As we settle into sheltering at home during this pandemic, I am in awe of all that is emerging on the internet: free pilates classes, learning to draw/paint/dance, sing and drink beer (at the same time), poems and inspiring stories …. and heartbreaking ones. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of free concerts and self care checklists. There is so much good here - a smorgasbord of possibility. It kind of feels like I am standing in front of an Old Country Buffet but the spread is full of so much goodness, with a bit of jello salad here and there to keep it real. I am so grateful for this kindness. We are all looking for ways to manage our emotions and to not feel despair. And we want to help each other do the same. This is what it means to be human and to live in community. We are hardwired to stay connected to each other, whether 6 feet or 600 miles apart.
And it is also human nature to look outward as we try to free ourselves of discomfort.What is happening in our world has no precedent. How do we manage the enormity of this?
Several years ago, I was going through a particularly challenging time in my personal life. I was frustrated that my regular meditation practice did not seem to be making a difference in my emotional dis-regulation and I grew more anxious as I tried to find ways to not feel overwhelmed. I could label my emotions, I could practice holding them with curiosity as I sat on my cushion, but as soon as I ended my daily formal practice I was caught again in a painful loop of suffering. I reached out to others for support, but no words of comfort seemed to reach this unease. And then a second wave of suffering would emerge: critical self talk that was completely unrelated to my initial personal challenge. How could I, a psychotherapist who taught mindfulness skills, be unable to control this emotional rollercoaster?
Then I decided to read Dr. Kristin Neff’s book, Self Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself. It had been on my shelf for over a year (interesting how often these books need to take up space on our shelves for a while before they catch our attention!). Kristin and her colleague Dr. Christopher Germer are the founders of The Center for Mindful Self Compassion, an international non profit organization devoted to the teaching of self compassion. Reading Kristin’s book was a turning point for me, both in my personal and professional life. In her book, Kristin writes about a moment when she was experiencing the kind of despair that is familiar to me and so many of you. She had just begun her research, and she describes how she was able to use the skill of self compassion to tend to herself in a way that radically shifted her relationship with herself and the difficulty that was in front of her. Nothing outside of her experience had changed, but she felt more supported and seen in the moment.
I was intrigued and also skeptical. But I was looking for something different so I started to learn and practice. Since that first reading, I have committed to deepening this work of self compassion. It sounds so simple (which is why I was skeptical).It is also the most challenging personal work that I have ever done. At times I can almost feel my brain doing what feels like intense weight lifting as I try to change old habits of thinking and feeling. The work reminds me of trying to learn Spanish in my 50’s: nothing sticks at first, and I have to repeat, repeat repeat. As a colleague of mine once said, “these habits in our minds are well-worn rat trails!” But learning to stay with ourselves, not abandoning ourselves during the most intense of times, can allow us to create an inner sanctuary, a home base that is always available to us. This is important work now more than ever: to become the holder and the held, to radically transform the connection we have to ourselves, to our communities and to the world.
Here is a brief video that I made describing one of the key practices that is taught through the Center for Mindful Self Compassion, the Self Compassion Break.
Self compassion break
And for more information on Kristin Neff and Chris Germer's work, please visit the Center for Mindful Self Compassion at www.centerformsc.org