downsides” of empathy that the article describes are of this nature. They’re not actually the downsides of empathy at all. They’re the downsides of lacking virtues such as wisdom, ethics, and self-compassion or self-care.

Certainly, empathic distress isn’t helpful. It’s even harmful. But it’s not the sum total of what empathy is. To give money to help starving people on the other side of the world you most certainly don’t need to imagine what it’s like to starve. But you do have to care. And a person lacking in empathy doesn’t care, which the person who has real, balanced empathy does: they experience compassion and are moved to help.

It is wonderful that Bloom and others are showing the harmful side of unbalanced empathy, which leads to “empathic distress.” It’s just a shame that they’re not clearly pointing out what the problem is: the under-development of balancing virtues.

Wildmind is an ad-free, community-supported meditation initiative, supported by sponsors. If you find this website helpful, you’ll love the access that Wildmind’s sponsors get to the meditation courses and other resources that I make available to them. Click here to learn more.

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Self-compassion and self-care

The two-headed Roman god, Janus

It’s funny — I’ve known since I was 13 that January is named for the god Janus, who has two faces: one looking forward and one backward. But right now it strikes me how appropriate that is.

The period around New Year is a natural time to look back at and see what was good or wasn’t so good. We can also look forward into the coming year and think about what we might do, and what we might change.

Anyway, I want to tell myself that I’m not interested in New Year’s Resolutions. This is mainly because of youthfully naive attempts with them that I forgot within days. But I can’t help but look, Janus-like, at the year that’s just past and the year that’s just beginning.

A Good Year and a Bad Year

Last year was tough in some ways. Three people I had strong connections with, including my sister, died within nine days of each other. I re-injured my back quite badly by straining my left sacroiliac joint. I could barely walk for several days, and was still in pain months later. My elderly parents both got Covid, which was worrying, although they both pulled through. And a big concern was that a lot of Wildmind’s sponsors were forced to cancel their subscriptions for financial reasons. (Most of those were in the UK, where the post-Brexit economy is truly dire.)

It was also a good year in some ways. I had a book (“A Year of Buddha’s Wisdom”) published on my birthday last year. I remained in that ever-shrinking group of people who have managed to avoid Covid. Toward the end of the year I rekindled a habit of walking daily. My meditation practice kept going, through thick and thin. Although the pandemic has reduced my social life almost to zero, I’ve adjusted to that being the case.

I spent the entire year writing on one topic, which I’ve never done before: on January 14th I sent out the first email in a course called “Politics as a Spiritual Practice,” and the last email of the course went out on December 29th. I’ve never before had an opportunity to explore one topic in such depth. In essence I wrote a book, and in fact I hope to find a publisher for it this year.

Sometimes the good and the bad are connected. Yes, I did a lot of writing. But that meant sitting for long periods at a computer, and that wasn’t good for my body, which led to me injuring my back.

Self-Care and Self-Compassion

Which brings me (finally) to the point of this article: I’m pretty good at self-compassion but not very good at self-care.

Self-compassion is where we respond in a kind, supportive way to our own suffering. We give ourselves the comfort and reassurance we need in order to get through hard times, whether those hard times last for a few moments or for months on end. It’s a powerful practice. I’m pretty good at it. I even wrote a book about it.

Self-care is where we take care of our own needs so that we don’t create as much suffering for ourselves in the first place. Keeping our long-term happiness and well-being in mind, we do what we need to do in order to be healthy and happy. That includes things like eating healthily, getting enough sleep, taking breaks from work, and getting regular exercise and stretching. The first two on that list I’m very good at. The third (taking breaks) I’m not bad at. The fourth (exercising and stretching) I’ve been very bad at.

Some people are good at self-care but not self-compassion. They might live very healthily but not be emotionally self-supportive. They might even be very self-critical. I’m good at self-compassion, but not at self-care. Ideally, we should be good at both.

My back injury was a good reminder of the importance of self-care. I really don’t want to go through that ordeal again, so I’ve been to a physical therapist and learned some stretches and exercises that will give my core more strength and give my body more flexibility. Together, those things should keep my back in reasonable health. And once this chest infection is out of the way I intend to get back to walking daily.

Lessons Learned

Based on the lessons I’ve learned from booking backward and looking forward, it feels appropriate to have an overall aim for the year, expressed in general terms. I’d describe that aim as “Thriving Though Self-Care.” I want to thrive — healthily, happily. I have an image of myself later this year, full of energy and joy. And I want to get there through practicing self-care.

It also seems that having general aims isn’t enough, so I’m setting myself the specifically goals of walking for a average of 30 minutes a day (at a minimum), and stretching at least once a day for five minutes.

