Hello dear ones,
The past three months have been exquisitely full of coaching and teaching others in bringing a mindful awareness to all the aspects of life that can have a tendency to throw us off (our bodies, our minds, our emotions, our conditioning, our circumstances….). It has deepened my practice of holding space for others with a full present attention, openness and without pretence or armour. I’ve absolutely loved every moment of it. It hasn’t left me with much time to write though! So today I wanted to share some insights on something that I’ve often witnessed with my clients that seems to truly be a precious key to unlocking and alleviating a tremendous weight: self-compassion.
Of course. It makes sense even to our minds that to be compassionate towards ourselves is a step in the right direction. But it is astonishing to me how much animosity and self-blame we can carry when certain uncomfortable emotional or mental patterns are present.
In one of the classes I teach, I share a story from Buddhist philosophy of Mara the demon God. Mara represents the darker aspects of human psyche such as temptation, desire, fears, doubt and anger. After enlightenment, the Buddha’s attendant Ananda would see Mara appear and run to the Buddha saying ‘oh no, Mara’s here, what should I do?’ The Buddha would not try to drive him away, but would say ‘I see you Mara’ and graciously invite him in for tea.
I love this story. Aside from it offering the insight that challenging emotions/states don’t actually disappear altogether even for fully awakened beings, hearing it transformed the relationship I have with my own emotions. I now see them as visiting energies that appear to be understood rather than bothersome obstacles that are holding me back. The practice of saying ‘I see you Mara’ helps to tell the truth about the fact that whatever ‘Mara’ represents in the moment (anger, overwhelm, restlessness, etc) is here. Even that seemingly small step of telling the truth about what is here (even if we don’t like it) is profoundly liberating on a deep level.
I also love sharing a modification of Thich Nhat Hanh’s beautiful teaching that can be applied to ourselves when a challenging emotion or circumstance arises. It can be helpful to start by taking a few deep and full breaths with a hand on the heart. Then we can simply say ‘Darling (or whatever name or nickname makes you feel seen/loved) I am here for you’ and then ‘Darling, I know you suffer’. I find this is an incredibly powerful practice for compassionately acknowledging our own pain as it arises and for accessing the support of a deeper and wiser part of ourselves that we may not usually be in touch with. So often we judge the pain we have and we make ourselves wrong in some way because of its presence. We often take action to compensate for this judgement. As I’m sure you already know well (because we all do this!) this leads to a series of ‘unconscious’ or reactive impulses that can never lead to lasting fulfillment, resolution or peace.
If on the other hand we can learn to tell the truth about the pain that comes into our experience without judgement (and even with a compassionate interest) we may start to experience it in a different way. In doing this, we can radically transform our relationship with ourselves. Side-effects of this practice seem to consistently be a natural deepening of self acceptance and self understanding towards ourselves and others.
It is truly incredible to watch what happens as we start to befriend ourselves in this way. I love Pema Chodron’s quote: ‘Through spiritual practice we are learning to make friends with ourselves and our life at the most profound level possible’.
So this piece of self-kindness is significant in the work of cultivating a more wise and aware presence in our life. In Western culture, we aren’t conditioned to be overly compassionate towards ourselves, so this is an area that does indeed take practice.
Just as an experiment, for the next little while, try to notice how kind (or unkind) you are to yourself when challenging emotions, thoughts or circumstances arise. Find out who Mara is for you – invite him to tea. See if it is possible to find a way (with these ideas or others) to be compassionate towards yourself regardless of what is with you in your experience. I’d love to hear about it if you feel inspired to share in a comment.
Sending love and encouragement always,
ps – I’m available for coaching on most Tuesdays and Thursdays (email me if those times don’t work for you).