Psychologist, teacher, and author Kristen Neff defines self-compassion as having three components: mindfulness, kindness, and common humanity. In order to recognize that suffering exists, we must be aware of it. Next, there needs to be some movement of the heart to offer care and comfort to our situation. Finally, we must recognize that on some level, our suffering is not unique but shared and experienced by others.
Self-compassion is such an essential component to our wellbeing. We live in a time and place that defines happiness by who we are and what we have. While this can bring temporary joy or pleasure, it separates us by a social hierarchy. So and so earns the most money. So and so took the best vacation this year. So and so has the best figure, etc. In contrast, self-compassion unites us in shared experiences. We have all been sick, experienced anger, fear, and disappointment, even lost someone or something we love. No amount of fame of fortune can shield us from these truths.
Meditation practice helps us to be mindful of our thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations within the safe container of compassionate presence. We can watch the stories of our lives unfold in wild and wacky ways that are so far from the truth of who we really are. For beginning meditators, this is often hard to believe. How can we possibly sit deep within the mud of suffering when our caregivers taught us to escape, deny, or substitute the dissatisfaction with false refuges? It’s not their fault. Maybe they never learned how to befriend difficulty with mindfulness and self-compassion.
In many ways, meditation is a spiritual re-parenting practice where we learn to make space for everything. We learn that our breath can soothe any area of hurt, that we can perceive the coming and going of sound without needing to change it, that we can merge with each moment so intimately so as to dissolve and actually become the compassionate space that surrounds us. Self-compassion is like a best friend promising to always be there no matter how hard things might get.
I’ve recently faced a challenge at home that evoked the most turbulent emotions: scalding anger, whirlwinds of fear, an avalanche of hurt. The feelings evoked flashbacks from my postpartum period nine years ago where anger, fear, sadness and shame were my constant companions. I felt like an ugly caterpillar begging for the chrysalis stage so I could quickly transform into a beautiful butterfly. I couldn’t see that the road to heaven is sometimes paved with perceived pebble stones from hell.
I knew there was a connection between that time and my current circumstance, but what was it? A friend shared a quote by Vivian Green, ““Life isn't about waiting for the storm to pass...It's about learning to dance in the rain.” How could I learn to dance in the rain while the storm was here, rather than waiting for it to pass? I sensed that part of the answer had something to do with self-compassion. Instead of trusting this instinct, I spiritually bypassed my true feelings by trying to overemphasize the positive aspects of my life. When I couldn’t do this easily, I blamed myself for being too sensitive, too needy. It wasn’t until I sat with the pain of all my self-stories, uncomfortable feelings, and physical sensations that the following words emerged:
To dance in the rain you don’t
have to enjoy the storm.
Maybe you don’t like getting wet –
your hair all frizzy, the cold
damp air teasing you about
the remembrance of sunnier
days not so long ago.
To dance in the rain you must
hear your heart’s calling,
stripping down to bare skin
and raw emotions, breaking
open to water seeds of intention,
letting your tears become the rain.
If I were to die today, knowing I could not take anything with me, I’d leave the practice of self-compassion behind. I’d invite others to inhale the breeze of kindness and exhale toxic judgments dehydrating them like prunes. They’d meet others and spread the word about self-compassion until it went viral, infecting all hearts with the following question. “Do you pay regular visits to yourself? Don't argue or answer rationally. Let us die, and dying, reply.” (Rumi)