Thursday, 11 July 2013

Self-Compassion in Mindfulness

"The soil of deep practice requires the fertilizer of deep self-acceptance and self-compassion. For this reason, gentleness is not a luxury but a critical requirement for coming to our senses. And harshness and striving ultimately only engender unawareness and insensitivity, furthering fragmentation just when we have an opportunity to recognize that we are already OK, already whole." - Mindfulness teacher Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, Coming To Our Senses (2006), p303.

"...being playful and bringing to each moment, as best you can, a certain ease and lightness of touch – a gesture of kindness and self-compassion really. This lightness of touch, coupled with a steadfast and wholehearted engagement, is really a signature of mindfulness training and practice in all its various forms." - Professor Mark Williams, Mindfulness: A practical guide to peace in a frantic world (2011), p.x.

"The opposite of self-criticism is self-compassion." - Fully Present: The Science, Art, and Practice of Mindfulness (2010), p138.

If you don’t know how to treat yourself with compassion, how can you treat another person with compassion?" - Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, Anger - Wisdom for Cooling the Flames (2001), p166.
"One person noticed that his body perceives wind and creates goose bumps on his skin before his mind can register that a cool breeze is present. Our body is aware of our environment even when we aren’t, when we have gone unconscious or are asleep. It moves to protect us by raising up our hair follicles to create an insulating layer next to the skin, like a thin down jacket. Some old masters pointed to this as an example of our inherent Buddha nature, which cares for us continually."- Jan Chozan Bays, How to Train A Wild Elephant: And Other Adventures in Mindfulnes (2011), p144-145.
"An accomplished meditator has achieved a profound understanding of life, and he or she inevitably relates to the world with a deep and uncritical love."  - Mindfulness in Plain English (2002), p131.
Understanding our own feelings in the context of the feelings of others in our society is a difficult business for us these days, as Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar, a former lecturer in positive psychology at Harvard, states in his book The Pursuit of Perfect (2009), p216:
"Today many of us... feel that we must suppress our emotional discomfort and be — or at the very least seem — happy. This perfectionist expectation, to display an unbroken chain of positive emotions, leads to much unhappiness. We are taught to hide our pain, fake a smile, put on a brave face. And when most of what we see are perfect smiles displayed on other people’s perfectly tanned faces, we begin to believe that we are the odd ones out—because we are sometimes sad or lonely or we don’t feel as happy or as put together as everyone else appears to be. Not wanting to be the odd one out, to ruin the festive circus and reveal our shameful feelings, we hide our unhappiness with our own clown mask, and when asked how we are, we respond, with a wink and a smile, “Just great.” [...] We join the march of folly, become accomplices in the great deception that denies humanity’s humanity."
This "great deception" Ben-Shahar refers to leads to what he terms the "great depression" of the world, p218:
"Not only do we make ourselves unhappy when we suppress emotions, when we pretend, but we make others unhappy as well. In this way, the great deception (pretending that we are really happy when we are not) contributes to the great depression (to the rising levels of unhappiness in the world). In putting on the facade, we communicate to others that everyone is doing just great, except for them, which makes them feel worse and even more determined to hide their pain. By perpetually hiding our emotions, we don’t give others permission to share their own. And in turn, their brave faces communicate to us that everyone else is doing great, and we consequently feel even worse. And so we all continue, smiling our way through the insincere dance of words and gestures, engaged in a downward spiral of deception and depression."
This facade can extend to the point whereby certain 'ultimate' idealised emotional states can be proclaimed - such as pure unending happiness, or lifelong peaceful contentment, often as a result of some external achievement, purchase or relationship. Such pretended states can be paraded in a kind of smug fashion in order to indulge in the projected misfortune of those who are not so content, as Ben-Shahar writes, p218:
"There are those who believe that the common tendency to feel better when others reveal their pain exposes our dark side. The Germans have a word for it, Schadenfreude, which Gary Coleman of Avenue Q defines as “happiness at the misfortune of others.”"
And yet, as he points out, if the capacity to meet others with an open heart is present, being emotionally honest has a more positive potential:
"But there is another, more generous interpretation of why others’ sharing of their pain can lead to our gain: we feel better because we recognize that we are normal and we are not alone."
How often can this really happen in our offices, schools, streets, shops, etc., however? The Great Depression seems to be rife in the world - happiness is measured on a material scale, leading to selfishness and greediness, with peaceful joy being measured on how far away one's house is from another person's, and how scenic one's surroundings are. In truth, nothing external can bring true lifelong peaceful joy and tranquility - it is only how one meets the world - free from clinging to big detached houses, beautiful people and scenery, and being accepting of the death of loved ones and one's own inevitable declining health and  youthful appearance - that creates the conditions for true joy to appear.

