A few years ago a local church asked me to address their assembly on the topic of “Self Compassion.” At the time it was not a topic I had spent a lot of time thinking about, either personally or philosophically. I had thought a lot about Compassion, though, as part of my personal journey and my professional activity, but the idea of extending Compassion to myself just hadn’t been on my radar.
Compassion, as defined by the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, is “sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it.” That certainly seems like a reasonable definition, and an excellent starting point for my mental meandering. Let’s take a close look at this definition.
First, you can’t help but notice the word “sympathetic” here. To have sympathy (going back to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary) is to have “an affinity, association, or relationship between persons or things wherein whatever affects one similarly affects the other.” “Consciousness” we’ll take to mean awareness, which leaves us with the object of our Compassion: “others’ distress.” Well, so far, we have three key words (Compassion, sympathy, and others) that are about someone else, not me. You can’t help but be struck by the paradoxical nature of the phrase in question, “self Compassion.” Is it even possible to have such a quality?
The answer is yes, but only if we twist our definitions a bit. We’ll start by looking at sympathy. Is it possible to have a relationship in which you notice what you, yourself, are feeling, so that some aspect of “you” is affected by another aspect of “you”? Next up is “others.” Again, is it possible for a person to regard him/herself as an “other”? The only way that I can fathom that these questions can be answered “yes” is from the perspective of mindfulness practice. Let me explain.
When we sit mindfully we begin to notice things. Generally we start with our breathing. That’s a good place to start; if you’re not breathing then you have bigger problems than this blog site can possibly address, so we can assume that there is a breathing process ready to be noticed. As we mentally observe our breathing we begin to notice that our mind wanders, rather easily as it turns out. Quite suddenly we may find ourselves remembering aspects of our day, picturing some place we plan to visit, hearing a good (or bad) song in our head, making a grocery list, planning an event, the possibilities are endless. So the meditation teacher gives a gentle reminder that a wandering mind is typical and not to get worried about it, simply keep returning the wandering mind back to focus on the breath over and over again. So far so good.
But after a while the meditation teacher hears statements like this: “OK, I just spent several minutes with my mind noticing my breath. Then a thought arose, and my mind simply noticed the thought. Then a memory arose, and I simply noticed the memory.” Those statements are usually followed by a question that goes like this: ”OK, ‘I’ am watching ‘me.’ So, who is this ‘I’ and who is this ‘me’?” Now, THAT is an interesting question. Clearly, there’s only one “me” sitting on the meditation cushion, but at the same time there is clearly an observing consciousness that is experienced as somehow having a bit of separation from my immediate, direct experiencing.
This is a philosophical rabbit hole that I’m not going down in this post. But it IS an interesting phenomenon, isn’t it? In my mindful moment I’m “noticing” my own, personal reality. And when I’m mindful I find that my “personal reality” is simply something that “I,” whoever or whatever THAT is, am having, and I become very free to choose (hopefully) a skillful response.
Which brings me back to “Self Compassion.” One thing we know for sure is that life brings events that precipitate painful feelings, emotional or otherwise. One thing I’ve noticed about pain (maybe you have too) is that when I’m in any kind of pain it feels relentless, as if it has permeated me totally. It is very easy, when in pain, to become convinced that the pain is the new “me” and the old “me” is no longer available. Now, I think that’s a fundamental thinking error but the fact remains that when a person is in pain, it’s hard to separate any sense of “self” from the felt pain. The mindfulness meditator knows something about pain, however, because regular practice cultivates great skill at sitting with pain, making space for pain, abiding with pain, and being at peace with pain. In a nutshell, the mindful person has established a “relationship” with pain, a relationship that accepts pain as a typical part of life. You may be seeing where I’m going with this: the attitude of mindfulness tells me to become conscious of, feel, and accept “my” own pain (sympathy for my “self”). This seems to cover the first half of that definition of Compassion cited above: “sympathetic consciousness of others’ (in this case the “personal reality” that my mind observes) distress.” Now I’m feeling better about this idea of Self Compassion. But there’s still another aspect of Compassion to consider.
“With a desire to alleviate it.” It is not enough to become sympathetically aware of my own distress, I have to want to bring relief to the pain that I am observing in my personal reality in order for this to be Compassion. And, moreover, I would like to add that a person’s capacity for Compassion, for others or self, may or may not be skilled. I have met well intentioned people who try to alleviate someone’s distress and, frankly, just are not very skilled at it.
There is another potential problem that I see with this. How engaged should I be with relieving my own pain? I sense that one can become over-engaged, become preoccupied with relieving one’s own pain. It seems self-centered, and just doesn’t seem right. Being over-engaged with finding relief may distract me from seeing what’s going on around me; it may diminish my capacity to feel Compassion for others.
On the other hand, being under-engaged in relieving my pain seems a bit masochistic. History is filled with martyrs, but the martyrs we admire have allowed their own pain for the relief of the pain of others (think Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, Steven Biko). I have to admit to having little patience with people who COULD bring relief to themselves but continue to live in great pain (and love to tell everyone about it!).
Clearly there’s a middle path to follow here. Pain is not necessarily an enemy. Sometimes pain is necessary. Anyone who has ever raised rebellious teens, only to see them mature into adults who appreciate the standards and values of their parents, knows what I mean. My mind goes back to acceptance; that is, living with pain as an inevitable part of life.
I think the key word we need to invoke here is “healing.” When my intention is to relieve my pain by regaining health, healing, I believe that I find the middle path between self-centeredness and masochistic martyrdom. To heal is “to make sound,” to restore to previous functioning, or, if restoration is not possible, to find the “new normal,” and accept a new reality. When we heal we may not look or think or feel like we once did, but usually the healed wound, scar tissue and all, is actually stronger and more durable than the skin (or relationship) that has been replaced.
And that, to me, is Self Compassion. It starts with an attitude that accepts pain as normal. It proceeds to investigate the potential for healing. Self Compassion leads me to seek healing, but invites me to consider emerging changes in my situation, and to embrace new realities. When I extend Compassion to myself I truly seek to relieve my suffering while accepting my pain. And I know that I’m the wiser for it, and probably more adept at extending Compassion to others. When I seek healing rather than restoration, I learn the lessons of acceptance, and gain clarity of mind and vision. My capacity for “sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it” becomes more deeply engrained; I become more fully human, to myself and to those around me. I become mindful.