This simple mindfulness practice helps to create a unified presence for ourselves and others.
The practice of self-compassion is trending, and with good reason given the timing. At first I wasn’t sure I could relate, it sounded a bit squishy. Now as I’m writing “From Stuck to Unstoppable” and diving deep into the mind-body connection, I’ve learned this work applies to most people during times of change.
Change creates stress, stress leads to more negative patterns of perception, often resulting in self-blame or criticism. The more I learn, the more I recognize how powerful this practice is. But as I often say in workshops, knowing what you should do has little to no impact on what you will do when the time comes.
Like today, when I sat through a Compassion in Therapy workshop lead by Tara Brach, a pioneer in self compassion theory. It ended right before I was scheduled for my weekly Toastmaster’s meeting, where I had been asked to participate in a speech contest.
With such short notice, I wasn’t able to commit much time to preparing for the contest. So I told myself I’d show up, do my best and have fun, without getting attached to the results. That was before I came in 3rd out of 3 contestants. Just 90 minutes after the Compassion session, my last-minute contest ranking immediately shot to a place of self-judgement!
“Am I unlikeable? I must be, I’m always coming in last at Toastmaster’s. Why am I putting myself through this anyway?” All flooded in as self-doubt clouded my judgement and I began adding every memory of failures past to a growing mental list.
I was swirling in self-pity for a full 15 minutes before I was able to step back and say to myself, put down the baguette and find a healthier way to feel better. Since I still had the morning self-compassion training queued, I started to open it when I suddenly got a message from a friend that pulled me out of my funk. It was a random, sweet check in that snapped me back into perspective.
And from there I was able to step back and appreciate what just happened! It was a perfect life lesson. I got the opportunity to apply the self-compassion process in real time. So the failed contest became a doorway for insight and even a bit of humor. Which was the best use of an hour I could have asked for.
I sat down to rewatch the training. As Dr. Brach talked the audience through the process of getting that pain out – recognizing our judgement as masking a more vulnerable feeling, a place of hurt or rejection, I suddenly got it.
I was able to apply the self-compassion process to understand my rush into judgement, which is my go-to stress response. Whether I was critically judging myself or someone else, I realized this auto-reaction was a habit pattern masking something deeper.
When we’re able to be present and notice situations that stress or distress us, we’re able to investigate, what is the pain underneath the our immediate reaction? For me it was jealousy. And as I moved through the process and stayed with the difficult feelings I was able to open up to it. I could accept that I felt something I was embarrassed by, there was shame at the root.
I was able to see that underneath the jealousy was a fear of being invisible, of being irrelevant. As a middle aged woman, I know I’m not alone in this feeling. And I know it’s just a feeling, one that I can choose whether to make true. I also know, it’s human to compare ourselves with others and if we’re not intentional, to feel jealous. It’s not a cause for shame, nor does it make you a bad person.
Now that you’re aware of your thought patterns and what drives them, when those thoughts come up you can recognize them, then let them go.
We’re so often in conditioned mind, where we’ve developed habit patterns that let us avoid doing things that make us feel vulnerable. To see these patterns requires mindful awareness, presence, and intentionality.
Dr. Brach has developed a self-compassion practice around the acronym RAIN, which stands for:
Recognize what is happening;
Allow the experience to be there, just as it is;
Investigate with interest and care;
Nurture with self-compassion.
Ultimately, as in so many mindfulness practices, self-compassion is about letting go of harmful hidden beliefs. Yet is also requires meeting that painful place with compassion and responding to it in the most nurturing way possible.
When you can let go of past judgement, when you can truly offer yourself and accept compassion, you reach a new state of awareness. You have to be present and self-aware just to do it! When we bring presence and compassion inward we create an embodied presence for ourselves and others. We can extend grace and kindness both inward and out and in the process become that much stronger.
Dr. Brach also acknowledges that when you’re struggling, when you’re been dealing with stress or self-doubt for a long period of time, it’s not easy to be there for yourself. In fact, sometimes even for advanced practitioners, it isn’t possible.
During those times, it’s important to find a bridge to self-compassion. When you’re unable to be there for yourself, find a source outside yourself, whether that’s through a greater energy source, another person, or your religious beliefs. How can you find solace; from who or what, and how would you best be supported?
There is vulnerability in this practice as you allow yourself to ask for help. Some people worry this “let’s them off the hook” or undermines their drive in some way. Yet instead of weakening us, being vulnerable allows us to bring kindness to suffering while building our resolve and resilience in the process. As Dr. Brach puts it “soft front, strong back.
My personal post-contest nurturing involved reminding myself that my passion for my work is my real driving force, not being popular at Toastmasters. And recognizing that seeing both the lesson and the humor in things, like I did in myself, is another pathway to compassion.
How can you stop the train before you’re in the thick of your regular response pattern, the one you’re ready to change? When you’re too triggered to reframe on the spot, the best approach is to downregulate through a breathing practice. Numerous studies confirm the effect of systematic deep breathing, or diaphragmatic breathing on the nervous system. Diaphragmatic breathing lets you downregulate your stress level and slow down your thoughts, making way for new perspectives.
Learning new thought patterns is a process. The more you practice, the more you’ll begin to change outdated, negative patterns. So start where you’re at. Learning to bring mindfulness and compassion inward in the way we would extend to our dearest loved one lets us create an embodied presence for ourselves and the world.