We hear the word compassion thrown around a lot in New Age health circles, but what exactly do we mean by compassion, and why is it important?
Compassion is defined by Merriam-Webster as "the sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it." The Latin and Greek basis of the word is “to suffer with.” Compassion is suffering with another and it is through this suffering we are able to alleviate that suffering.
This sounds like a heavy chore, but I promise it is worth the effort. The first person you will need to develop compassion for is… YOU!
Before we delve too deeply into compassion, we should first take a look at the motivational systems that shape our human experience: fight or flight; achievement and goal-seeking system; and the tend-and-befriend system.
Fight-or-Flight system is designed for survival. It’s a great system! Chances are your DNA wouldn’t be around today without it. It helped primordial humans react to threats and fight or flee, depending on the situation. But in our modern world, with constant sirens, buzzing, dings, notifications, loud music, annoying emails etc. this system can get a little too revved up and become counter-productive.
The achievement and goal seeking system is also great! It’s is why I am passionate about my job and what drives you to achieve! A beautiful system that fills us with feelings of interest and excitement.
The third is the tend-and-befriend system. It is an affiliative system that promotes feelings and safety, contentment and connection.
These three systems – which are present in all mammals – interact with each in a hierarchical manner. Fight-or-flight has the biggest say in how and what we feel. The is next in line achievement/goal seeking for priority and unfortunately the lowest priority is typically given to the tend and befriend system. However, there are cases in which the tend-and-befriend system can over-ride the other two systems. We see it all the time with parents and their children, as well as with lovers (especially early in the relationship!).
Now let us look at a case where we suffer, fail or feel inadequate. I am sure you can think of a time not so recently that this has happened! In this case, we see three things: self-criticism, self-isolation and self-absorption. These three things correspond with the fight-or-flight system. Self-criticism is the anger you feel over your failure directed at yourself. The self-isolation is our flight response – we want to get away! And the self-absorption is a sort of paralysis that is analogous to freezing in the face of danger. These three negative responses tend to have a cyclical effect, each feeding another. It is manifested as the self-loathing feeling you get when you make a mistake: I can’t believe I did that! Ugh that was so stupid! What is wrong with me? Some of us are better than others at hiding this internal dialogue, but it is as natural as breathing to think these thoughts and feel this way. Ah the modern condition!
So when we get these feelings it is important to break this cycle.
Self-compassion helps break this cycle. Self-criticism can be met with self-kindness. Self-isolation can be conquered by cultivating a conscious sense of common humanity. And self-absorption is conquered by developing mindfulness that breaks the cycle of enveloping yourself in the me-me-me narrative and draws our attention moment-to-moment.
This seems like a lot to handle but worry not! There is low hanging fruit! Self-kindness is a surprisingly easy and fun skill to develop. It requires a bit of role playing at the beginning. Next timeyou are having a hard time and feeling discouraged, rejected, etc. do this exercise:
- Think of a good friend – someone you really love and want more than anything else to succeed.
- Then pretend that your perceived shortcoming, dilemma, or failure is theirs.
- Now pretend they just told you about “their” problem. How would you react?
Let’s take me, Michael.
I had a long day at work the other day! So so so long! I was on my feet for 14 hours between massage school, seeing a full load of clients, doing laundry, cooking, cleaning my cat's litterbox, and to make things even more hectic I was having significant back pain. So it’s 10:30 p.m. and I am walking home from work. And boy, am I cranky! I hurt. I’m tired. I’m frustrated. Why am I even walking? I should have gotten a taxi. Why is this guy asking me for a dollar? Go away, I just want to go home. Just clear the sidewalks and don’t look at me. I was really having a great time being miserable.
Typically when confronted with this situation I either stew in my anger or having a variation of the following internal dialogue:
Oh woe is me… TOUGHEN UP! People deal with way worse than you. You’re back isn’t that bad is it? I mean you are walking. Quit your bitching and get to bed.
Now I feel guilty for being frustrated, and all the feeling I had are still bubbling inside. Instead I went through the drill above. I pretended that my brother had called me and explained to me about his long day of training, massaging, and cat poop. It sounded like a quite a day! And came to the following conclusion:
Yes, that was a hard long day. I’m sorry your back is hurting. That is a miserable experience. I understand that this situation is frustrating, but you are almost home and being upset is just going to make you more stressed out and crappy feeling. You’ll be fine. You’re almost there. Just take a few deep breaths and calm yourself. One foot in front of the other and you will be in bed before you know it.
This very simple drill in self-kindness has had rippling effects throughout my life. Don’t beat yourself up over little things. Forgive yourself for your mistakes. You will find the vast majority of the time your perceived shortcomings and failures, when viewed from the eyes of a compassionate other, are really nothing of concern.
This is just one small facet of self-compassion that I have been implementing in my life, but there is so much more. Those of you in San Francisco are lucky to have many great resources to help cultivate your self-compassion and your mindfulness practice. The San Francisco Zen Center is a great resource. They have weekly talks on many interesting topics related to mindfulness. Those of you located abroad have a myriad of online resources at your disposal. I would recommend to all readers the course: The Science of Mindfulness – A research based path to well-being. It can be found through www.thegreatcourses.com and also on audible.com
Learn more about Coach Michael here!