A Brief (but powerful) Opportunity for Self-Compassion

The personal growth and self-help movement has had a sort of “Greatest Hits” list in the last decade.  These are concepts and intentions that are empowering, positive, and worth reinforcing.  Some fall into the obvious but beneficial …proper rest and hydration, kindness to and compassion for others, and attending to what “brings bliss” all land in that broad, sunny spot. 

Others sound obscure but somehow important. The identification and cultivation of one’s “grit,” possibly located in the posterior spleen or thymus, seems to have hit a chord.  (I briefly toyed with developing a “gumption assessment scale” (GAS) as an academic project.  Didn’t have the gumption for it.)

There’s one particular attribute that is understandably attractive, undeniably helpful, but also curiously in need of support: self-compassion.  Compassion for one’s very own moments of suffering would seem an obvious branch office of that greater human capacity of compassion — an unconditional state of care for beings in suffering, including who’s looking back in the mirror. 

In the Buddhist tradition, compassion is a heavy hitter, alongside equanimity, kindness, and joy, as so-called “immeasurables.”  These are considered baked-in positive attributes of human experience, waiting there in all of us to uncover and cultivate rather than acquire from without.  They are there to find, shine up, and live through; life’s tensions and distractions yank our attention away from that goal.

Yet we in the West apparently need some prompting to extend that “immeasurable” action of compassion to ourselves.  Some contemporary Eastern teachers who have participated in the export of meditation to the West are surprised by the need to alter their more orthodox training sequences in compassion-building when working with Western audiences.  It’s a surprise to them that Westerners carry high levels of critical self-judgment and relative deficits, if not blind spots, to compassion for personal suffering. 

“Kind to yourself as to others” ironically needs some remedial work in our culture, despite the participation trophies and helicopter parenting. 

Fortunately, there is an elegant, yet overlooked lesson in self-compassion in every meditation sitting.  It’s actually built into the practice. 

That basic practice formula, simply put: 

  attend to something in your field of experience;

  (inevitably) lose that attention;

  when you become aware of that loss, return to your prior intention with a minimum of judgment.

That pivot, when, “oh, got lost” breaks into awareness, is indeed a pivotal moment.  All of Chapter 6 in Practical Mindfulness, “Lost and Found,” dives into it.  It’s an opportunity for practicing self-compassion, or not so much.  Do we handle the return to attention with a nod and a smile, or as crime and punishment? 

Disappointment is an inevitable “spin” on intentions lost and outcomes unperfected.  Some felt disappointment of “lost my attention in one moment of sitting today”, or even many, is natural, reflexive. But any additional piling on of self-critique, vs. some natural, compassionate acceptance of one’s moment, that’s an opportunity.  

We get lots of opportunities.  

Stay safe and take care of yourselves and each other.  GCS