Meeting the world in such a way is a difficult state to live up to, and yet the good news is that, since true lifelong happiness is dependent on what is within one's psyche - an area one can have complete control over - it is available to everyone, and not a few fortunate individuals. Removing oneself from the great depression needs to begin with removing oneself from the great deception, however, and by looking into one's sources of happiness in life - how much of it is schadenfreude and how much of it is some faked commodity, and then understanding that one's happiness is completely dependent on oneself - one's internal state, and that everyone, no matter their situation or history, is deserving of true peaceful joy in every moment of their life. For those starting out on such a path, it can be a tough change in perception to make, as mindfulness teacher and MBSR founder Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn writes in his book Full Catastrophe Living (2005), p226:
"Many people come to the clinic with much more pain than only that caused by their physical problems and by the stress in their lives. Many find it difficult to feel much, if any, love and compassion for themselves. Many feel unworthy of love and unable to express warmth toward members of their own family, even when they want to. Many feel disconnected from their bodies. Their lives are devoid of feelings of coherence or connectedness. Many got messages from their parents or from school or from church or sometimes all three when they were children that they were bad or stupid or ugly or unworthy or selfish. And those messages were internalized, became part of their self-image and of their view of the world, and were carried into adulthood deep in their own psyches."
The more we watch and notice, the more we can become aware of the social traps we fall into, and begin to care for those parts of ourselves which have been neglected over the years, as Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh writes in his book Fidelity: How to Create a Loving Relationship That Lasts (2011), p46:
"There are times when we suffer and we don’t know why. We don’t know the nature of the suffering. That suffering may have been transmitted to us by our parents or our ancestors. They may not have been able to transform their suffering, and now they have transmitted it to us. First, we just acknowledge that it is there inside us."
If one becomes locked in a self-view of considering oneself unfortunate and a victim in certain situations - of the great deception, of domineering parents, or of 'the system', and then feeling a sense of entitlement - to subversively take from others in society as compensation - either by neglecting others, or indulging in greed or theft, then there will never be any hope of finding peace. One will never be able to approach oneself compassionately because one's whole personal reward system is geared-up to feeling abused and victimised.

