Self-Compassion

Choosing to be happy doesn’t mean that negative emotions, like anger, anxiety, discouragement, and impatience cease to arise. The healthiest response to such feelings is self-compassion.

The Dalai Lama exudes a deep and abiding sense of happiness and peace. However he admits that negative states also arise in him. But after many years of practice, they dissipate so quickly that they don’t appreciably disturb his equanimity and basic happiness.

This is hardly the case for most of us who are far less skilled in dealing with our feelings. But we can develop more skill, making our lives easier and happier.

When negative emotions arise, they produce tension and stress in the body. Secondary tensions arise as we automatically try to push uncomfortable feelings away. But the more we try to push them away, the more they persist, demanding attention. If we could instead welcome the uncomfortable feelings and experience them fully, they would naturally begin to release their hold on us.  As tensions diminished, the life-force would circulate more freely throughout our bodies, bringing refreshment and renewal.

You may protest that giving more attention to negative feelings will intensify them.  But we are talking about the actual feelings here, not the story about the feelings. For example with anger, the story might have to do with justifying the anger, who was to blame, how misunderstood you were, what you should do about it, etc. Getting caught up in the story can indeed increase stress and tension.

What we are suggesting is staying with the actual feeling—how it feels in your body and in your heart.  While you may need at some point to decide how to respond to the situation that triggered your anger, let that go until you have taken care of your feelings first.

Here is an exercise for using self-compassion in dealing with strong, negative feelings.

  1. Sit comfortably in a chair with the soles of the feet flat on the floor and back straight or in lotus position on a cushion on the floor.
  1. Close your eyes and turn your attention toward your breath, letting yourself be soothed by the regular, steady inhalation and exhalation. Begin noticing other physical sensations: the firm surface supporting you; your heartbeat; a clock ticking. Let concerns about the past and future gradually recede as you exist more and more in the present. As thoughts arise, inhale into them and release them with your exhalation. You may notice tensions releasing.
  1. Ask yourself, “What am I feeling right now?” noticing how it feels in your body and heart.
  1. Try to get an image for your feelings. It could be a child part of you, an animal, an inanimate object . . . anything. Open your heart to this image, as an ideal loving parent would view their child or as you imagine a loving God would view you.
  1. Ask the image what it has to tell you. There is usually an important message in strong feelings. Then ask what it needs from you. It may need to be comforted or protected; it may need safety or reassurance, or simply to be held as it cries. It may have believed something that isn’t true, for example, that it is unlovable, and need your wiser perspective.
  1. Notice any changes that occur in the image as you attend to its message and give it what it needs. Don’t rush. Rather, allow the experience to unfold as it will.
  1. Open your eyes and record what you learned in your journal.

References

  1. Dalai Lama XIV & Cutler HC. The Art of Happiness. Riverhead Books, 1999, p. 44.
  2. The exercise here is taken from the author’s experiences with a form of psychotherapy called psychosynthesis.  A roster of psychosynthesis counselors in the US is available here.
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