Compassion and Ugly Truths
Tuesday November 22, 2011
Recently I was teaching a mindfulness based stress reduction class for professionals. We had been practicing together for over a month, and everyone was starting to notice some startling truths about their experience. So we sat there in friendship, struggling together with the question of “now what’? “Now what?” is the question that often comes up after a committed person has been growing in awareness of the dysfunctional, stuck, unhelpful patterns in their lives. Sooner or later, most committed seekers in psychotherapy, in meditation practice, or those on other paths of rigorous self reflection, come upon some ugly truths about themselves. The ugly truths can be patterns of addiction, compulsive behaviors, self-sabotage in relationships, patterns of unhelpful thinking, avoidance etc. The list of strategies that we humans use to limit our own vitality and accomplishment in life is almost endless.
However, the now what question remains; it can be exhausting to be on a constant watch for the ugly truths that are sabotaging our vitality. In some cases, I have even advised clients against constant vigilance about their own pathology. Constantly watching oneself with an intention to “fix” the ugly truths we have discovered can set one up for hopelessness and for relapse into addictive patterns. The good news, I told my class, is that the process of change has begun with the moment of awareness. However, the moment of awareness of self-sabotaging patterns is often more of an “oh shit” moment than an “ah-ha” moment. “Now what do I do with this?” is the next logical question.
To continue allowing a dawning awareness to grow, to continue to support the process of changing unhelpful patterns, it is often helpful to add to mindfulness the practice of self compassion. Self compassion, releasing the self from judgment, giving up the right to punish oneself or others, is a way to release the self from the grip of a deeply entrenched pattern. Self compassion, coupled with committed action based on values, can be a catalyst to the process of enduring transformation, and can assist in dissolving many of the roadblocks to change such as hopelessness, lack of belief in oneself, discouragement, and criticism from the mind or even from others.
How do you start practicing self compassion after years of subtly trained self-hatred or living with a forceful inner critic? Try some of the tips on Dr. Kristin Neff’s website on self compassion. Dr. Neff is a psychologist who researches the beneficial effects of self compassion. Try compassion meditation. Sharon Salzberg is a meditation teacher who specializes in the “Heart Sutra” or the teachings of the Buddha that focus on the heart and the cultivation of being in the world with compassion. Sharon Salzberg’s website, and her writings on the Heart Sutra are here http://www.sharonsalzberg.com/meditations
If you are working to change your life, I recommend that you support your own growth through the addition of practices that cultivate self compassion. I know of few more effective strategies for dis-solving rigidity and stuck patterns of thinking, feeling and acting. Work with compassion, and you are more likely to keep moving forward on your goals.
Kristin Neff’s website: http://www.self-compassion.org/ (I have to give Dr. Neff an extra endorsement as a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, one of my favourite places in Texas)
Sharon Salzberg’s book (with a CD of guided meditations) The Force of Kindness
Sharon Salzberg website: http://www.sharonsalzberg.com/
by Naomi Shihab Nye (1953-)
Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things, feel the future dissolve in a moment
… like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.
Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the
Indian in a white poncho lies dead
by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you, how he too was someone who journeyed through the night
with plans and the simple breath
that kept him alive.
Before you know kindness
as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow
as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness
that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day
to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
it is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you every where
like a shadow or a friend.