Setting up the conditions for peaceful joy requires one to break such inferiority complexes by seeing into their cyclical, self-perpetuating mechanisms, and by realising that one has the resource one needs to be happy available at every single moment no matter who is around or what material possessions one owns. The process is akin to bringing a whithered plant out of from a dark cupboard and bathing it in sunlight - it was what it required all along, and 'deserves' all the sunlight it can get. Regular formal mindfulness practice brings such insight very quickly it seems, and then once unnecessary behavioural cycles are recognised, the real healing can begin, as American Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck writes in Everyday Zen (1997), p59:
"As our practice becomes more sophisticated we begin to sense our tremendous deficiencies, our tremendous cruelty. We see the things in life we’re not willing to take care of, the things we can’t let be, the things we hate, the things we just can’t stand. And if we’ve been practicing a long time there’s grief in that. But what we fail to see is the area which with practice grows—the area in which we can have compassion for life, just because it is as it is."
Kabat-Zinn also supports this in The Mindful Way Through Depression (2007), p49:
"With an increasing ability to sustain mindfulness, we can explore what happens when our emotions are allowed to come and go in awareness with a non-judgmental attitude and self-compassion."
Thich Nhat Hanh goes on to say in Fidelity that it is this self-compassion which ultimately heals us, p46:
"If we don’t listen to our own suffering, we won’t understand it, and we won’t have compassion for ourselves. Compassion is the element that helps heal us. Only when we have compassion for ourselves, can we truly listen to another person. So we embrace our pain, sorrow, and loneliness with the energy of mindfulness. The understanding and insight born from this practice will help transform the suffering inside us. We feel lighter; we begin to feel warmth and peace inside."
The process is not as smooth as one would hope from just reading about this, since the mind wanders as part of it's inherent nature, and critical thoughts come and go, and yet one's experience during formal mindfulness practice - no matter what it is - is always a success and never a failure, since after every meditation one knows the territory of one's mind that much better - where potential stumbling blocks lie, and therefore one will be instinctively more aware of them in future. The most important thing is to meet oneself with compassion in the knowledge that there is no failure in mindfulness practice, since there is nothing to succeed at 'doing' but to be aware, and even if that means only acknowledging the moment one sits down and then the moment one stands up, that is still a 'success', as Professor Mark Williams of Oxford Mindfulness Centre writes in Mindfulness: A practical guide to peace in a frantic world (2011), p177:
"...remember that you are cultivating compassion for yourself. You will not ‘fail’. Every time you realise that you’re judging yourself, that realisation in itself is an indicator that you’ve come back to a fuller awareness – central to becoming more mindful day by day."
In the same book, Williams emphasises the role of compassion in breaking the inferiority complexes we have, p117:
"Compassion – particularly for yourself – is of overwhelming importance. It takes the fuel away from your endless, driving self-criticism. You will eventually be able to see more clearly that some things in life are less important than you had thought, and find it easier to let go of over-caring about them."
The author of Fully Present: The Science, Art, and Practice of Mindfulness (2010) relates the following about self-compassion, p62:
"Mark Leary at Duke University suggests that self-compassion has three components: kindness, mindfulness, and “awareness that you are part of the human condition.” Studies of self-compassion training among college students suggest that increasing self-compassion increases happiness. Unlike self-esteem, which is important in happiness but if too elevated can lead to narcissistic behavior, self-compassion in its extremes appears only to enhance a person’s health and well-being; there is no downside to it."
Meditation for Dummies (2006) states the following regarding the appearance of self-compassion within mindfulness meditation practice, p87:
"As you practice welcoming your experience just as it is, including your judgments and self-criticisms, you may also discover that your attitude toward yourself begins to change in subtle ways. Instead of impatience or contempt, you may begin to notice a certain self-acceptance creeping in as you become more familiar with the repetitive patterns of your mind. Hey, you may even develop a measure of compassion for yourself as you see how self-critical or distracted or frightened you can become."
This compassion for oneself, as it begins to blossom, can turn one's wandering mind into a kind of tool for amplifying one's compassionate abilities, as Professor Williams states in Mindfulness (2012):
" matter how many times your mind wanders, allow yourself on each occasion (without limit) to cultivate compassion for your mind as you bring it back to where you had intended it to be. See if it is possible to view the repeated wanderings of the mind as opportunities to nurture greater patience within yourself. In time, you may discover that this quality of kindliness towards the wandering mind brings a sense of compassion towards other aspects of your experience – that the wandering mind has been a great ally in your practice, and not the enemy you supposed it to be."
Dr Kabat-Zinn uses an idea of "working the edge" when approaching oneself with compassion in The Mindful Way Through Depression, p200:
"With intensely unpleasant feelings, we may find it helpful to use the strategy of "working the edge." ...this means bringing attention as far into the intensity of the experience as we can and then maintaining it with a light touch, as best we can, moment by moment. When the intensity begins to feel overwhelming, we can gently, in the spirit of self-compassion, shift our attention bit by bit toward some other, more stabilizing and benign focus."
And in his guided lake meditation in Wherever You Go, There You Are (1994) he encourages self-compassion relative to the Earth cradling water on it's surface, p141:
"When you have established a picture of the lake in your mind's eye, allow yourself to become one with the lake as you lie down on your back or sit in meditation, so that your energies are held by your awareness and by your openness and compassion for yourself in the same way as the lake's waters are held by the receptive and accepting basin of the earth herself. Breathing with the lake image moment by moment, feeling its body as your body, allow your mind and your heart to be open and receptive, to reflect whatever comes near."
Thich Nhat Hanh uses the example of a mother comforting her child, in Anger - Wisdom for Cooling the Flames (2001), p166:
"When anger comes up in us, we should begin to practice mindful breathing right away: “Breathing in, I know that anger is in me. Breathing out, I am taking good care of my anger.”We behave exactly like a mother: “Breathing in, I know that my child is crying. Breathing out, I will take good care of my child.”This is the practice of compassion."
And, in The Heart of Buddha's Teaching (1998), he recommends the use of "mouth yoga", p70:
"There are more than three hundred muscles in our face, and when we know how to breath in and smile, these muscles can relax. This is "mouth yoga." We smile and we are able to release all of our feelings and emotions."
As compassion grows from within and spills out into one's community, it can be found to emerge automatically as a new habit of responding to difficulty, as the author of Mindfulness in Plain English (2011) states, p9:
"Meditation is called the Great Teacher. It is the cleansing crucible fire that works slowly but surely, through understanding. The greater your understanding, the more flexible and tolerant, the more compassionate you can be. You become like a perfect parent or an ideal teacher. You are ready to forgive and forget. You feel love toward others because you understand them, and you understand others because you have understood yourself. You have looked deeply inside and seen self-illusion and your own human failings, seen your own humanity and learned to forgive and to love. When you have learned compassion for yourself, compassion for others is automatic."
Thich Nhat Hanh reflects this stance in The Miracle of Mindfulness (1987), p58-59:
"When your mind is liberated your heart floods with compassion: compassion for yourself, for having undergone countless sufferings because you were not yet able to relieve yourself of false views, hatred, ignorance, and anger; and compassion for others because they do not yet see and so are still imprisoned by false views, hatred, and ignorance and continue to create suffering for themselves and for others. Now you look at yourself and at others with the eyes of compassion..."
Kabat-Zinn writes in the introduction to the 15th Anniversary Edition of Full Catastrophe Living, pXXIX:
"...we nurture what is deepest and best in ourselves with kindness, self-compassion, and patience."

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