How I Do Self-Compassion

To pick up where we left off last week:

For me, the real deal about being kind to myself is all about being in touch with my own true heart … holding it all without pushing it away or pushing it down.

So, how do I do this? How do I personally get beyond the bubble bath and expand into the soft tender core of myself? How do I make friends with myself? Get in touch with my own true heart and hold all of the pain and joy and goodness and sadness, and everything in between, the whole holographic microcosm of the human heart that happens to beat within me — and when I think I can’t hold any more, to expand my heart just a little more, and then just a little more again, until I get it that my heart actually really is vast enough, infinite, in fact? (P.S. And then I forget that I got it, and I have to do the whole thing all over again, endlessly. And then I get to hold that too.) How do I hold all that without pushing it away or pushing it down?

I personally get beyond the bubble bath through meditation practice. And then, contemplative (mindful) writing practice.

Meditation Practice

For me, it all started with a simple little bit of accidental mindfulness. It was quite by accident one day, some eight or nine years ago, that I was having a bad day and sat down for a bit of a break and just really looked at what was in front of me, and found it calming (I wrote about it at the time, here).

So when I then came upon mindfulness meditation a little later that same year, there was fertile ground. I’d already had an inkling that the cliché of “being here now” might actually have some power. That maybe I didn’t really need to do a complex visualization of any kind, that maybe there was some innate wisdom in just sitting still and paying attention.

Turns out, the single most effective thing I’ve ever done to soften and expand my tender little heart is mindfulness meditation.

A steady meditation practice is what helps me create space for my heart to expand just a little, every time I sit. To create space for my thoughts and feelings to come and go, and to make make friends with all of it. For me, meditation is not about getting blissed out. Sometimes bliss happens (and when it does it’s aaaah-mazing and I love it) (but you don’t get to stay there) (unless you’re, like, The Buddha). But it’s not the point of sitting practice. And it’s also not about getting really, really good at meditating (cuz, really, what’s the point of that?). 

The point, for me, of meditation practice is learning to allow the tumultuous turmoil of thoughts and emotions that constantly flow through my mind. Just allow them. Give them space, breathing room.

The point of meditation practice, for me, is what is often called “peaceful abiding.” “Peaceful abiding” doesn’t mean you feel peaceful, although, again, you may. It means that no matter what is going on in your mind, peaceful-blissful-turbulent-sad-mad-funny-happy-whatever, you just sit there. You don’t get up for a cup of coffee, you don’t pick up your phone and start checking text messages, you just sit for the amount of time you’ve chosen, be it one minute, 10 minutes, an hour, all day. You abide with whatever is. You notice. You wait it out. That’s all.

Sometimes you want to run screaming from the room with boredom or pain, scratching out your own eyeballs as you go (as one participant in one of my early training retreats so colourfully put it). Sometimes you want to melt into a puddle of pure despair. Sometimes you want to jump up for joy and sing a song or beat a drum.

It doesn’t matter. You don’t do any of that. You just abide.

The point of all this abiding is to learn how to also abide with whatever comes during the 23.75 hours a day when you’re not on the meditation cushion. To be better at navigating life with less friction. To be able to be just a bit less reactive when things don’t go your way. To allow a space between having an emotion and acting on it. You learn this by watching your breathing, and noticing that there’s a tiny gap between your exhale and the next inhale — and there, right there, is where you learn to abide.

Just as there’s a tiny gap between the exhale and the inhale, there’s also a gap between one thought and the next. A not-immediately-obvious texture to the most solid emotions you think you’re having: anger, sorrow, depression, all of that my-life-sucks-it-sucks-to-be-me-you-have-no-idea-how-much-it-sucks-to-be-me. There’s a space, there’s a gap, from one instant to the next. Most of the time we don’t notice it because we’re way too busy. But when we let ourselves be quiet enough, there it is.

And it is in that tiny gap, that thinnest slice of time, that I have an opportunity to choose, moment by moment, whether it’s better to be kind or to be right, whether to react or walk away.

So I’ve learned to see that there’s a gap between someone pissing me off and me turning around and getting my own back, and there’s a gap between shit that happens to me in the world and my big, defensive reaction to it. What that means is that I can disidentify with my reaction. I’m no longer a slave to what happens to me. I’m standing in choice, all the time.

That is true power: being able to stand in choice. 

Pretty neat, eh? But how exactly is that “kindness to myself”?

Okay, so when I get better at peaceful abiding, I’m also kinder to myself. I watch all the random activity and all the deep thoughts, the pettiness and the love, all of what goes on in my mind during meditation. When I can notice all of that and let it go, I can also let go of a lot of the self-criticism that trails along with it.

Turning off the Greek chorus of inner criticism is probably the biggest find, and the core of the practice.

Which brings me to…

Contemplative Writing Practice

Writing also helps me to create that space and become friends with my mind. Kind of from the other end. When I meditate, I abide and watch the thoughts come and go. When I write, I also watch the thoughts come and go — only they’re on the page, in front of me, where I can see them. When I practise contemplative writing, I also accept any and all thoughts that might come knocking at my door. I notice them, I write them down, and in writing them, I accept, embrace, and let go, just as I do on the meditation cushion.

Like meditation, writing practice gives you a movie of your mind. You have the opportunity to see your thoughts rolling over the page and recognize them as fleeting.

– Saundra Goldman

Contemplative writing practice both relies on and encourages the silencing of that deep-rooted cynical critical voice that kept me from writing anything except journal entries and technical writing for so many years. Well, maybe not silencing, but not listening to or at least, not believing. It’s not that the critical voices aren’t there — in fact, there’s a time for critical voices (it’s called “revision”), so they do get their place at the table too. They just don’t get to take over the agenda anymore.

Contemplative writing practice has become an essential part of my being able to be kind to myself. The real deal kindness, where I make friends with myself (good friends; best friends). And when I’m kinder to myself I’m also kinder to you. And you can also let go and relax and be kinder to you.

The world really does need our soft and tender hearts, now more than ever.

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