Let your love flow outward through the universe to it’s height, it’s depth, it’s broad extent. A limitless love, without hatred or enmity. Then as you stand or walk, sit or lie down, as long as you are awake, strive for this one pointed mind. Your life will bring heaven to earth. - Buddha

The saying, ‘you are your own worst enemy’ sums up well the inner self-critic and self-judgement that puts us down.
When we go through a difficult time and feel bad, thoughts arise such as, “you’re no good, you can’t cope with this” or when we didn’t get the job we went for, “They didn’t like you…you’re just not good enough”. Some of the time we might not even be aware of the harsh inner voice and this creates mental suffering. So we have to notice and become aware when we get tangled up in self-loathing or feelings of shame, anger, and guilt. We can use self-compassion to ease and soothe the inner turmoil by acknowledging it and using mindful ways to be kinder to ourselves. Self-judging is a double-whammy because we are both the attacker and the attacked!

The Buddha describes this inescapable physical or mental discomfort as the ‘First dart’ of existence. From the first dart comes the second dart of reaction and this is what leads to our suffering. Through conscious awareness, we learn to see the first dart and be in a position to prevent the cascade of negative thoughts.

As Haruki Murakami puts it, “Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional”. To me this is a useful reminder that although there is suffering, there is a way out of suffering. This is the core of Buddha’s teachings of the 4 Noble Truths: There is suffering, there is a cause of the suffering, the suffering will end and there is a way out of suffering.

This inclination to do ourselves down, triggers the fight flight stress response from the primal, reptilian part of the brain that is related to the negativity bias. It is looking out for danger and is there to protect us from threat. However, the brain cannot distinguish between a threat coming from outside or from fearful thoughts within and it is the fear-based thoughts that trigger the fight-flight response.

What is Self-Compassion?

When we see the pain and suffering that someone is going through, it is heart-felt and we feel compassionate towards them. We want to be there for that person and alleviate their suffering. Self-compassion is extending kindness and understanding to ourselves just as we would to a friend in need. It is being able to turn towards our own suffering and stress with gentleness.

Growing research in this field is showing that cultivating self-compassion lessens the impact of negative emotions and experiences.

Dr Kristin Neff, a leading self-compassion researcher in this field, says that, “extending kindness to ourselves helps us to see our experiences as part of the larger human experience rather than separating or isolating”. She says there are 3 components that make up self-compassion.

  1. Kindness Vs Harsh judgement

When we are confronted with difficult feelings such as anger and frustration and resist these feelings, it creates suffering and leads to self-judgement, criticism and high expectations.

Recognising that we are not perfect, that we will fail and make mistakes and realising that often times these experiences help us to learn and grow, opens up the way for us to extend understanding and kindness towards ourselves in the moment.

A way of practising kindness to ourselves, is by acknowledging the difficult thoughts and feelings. Kristin Neff suggests we can put our hands on our heart in the “self – compassion gesture” which has been found to help the body release the feel-good hormones such as dopamine and oxytocin.

We can use phrases to acknowledge the difficult feelings, “I know this is really hard, I am struggling right now”

In one of the great Buddhist texts of the Khuddaka-nikaya, the Buddha said, “On traversing all directions with the mind, one finds no one dearer than oneself, likewise everyone holds themselves most dear, hence one who loves themselves will never harm another”.

2. Common Humanity Vs Isolation

It can feel frustrating when things do not go how we want, when we are in the grip of suffering it can feel as though we are the only one going through this experience, it can feel lonely and isolating.

However all humans suffer, we all go through challenges, we all make mistakes, this is common humanity. Self-compassion means recognising that pain and suffering is part of the shared human experience.

When we reach out to someone and confide in how we are feeling, we often find that we are not the only ones feeling this way.

The meditation teacher Jon Kabbat Zinn says, “If we can accept things as they are, we can let go of how we thinkthings should be”.

3. Mindfulness Vs Over-Identification

In those times when we get caught up and feel engulfed by the strong waves of negative emotions, we can overly identify with those thoughts and emotions. It’s as though we become those thoughts, feelings and emotions.

Mindfulness is noticing when we are snared, we can then take the stance of the witness and observe through a non-judgemental lens and view our situation with a bit of space and distance, which helps to broaden our perspective. It allows us to see the suffering and paves the way for compassion to come in.