If I miss a day’s walking (sometimes I’m sick, sometimes the weather makes it impossible) I’ll do more walking on other days to keep my average up.

I know from previous experience that accountability helps, so I’m going to check in about this daily in Wildmind’s community website, letting people know how I’m doing.

So I hope that will help me with my practice of self-care.

Two More Things

Two more things in regard to self-care:

First, toward the end of last year I started working a four-day week. I did this because of reading about an international study showing that when businesses switched to a four-day week they actually became more productive. I’ve been doing this for a month now, and I think it’s helping. I’ve noticed that I’m more creative than I’ve been for a while. I’m ending my workweek in a state of joy rather than exhaustion. I feel more relaxed at weekends, too.

Second, I was so focused on finishing the year-long course I was teaching on politics that I did almost nothing in response to losing about a third of my income as supporters withdrew their sponsorships. This caused a fair bit of anxiety, so as part of my practice of self-care I will be working on building up my base of subscribers again. It’s hard to create when you’re worried about whether you can afford to pay rent. In fact, in the long-term I’d like to have someone working with me on Wildmind who is responsible for community growth and community engagement. I’d like to have someone to work with, and I’d rather devote 100 percent of my energy to teaching and not have to think about money.

So that’s what I’m learning, looking back at next year, and that’s how I intend to live 2023 differently, based on those lessons. (One last goal: I want to write in this blog three times a month for the rest of the year, even if the reports are brief. Some of those posts will be follow-ons from this one.)

Anyway, I wish you a very Happy New Year. If you have any thoughts about self-care, or about New Year’s aspirations, resolutions, aims, or goals, why not add them in the comments below?

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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 the demon, Māra

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.

See also:

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.

Again, if you find this helpful and you’d like to benefit from more of my teaching activity, please read up on Wildmind’s Meditation Initiative.

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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.

Wildmind is a community-supported meditation initiative. Hundreds of meditators chip in monthly to cover our running costs, and in return receive access to amazing resources that support their sitting practice. Click here to find out more.

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Overcoming resistance to meditation (a self-compassionate guide)

There can be lots of reasons for why we avoid meditating. We might not want to experience particular feelings. We might have built up a sense of failure around our meditation practice. We might worry that doing something for ourselves is selfish. We might be concerned that if we meditate we won’t get things done. Or we might be afraid of change.

And so we find excuses not to meditate. We know it’s good for us. We’ve read news article about it. We know that we’re happier when we meditate. We intend to meditate. But we find that we avoid it. We get busy. We just can’t bring ourselves to go sit on that meditation cushion.

I used to think it would help to understand why I resisted meditation. But that rarely achieved anything.

Ultimately, I found that the most important thing was not to analyze my resistance or to get into a debate with it, but to turn toward and embrace it. This is an important practice in mindful self-compassion.

See also:

So when resistance to meditation arises, try becoming mindful of the feelings that accompany this experience. Where are they situated in the body? What shape do they form? What “texture” do they have? What kinds of thoughts do they give rise to? Notice those things, and just be with the resistance. Let the resistance be an object of mindfulness. Resistance is a state of conflict, and may also include fear. These are forms of pain. Notice this pain and regard it kindly. Offer it some reassuring words: “It’s OK. You’re going to be OK. I’ll take good care of you.”

Now here’s the thing: as soon as you become mindful of your resistance, you’re already meditating. Your resistance is no longer a hindrance to developing mindfulness but an opportunity to do so. And so, wherever you are, you can just let your eyes close. Breathing in, experience the resistance. Breathing out, experience the resistance. Now you’re doing mindful breathing meditation!

Continue to talk to the fearful part of you, perhaps saying things like: “Hi there. I accept you as part of my experience. I care about you and I want you to be at ease. You’re free to stay for as long as you like, and you’re welcome to meditate with me.” Do this for as long as necessary, until you feel settled in your practice.

In this approach the specific content of your resistance isn’t important, because you’re not meeting your rationalizations on their own level. And that’s a good thing, because your resistance is sly.

Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, your doubt can run circles around you, and arguing with it makes things worse. Your doubt knows exactly what you’re going to say and knows how to make you feel small and incapable. It’s had lots of practice doing this. The one thing your doubt doesn’t understand is how to resist being seen and accepted.

So instead of arguing with your resistance, outsmart it. Surround it with mindful awareness and with kindness.

If you find that the resistance goes on day after day, then set yourself a low bar for what counts as “a day in which you meditate.” Five minutes is fine. That may not sound like much, but regularity is ultimately far more important than the number of minutes you do each day. If you sit for just five minutes a day, you’re meditating regularly. You’ve outwitted your resistance.

One more tip: The only “bad meditation” is the one you don’t do. All the others are fine. So don’t worry about the quality. Just do the practice.

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