Offering Compassion to Ourselves
Photo by Thuong D

Offering Compassion to Ourselves

Discussion date: Thu, Mar 28, 2024 at our weekly Thursday evening practice

Dear Still Water Friends,

In February, our teacher Mitchell Ratner wrote an announcement in which he contrasted the way most English speakers understand the word “compassion” with how Thích Nhất Hạnh (Thầy) understands it. The word is commonly used to denote a feeling of empathy, sympathy, or pity for those who suffer. In the mindfulness tradition, though, the Sanskrit word karuna, usually translated as compassion, denotes an intention leading to action. In Teachings on Love, Thầy defines karuna as “the intention and capacity to relieve and transform suffering and lighten sorrows.”

When I watch news programs and see the enormous suffering of people in the world, I get in touch with an intention to do something to relieve their suffering, and I have some ideas about actions I could take: send money to international aid organizations, write to my representatives in Congress, march in a demonstration. But when it comes to my own suffering, I’m often at a loss about how to relieve and transform it.

I recently read a book that has helped clarify for me how I might handle my suffering more skillfully: Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself by psychologist and university professor Kristin Neff. In the Acknowledgments section of the book, Neff lists Thầy as someone who has had a major impact on her, along with other Buddhist teachers such as Sharon Salzberg, Joseph Goldstein, Jack Kornfield, and Pema Chodron.

Neff defines self-compassion as having three core components: self-kindness, a recognition of our common humanity, and mindfulness. She believes that these are qualities we can strengthen in ourselves through practice.

When I think about self-kindness, I remember the Buddha’s teaching on the second arrow. The teaching says that if you are hit by an arrow, you naturally feel pain. If a second arrow pierces your body in the same place, the pain will be at least ten times more intense. Here is Thầy’s interpretation of the teaching from No Mud, No Lotus:

The unwelcome things that sometimes happen in life – being rejected, losing a valuable object, failing a test, getting injured in an accident – are analogous to the first arrow. They cause some pain. The second arrow, fired by our own selves, is our reaction, our storyline, and our anxiety. All these things magnify the suffering. …

The second arrow may take the form of judgment (“how could I have been so stupid?”), fear (“what if the pain doesn’t go away?”), or anger (“I hate that I’m in pain. I don’t deserve this!”). We can quickly conjure up a hell realm of negativity in our minds that multiplies the stress of the actual event, by ten times or even more. Part of the art of suffering well is learning not to magnify our pain by getting carried away in fear, anger, and despair. …

Instead of throwing good energy away on condemning yourself or obsessing over what catastrophes might be lurking around the corner, you can simply be present with the real suffering that is right in front of you, with what is happening right now. Mindfulness is recognizing what is there in the present moment. Suffering is there, yes; but what is also there is that you are still alive: “Breathing in, I know I’m alive.”

A close relative of the “How could I have been so stupid?!” second arrow is the “I shouldn’t feel this way” second arrow. For example, something happens and I feel pain about it – maybe someone says or does something, even unintentionally, and my response is to feel hurt. Instead of acknowledging the pain and offering myself kindness and comfort, I push the pain away by telling myself it’s wrong to feel this way. I tell myself that I’m being childish and selfish.

How much kinder it would be to acknowledge the pain, to say to myself, “You’re really suffering. This is hard for you. You’re telling yourself this is a small thing, but it’s not small for you. This is suffering, and it’s just part of life to feel this way sometimes.”

The second component of self-compassion is the realization that whatever pain or difficulty I’m experiencing, there are people all over the world who are also suffering. It’s not that I’ve been singled out for this suffering; it’s that suffering is unavoidable in our human lives. When I think of the ability to open our hearts and find commonality with all of humanity, I am reminded of my younger brother Sam. He dealt with cancer for four years and died in 2018 at the age of fifty-six. During his illness, when I or one of my sisters would say something like “this is so unfair” or “you don’t deserve this,” Sam’s response was, “You know, all around the world millions of people are suffering with cancer, just like I am. And most of them don’t have access to the kind of medical care I have. Some of them have no access at all. So I consider myself pretty fortunate, all things considered.”

The third component of self-compassion is mindfulness. How can mindfulness help us generate and nourish compassion for ourselves? Neff lays out many ways. These three resonate with me: mindfulness can rescue us from getting swept away by strong emotions, save us from distorted perceptions of what is going on, and prevent us from doing harm.

When we fail at something or experience some other setback or unpleasant experience, strong emotions arise that can sweep us away. We can get so caught up in these emotions that they are all we experience. Neff uses the term “overidentification”: it’s as if we are our emotions. She writes, “Our sense of self becomes so wrapped up in our emotional reactions that our entire reality is consumed by them.” And when this happens, we’re unable to perceive reality clearly. We may make up a whole story about the experience and tell ourselves that story over and over again, embellishing it each time.

There is another way. If we remember to practice mindfulness, we can pause in this process and ask ourselves, “What is really going on here?” In No Mud, No Lotus, Thầy writes:

Mindfulness is the best way to be with our suffering without being overwhelmed by it. Mindfulness is the capacity to dwell in the present moment, to know what’s happening in the here and now. … To be mindful means to be aware. It’s the energy that knows what is happening in the present moment.

We can take a deep breath, or two or three, and come back to ourselves and our bodies and the present moment. We can become aware of what we’re experiencing, notice that we’re in pain, and offer ourselves compassion. As our bodies and minds and emotions calm down, we’re able to see more clearly what is going on. When we are able to see without distortions, we’re better able to respond wisely to the situation rather than just reacting to it. In that little space of taking mindful breaths and coming back to our bodies in the present moment, there is the possibility of refraining from taking an action that would harm another person and, in the light of interbeing, ourselves. To practice mindfulness is an act of compassion towards ourselves, as it saves us from doing harm and from the pain of regret afterwards.

On Thursday evening, after our sitting meditation, we’ll have an opportunity to share our experiences of self-compassion. Here are some questions we may like to consider:

  • What is your habitual response when you’ve made a mistake or failed at something?
  • Have you had the experience of remembering – maybe in the middle of judging yourself harshly – to offer yourself compassion? What was that like?
  • How does your mindfulness practice help you avoid getting swept away by strong emotions?

We hope you can join us.

With gratitude and appreciation,
Connie Anderson

in: Articles, Dharma Topics
Discussion Date: Thu, Mar 28, 2024


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