A quote that I like to refer to from meditation teacher and co-founder of the Omega Institute is “Remove the veil so I can see what’s truly happening here and not be intoxicated by my stories and my fears” . I find that it helps to take a pause and different perspective, when I find myself caught up in worry or stress.

Natural Warmth & Care

Over time we have developed the mammalian brain in the frontal cortex, this is the part of our evolution that has cultivated the care-giving system of nourishing and nurturing tendencies towards our young in order to encourage survival. Our body is programmed to respond to warmth, to gentle touch and soft vocalisations.

When we give ourselves self-compassion, we tap into the capacity to self-soothe and promote the release of the feel-good hormones of oxytocin and dopamine.

Studies and research into Self-compassion shows it is strongly related to mental wellbeing, to positive states of happiness, taking responsibility for self, boosting self-esteem and making better life-style choices and improving our relationships with others.

To tap into the inherent nourishing tendencies you may like to try this breathing exercise to help to connect to these qualities.

Breathing In a Soft Soothing Breath Exercise

We have the ability to self-soothe. We can tune into the breath and access it in a calm way, by infusing the breath with a soft quality.

To practice you can try this is a calm, quiet space, either sitting or lying down.

For this exercise it is good to imagine and think of something you own that is soft and comforting to the touch. it might be an item of clothing that you have that is very soft, a scarf or your favourite blanket, or pet.

As you bring this to mind, recall the feel and the touch, you may imagine you can feel this on your face, on your skin. As you recall this touch, you may notice that it feels relaxing, or calming, or safe, warm. Stay with these feelings.

When you next inhale, imagine you are infusing this feeling into the breath.

Breathing in a soft, smooth silky breath and breathing out a soft smooth silky breath. See if you can notice what this feels like, how it feels as you softly breathe in and out.

You can turn to this soft breath anytime you feel you want to connect to yourself and feel calm.

The Goddess of Compassion

In the Buddhist and Tibetan traditions there are archetypical figures who represent the compassionate heart. Bodhisattvas are ordinary men and women who put off entering paradise in order to help others attain enlightenment. The Chinese Bodhisattva, Kuan Yin is known as the Goddess of Compassion, Mercy and kindness.

In Tibetan Buddhism, White or Green Tara provides health, healing and longevity. She offers healing to our wounds whether they are of a physical, mental or emotional nature. Connecting to these symbols of compassion can help us remember to link in to the inner light of the heart and to awaken our own self-compassion.

The Metta Bhavana Meditation – developing compassion to self and others

In the Buddhist tradition there is a meditation practice to cultivate compassion to self and all beings known as the Metta Bhavana. Metta in the Pail language is Maitri, which means “Loving Kindness”. It is kindness at its purest, strongest, loving response to life. Metta is the wish and caring for the welfare of all beings and Bhavana is the cultivation of this empathic connection. A simple yet powerful meditation, it helps to transform the way we see things, so we may hold ourselves and others in a peaceful, positive light. 

There are 5 parts to this practice:

  • cultivating loving kindness to self
  • cultivating loving kindness to a friend
  • cultivating loving kindness to someone neutral (someone we see around but don’t truly know or have any attachments towards)
  • cultivating loving kindness to a difficult person
  • sending Metta to everyone around the globe.

This is the meditation practice I have been practising and teaching regularly for over 20 years. Having received feedback from many students, many say that the first part of sending loving kindness to themselves is the most difficult. It shows we are not used to putting ourselves first in this way.
What I appreciate about this practice is the intention to grow heartfelt feelings towards self and others. To me this is a pathway to peace, to nurture feelings of peace within, to be comfortable in one’s own skin and it is not limited just to the seated practice, but permeates outwards to those around us.

The Buddha offers this aspiration from the Metta Bhavana which can be used in the meditation.

“May I be happy, healthy, peaceful and free from suffering. May I dwell in loving kindness, joy, compassion and

Try the phrase out to yourself, it is a wonderful way to tune in and connect to these qualities so you radiate peace to yourself and those around you. You may find it can make a difference to your day!

Please join me for the next and final Cacao Ceremony and Sound bath of the year on Sunday, November 26. The theme is “Cultivating Self-compassion”.