Self-Compassion

When I was younger, I thought compassion was synonymous with  sympathy, the kind of quality in which a person got alongside another, agreed things were awful or unfair, and offered consolation. My first teacher did not sympathise with the predicament i was in (I had sought his help because i was ill)  I clearly remember judging him as uncompassionate.
 
Over the recent long weekend, fourteen people joined me at the Aio Wira retreat centre near Auckland for a mindfulness and qi gong retreat on the theme of self-compassion. And this question arose: What is self-compassion in the context of mindfulness?
 
When I’ve experienced times of darkness or despair, apparently triggered by difficult conditions, I’ve noticed that some people I thought I was close to tended to avoid me, some spoke consolingly, and some spoke immediately about their own similar stories, even those a long time prior. A few have sat with me, but made no move to fix anything, or even necessarily offer advice. This has felt like deep compassion: the ability to feel with another, to show, with words and touch, that there is nothing to make right, nothing to console, that this time is arising and will change again, and for a while is to be endured. I’m pointing to a quality here; of course there are times advice and help with a plan of action is needed! I also understand that when I offered what I used to call compassion to others, it was invariably so I would feel better, and because I couldn’t bear to see their distress.
 
During these same challenging times, I have sometimes fallen into the role of victim, This isn’t fair! Why me? I have told the story of my distress so often that it has become part of my identity, and become a strategy to invite sympathy. Wise teachers, truly compassionate ones, have challenged me about these tendencies. They have reminded me of laws in consciousness, and of self-responsibility. If I have driven myself and ignored indications from the body that I needed to stop, it is lawful that I am exhausted or ill. If I have been through periods of intense stress, it is lawful I have low energy or need time to recover. If I meditate (think) frequently on unhappiness, it is lawful that I will attract situations that mirror unhappiness. If I hold a belief that I am not worthy of love, it is lawful that I will attract people who later appear to reject me. Like attracts like. I duplicate whatever I give my attention to.

This degree of compassion, the ruthless encouragement of self-responsibility, this degree of truth telling, is not popular. Give me a little consolation! A little respite to be a victim! Let me leave a little neurosis up my sleeve!
 
And then, when I’ve given myself a hard time about not meeting some sort of ideal I hold dear - and spiritual ideals are the worst, - a compassionate teacher will remind me again to be kind to myself, to be gentle, that deep patterns of mind don’t change in a week, or a year. That most humans have been deeply conditioned in the ways of fear and self-judgement and this is not anyone’s “fault.”
 
Self-compassion, then, as one sits in mindfulness practice. The gesture of acceptance. A place of beginning from inherent OK-ness, from an OK-ness derived simply from being, even if the conditions suggest otherwise. Sitting with myself, for that set period of time, without seeking to fix, console, or avoid myself. (And, yes, of course, taking action later…)

But self-compassion is also being willing to see the truth. The understanding that if I take a long ride on particular thought trains and stories, and believe them, there will be implications of this which affect myself and others. And because, with mindfulness practice, I’ll start to feel more strongly the physical effects of dwelling on past pain, future fears, blame, self-judgment, righteousness etc., I may develop quite an intolerance of the ways I have allowed myself to be hijacked so often by these kind of thoughts.
 
But it’s a hell of a job to convince anyone that mindfulness is not a technique to fix anything, to strive for peace, or relaxation, or an empty mind. That rather it is the witnessing of whatever arises, with kindness and humour, knowing there is nothing to improve, knowing that, as a human, everything arises, and falls away again, knowing that I am not my thoughts, nor my feelings, but that they are all OK. And to keep returning to where it's always now and to where my body is - here, whatever is going on.
 
At the retreat, there were a few who felt frustrated about the apparent paradoxes inherent in the things I said. You may be feeling the same way here. Kindness and ruthlessness? Acceptance and intolerance? Meditation, but not trying for no thoughts?
 
I notice, as I surrender more to the Life that lives me, I can't come to black and white conclusions about anything, despite having a mind so insistently wanting to have things under control. More and more I don’t know. I am no longer able to rely on others, or external morals, to give prescriptions about what to do, or what not to do, or how to go about anything at all. But I am starting to feel a growing awareness of what each changing moment asks, even if that contravenes others’ expectations or morals, and does not win approval. Mindfulness, over time and combined with a love of the Life that is living this whole play of events, leads to a movement into one's own authority and a trust in the goodness of one’s own heart.