The Radical Act of Self Compassion
Friday October 13, 2017
In over twenty five years of work in mental health, I have learned that the most radical thing my patients can do for their health and wellbeing is to develop self compassion. Audre Lorde said “Caring for myself is not self indulgence, it is an act of self preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”
Sometimes, there are many people and systems that benefit from our habits of over-extending, exhausting, depleting, and numbing ourselves out. It can be indeed a radical act to begin to practice self compassion.
Here is how self compassion can play out.
First, we must be aware that we are suffering. Sometimes, when we are fulfilling a dominant narrative of what defines a successful life, a narrative which we may have inherited from people, family members, our cultural background, or a community we admire, people who love us, a narrative which was offered to us perhaps from a time even before we could make a conscious choice, we can be puzzled or frustrated with ourselves that we can’t settle, we can’t be satisfied, we can’t just be happy the way we were told that we were supposed to be. When this moment of disconnect between our inherited or adopted narrative, and our lived experience, shows up in our life, then we may need to take a moment to stop, take a breath, pay attention to what is really happening in the present moment. This moment of recognition of the way life is in the present moment is often called mindfulness, or waking up.
The next step towards this radical act of self compassion is dropping the struggle. Instead of engaging in analysis, problem-solving, comparison, or evaluation, in the moment of recognition of our suffering, we can let go. Letting go is not a passive act, it is more like a renunciation of all the ways that we react to suffering that only work short term. Easier said than done, right? Yet, in this radical act of stopping to smell the roses (or the crisp snow in the air) we shift out of narrative entirely. We shift into vitality. Vitality is the experience of being alive in our body, right here and now. When we open the dynamic flow of information coming from our senses, the senses that are so often closed, depleted and dulled by long days focused on accomplishing the goals of the inherited narrative we have been serving, we begin processing our experience in the world in a completely different way. We open our attention to the dynamic flow of the conversation between our bodies and the world, we expand our field of attention beyond a focus on the few cues around us that are relevant to the goals of our habitual narrative; as we open to the music of our five (or more) senses, we shift out of doing life, into being a life.
The invitation to open up to the music of aliveness, in an embodied way, can be terrifying. What if our embodied experience does not match the narrative we have had about our selves, our past, our future, about the world? Very often our embodied experience is the trickster, the magician, the healer from stories of old. Our embodied experience upsets expectations, laughs at secure defenses, shakes up old scar tissue, and invites us to flow and dance. That can be terrifying when we have been living inside the safe confines of our prior experiences and beliefs about ourselves and the world.
This moment of waking up to our senses, of realizing that our experience doesn’t always fit the neat categories or stories we may have about ourselves and our lives can be painful. Our moment of waking up might be mildly uncomfortable, something easily brushed off with a joke or another Netflix binge, or it might be overwhelming, flooding our defenses, intruding on our awareness repeatedly no matter our intense efforts to shut it down with logic or self improvement. If we are lucky, we recognize the pain of waking up as the pain of change; it can recognized as the pain that comes with the gift of being alive, with birth, with new beginnings. For many of us, however, we contact the pain of waking up with control or avoidance. Sometimes we spend our lives fighting with our own awareness.
Our response to our awareness of our pain is where we have a choice. In our choice of how we respond to being alive and to the pain that comes with being alive, is our expression of the freedom, courage, and love that is the birthright of our common humanity. It may be small, no one else may see our choice; there may not be a newspaper article or a congratulations cake at the office for our choice; we may not get richer, get a promotion, or achieve a degree because of our choice; we may not even be more attractive to others because of our choice; however, ultimately we determine our own happiness in life by this simple, perhaps invisible, radical choice. It is the direction of this choice that determines whether our life is dulled or life is celebrated. This choice is simple our choice of how to respond to the moment of waking up to our own aliveness and the pain that always goes with that aliveness.
There are a few ways our response tends to go. We can choose to fall back asleep. We can pretend the moment never happened, that we did not experience a life beyond the narrative, that we did not contact a moment of awakening, painful or not. This is an option many take. We get back to the to do list dictated to us by the narrative. We don’t ask who wrote the narrative or why the basic story doesn’t work for us.
We can choose to resist. We can get angry, we can seek out a way to become more efficient in our neurosis. We can blame someone or something else for our pain, and spend our lives attacking that thing or that person.
We can choose to cling. We can argue harder for our own story. We can look for proof that everything we thought before the moment of awakening is in fact unshakeably true. We can get lost in a reverie about the fantasied ways things used to be. We can fantasize about somewhere else, someone else, some other time, in which things are the way we wish they were. We can blame ourselves for getting older, failing, not being smarter.
Here’s the radical option: we can love it all. In some beautiful buddhist practices the heart is envisioned as an entry point to a love as vast as space, holding galaxies, dimensions untold; our narrative, our delusions, our resistance, our clinging is envisioned in these practices as if they were a metal sheath restricting and binding the heart. Think of a steel metal trap on the foot of a gorgeous mountain lion; that is how restrictive and painful our unskillful responses to pain can be for us. There is another option beyond the steel trap, and that is a response of love as vast as all of space.
This might sound esoteric, but it is not, it is as simple as a hand on the heart. It is as life giving as fresh outdoor air on a cold winter night after being in a smoky bar. Stop, look around, drop the struggle; open to your five senses, receive the world and your life in their glory and their pain; shed the delusion, resistance and clinging like a wild animal shaking free of a hunter’s snare.
Act towards your pain, and towards yourself as the one in pain, as you would towards a long lost lover. Speak to your lover with kindness. See the difficulty the lover has in facing the challenge. Recognize what is noble and beautiful in your lover. Swear you will never abandon him or her as long as you live. Vow to do everything in your power to bring his or her potential to its full expression. If circumstances block him or her, promise to stay and help him or her bear the frustration.
The world may not reward you for your radical acts of compassion towards yourself, but your heart most definitely will.
Are you ready for your first radical act?