‘The rainbow of compassion arises
when the sun-rays of kindness touch upon the tears of suffering.’
Starting with ourselves
The airplane oxygen mask instruction is an analogy often used in mindfulness training – that in times of danger, adults are told to put their own oxygen mask on before helping their children; if adults pass out, the children are less likely to manage. Similarly in life, we cannot be fully kind and caring to others until we give the same care to ourselves.
It’s interesting to note that the Tibetan word for compassion is tsewa, which actually means compassion for others and ourselves. This implicitly means that you cannot have compassion for others if you don’t also have it for yourself. It is considered a form of self-neglect if we exclude ourselves in our search for greater compassion.
Self-compassion is a skill that we can all learn and develop. The more self-compassionate we are, the kinder and more tolerant we can be to others. However, being kind to ourselves is often seen as indulgent and selfish in today’s world, and is not something we are always taught growing up. Self-compassion can be a difficult concept for people, who sometimes think it is self-centred if you ever put yourself first.
Increasing one’s ability to be kind to oneself is an integral part of mindfulness training, and often the most challenging. Research has shown that self-compassion builds resilience to stress and a strong sense of self-worth. If we can turn towards our own suffering, we’re more likely to be able to turn towards the suffering of others, and be motivated to alleviate and prevent their pain.
People often think it is self-centred if one is trying to care for oneself, but it is actually the opposite. Increasing one’s ability to be kind to oneself is an integral part of any compassion practice or training, and often the most challenging. Research has shown that the practice of self-compassion builds resilience to stress and a strong sense of self-worth. If we can turn towards our own suffering, we’re more likely to be able to turn towards the suffering of others, and be motivated to alleviate and prevent their pain.
In today’s world, most of us have constant reminders of how others are doing, whether we see images on TV or social media. When we criticise ourselves, we connect with what’s known as the body’s threat-defence system, also known as our Reptilian brain. We react to perceived danger in many ways, one of which is the threat-defense system gets triggered. This leads to self-criticism being the quickest and most common reaction when we face any challenges.
We feel stressed when we're being threatened in any way, and chronic stress can lead to anxiety and depression. This is why frequent self-criticism is harmful for our emotional and physical well-being. Which is why it is so important to be able to recognise when we are judging ourselves, as we will probably always do, but then to let these unhelpful thoughts go and try and be kind to ourselves instead.
What is Self-Compassion?
Self-compassion is basically when you treat yourself as you might treat a friend who is having a hard time – even if your friend messed something up, is feeling inadequate or simply facing a challenge. Kristen Neff defines it as having three parts – self-kindness, common humanity (the recognition that everyone makes mistakes and feels pain), and mindfulness. A crucial part of being kind to ourselves is remembering that suffering is part of what it means to be human, everyone suffers at times.
Mindfulness is the first step in emotional healing – developing the ability to turn towards difficult thoughts and feelings (such as inadequacy, sadness, anger and confusion) with curiosity and openness. Self-compassion involves responding to these challenging thoughts and feelings with kindness, sympathy and understanding. We can soothe and comfort ourselves when we are hurting. The combination of mindfulness and self-compassion leads to greater ease and well-being in our daily lives.
Kristen Neff is one of the pioneers of what is known as mindful self-compassion. She says:
“When we are mindful of our struggles, and respond to ourselves with compassion, kindness, and support in times of difficulty, things start to change.
We can learn to embrace ourselves and our lives,
despite inner and outer perfections,
and provide ourselves with the strength needed to thrive.”
There has been a great deal of research over the last ten years into self-compassion and this has shown how important it is for our well-being. When people are more self-compassionate, they are more likely to be happier, satisfied, motivated, have better relationships and physical health, and less anxiety and depression. Being self-compassionate gives us resilience to cope with life’s stresses. It makes a difference to how you live when you know you have wise, gentle but firm coach whom you can call on 24/7. Sometimes we need to learn how to get into regular contact with this wise side of ourselves, and one way we can develop this relationship is through mindfulness training.
Children often have an innate ability to be able to care for themselves through creating imaginary best friends. However this is often looked down on and so we suppress that ability to stand outside ourselves and offer what we might need. I once spent an amazing year travelling round the world on my own, in the days before internet or mobile phones. On a rather challenging night in India, I found myself reviving imaginary friends I’d made up when I was about three! They’d ‘grown up’ by now and became what I called my ‘manager’ for the trip. What I was actually doing was cultivating the ability to care for myself; and throughout my life I’ve often called on my manager when struggling with tricky situations.
What is the difference between Compassion and Self-Compassion?
Compassion has been defined as ''the wish that a being not suffer, combined with sympathetic concern''.
Self-compassion simply applies that wish to yourself.
People often think compassion is simply kindness or empathy; these qualities are at the heart of compassion, but compassion includes a motivation to act, a commitment to try and do something to help. This starts with a willingness to turn towards suffering in oneself or others, before one can engage in whatever it might take to actually alleviate or prevent suffering – whether in oneself or in someone else.
How can we develop Compassion?
Compassion and self-compassion can be deepened through training, which requires a certain level of courage and openness. Self-compassion can be a difficult concept for people in today's world.
In these practices, we repeat phrases, either silently or out loud. In these phrases we evoke good will, cultivating the desire that all living beings have to live happily and free from suffering. Most of us feel compassion when a close friend is struggling. What would it be like to receive the same caring attention whenever you needed it most? We can practise changing the direction of our attention—recognising that you also deserve to receive compassion. It's possible to learn how to stop being so hard on yourself, and how to motivate yourself with encouragement rather than criticism.
We can develop this ability to care for ourselves and others by practising what are known as ‘Kindly Awareness’ meditations. You can read examples of the meditation phrases at the end of this article. Or practise a kindness meditation for free in our guided meditation section.
Compassion for Others
Albert Einstein, one of the greatest physicists of all time, is known for his theory of relativity. But he was also an outspoken pacifist and believed deeply that our task must be to care for all living creatures.
“A human being is part of a whole, called by us “universe”, a part limited in time and space. One experiences oneself, one’s thoughts and emotions as something separated from the rest….a kind of optical delusion of one’s consciousness. The delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”
I will end with some phrases that are often used in mindfulness compassion meditations:
May we be safe and free from suffering
May we be happy and healthy
May we accept ourselves as we are
May we treat ourselves and others with care and respect