You, yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection. Buddha
I spent 6 weeks in retreat before Christmas. One of the insights that really struck me is that when I experience problems or difficulties in relations to situations or people if I am the problem then that is really good news and potentially more liberating. It is liberating because I can more easily do something about myself rather than waste my energy trying to change a situation that seems inevitable or try to change another person – in short if we know how, we can always do something about ourselves. (How often have we observed that when we change our perspective or attitude towards a situation or a person it all seems different?)
What I noticed is that when I am feeling vulnerable my automatic tendency is to try to defend myself from both my own acknowledgement of it and as a consequence from exposing myself to the other person. Vulnerability takes us to that tender edge, an edge we have not yet fully listened to, dialogued with or understood.
Mindfulness reveals to us that our initial experience of vulnerability is felt in the body. The tightness in shoulders, heart region, solar plexus or the sensation of crawling skin, all of which signal danger and beg us to recoil. This vulnerability may also touch into historical wounds of fear, shame, guilt, anger etc from which the body would naturally want to recoil. This is an understandable response because what is being activated is our threat system of fight, flight or freeze. While the threat system’s strategies can be deeply uncomfortable, their purpose is to protect us from real or imagined dangers.
However, the protective function of the threat system comes at a cost. Because of its primitive instinctual nature, it acts automatically and without regard to the awareness or history of the person in whom it is aroused and can quickly catapult us into fear and anxiety. This in turn leads into cycles of anxious thoughts, impulsivity and fear. Trapped into such cycles rather than engaging with them mindfully and compassionately, we inevitably become alienated from ourselves. This alienation cuts us off from awareness of our body, stunts our vitality and inhibits the flow and pulse of life.
A sense of alienation is at the root of so much of our unnecessary but regrettably habitual pain. All too often the sense of alienation can turn into an attack on our physical being as powerfully illustrated in this piece https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pqknd1ohhT4 or psychologically we speak to ourselves in a way we would never speak to another person. The vulnerable and life-giving parts of ourselves are exiled out of our consciousness and we feel disconnected from our body, left only with repetitive and circular thinking caught in a narrow bubble of awareness.
Vulnerability held in the tender arms of compassion is the doorway to freedom and courage. A good friend who has been embracing a self-compassion practice for some time shared with me an experience she had in respect to a difficulty she was having with a friend recently. After grappling for a few days with hurt associated with an event in the friendship and oscillating between anger towards herself and recrimination towards her friend she opened the conversation with the acknowledgement that ‘she was really scared’. In embracing her fear and then acknowledging and sharing it with her friend she immediately noticed how her own body relaxed (as also did her friend’s!). The conversation then took a different turn. She experienced an openness and courage that felt new to her. The conversation was more robust and they both left feeling more understood and understanding, and she felt that the friendship not only survived but deepened.
My friend also shared that she always felt that courage was the absence of fear. What she was learning ‘in her bones’ from her self-compassion practice was that courage was not the absence of fear rather the full embracing of it. She could now let go of her habit calling herself a coward for not speaking what was in her heart!
Self-compassion offers us the resources to let all parts of us speak. It is a resounding YES to the life that lives within and around us. Training in self-compassion allows us to gradually create a safe place inside. We give ourselves the space to get to know ourselves, the bandwidth of what we can tolerate widens, the previously indigestible nuggets of our guilt, shame, fear, anger, frustration etc. are digested. Our difficult parts become a zone of interest rather than being something to be rejected or repressed. The ordinariness of our common humanity gets revealed as we let go of the tyranny of perfectionism.
I have noticed that people often confuse ordinariness with mediocracy. In fact, to acknowledge our ordinariness is to enable us walk lightly through life. We realise that there is nothing to prove either to the tyranny of our own perfectionistic demands or the expectations of the imagined other. We can finally rest, savour, muse and act. Life feels alive.
Mindfulness and self-compassion are not merely tools for handling the inevitable difficult emotions, challenges and pain in our life. They are time-honoured pathways to celebrating life, to open to the flow of whole-hearted engagement even with difficult situations and of enjoying the support that a compassionate heart offers us. It is such a relief to really be here for ourselves and to witness how everything flows from that lifeforce.
Let me conclude with the 1st verse of a poem I enjoyed reading written by a self-compassion course participant by the name of Anna Villalobos, which I think sums up beautifully the spirit of being there for oneself with an attitude of self-compassion
‘Just for Me’.
What if a poem were just for me
What if I were audience enough because I am
Because this person here is alive is flesh,
Is conscious, has feelings, counts.
What if this person mattered not just for what
She can do in the world
But because she is part of the world
And has a soft and tender heart?
What if that heart mattered,
If kindness to this one mattered?
What if she were not distinct from all others,
But instead connected to others in her sense of being distinct, of being alone,
Of being uniquely isolated, the one piece removed from the picture
And all the while vulnerable under, deep under, the layers of sedimentary defence.