Cultivating (Self) Compassion: Strengthening Our Inner Ally

Welcome to the fourth session of an eight week series on Engaged Mindfulness Meditation. This is also the second of the four sessions focused on cultivating compassion.

Opening Practice

We begin with a meditation aimed to settle us into our physical space, drop into the body, notice the breath, and relax into stillness.

We then build off of last week’s talk by setting our intention for practice and bringing lovingkindness to someone who know is suffering as well as ourselves. Here are the lovingkindness phrases:
May you be happy
May you be healthy
May you feel safe and secure
May you be free from pain and all its causes
May you know peace and joy
May you live with ease

We end with this quote from Thich Nhat Hahn, “We have a lamp inside us, the lamp of mindfulness, which we can light anytime. The oil of that lamp is our breathing, our steps, our peaceful smile. We have to light up that lamp of mindfulness so the light will shine out and the darkness will dissipate and cease. Our practice is to light up the lamp.”


I changed this week’s talk from Listening to the Wisdom of Our Hearts to Strengthening Our Inner Ally because I think we all could use an ally right now in these challenging times. Rumi, a 13th century Persian poet, wrote, “all doubt, despair, and fear become insignificant once the intention of life becomes love.” And this is what we are practicing in this series, the cultivation of love. Love within ourselves. Love shared outwardly. In a sense, we are practicing ways to be engaged in acts of love in the face of difficulty. Self-compassion is a deeply beautiful and moving practice that supports us in giving and receiving love even in, and perhaps because of, challenging times.

So what is an ally? Simply stated, an ally is a supporter of someone, who advocates for the well-being of another. Take this moment to pause and consider someone to whom you are an ally, someone you would say, I have their back. Think about a time this person came to you and shared an emotional burden, a challenge, or a hurt. This can be a real situation or hypothetical. Imagine this person says to you things like I am such a failure. I am not good enough. I just cannot do this. I am an idiot. What would you say to this person? Would you say, Yea, you are a failure, you do stink as a parent, you won’t get that job? Of course you would not say this. Why? Because they are in pain and you would not “kick them while their down.” And yet, we do this to ourselves ALL the time!

The parable of the second arrow is a well-known Buddhist story that reflects this notion of how we “add on” to our initial hurt or pain, thus causing ourselves to suffer further. It is said the Buddha once asks a student, “If a person is struck by an arrow, is it painful? If the person is struck by a second arrow, is it even more painful?” He then explains, “In life, we can’t always control the first arrow. However, the second arrow is our reaction to the first. This second arrow is optional.” Hence the equation pain x resistance = suffering, which helps us to explore the what and why of suffering.

First, suffering is a part of the human experience. I imagine you, the reader, has had some challenges today. It is what we add on to the initial pain (of being human) that extends our suffering. A simple example is when my son stubbed his toe on some water jugs that were left in the hallway. He hits the jug and feels pain in his toe. He then proceeds to get angry and blame others for the jugs being left out as well as himself for not seeing them. It is this add on to the initial painful experience that extends his suffering. We do this to ourselves all the time and it can come in the form of a pesky inner critic or harsh inner voice. Another example, you are having trouble with your internet which is essential for your job (initial pain) and the voice in your mind begins to tell you all the things that are going to be screwed up –You are going to miss your meeting and look foolish. You won’t meet your deadline and will look like a failure. I am such a fool for not upgrading this internet, why am I so forgetful? However, if you can begin to notice and disrupt these “add ons,” you are less likely to increase an already unpleasant experience. This is where mindfulness is essential, an important element of self-compassion.

According to Dr. Kristin Neff’s work on self-compassion, there are three components that are important to understanding self-compassion. Mindfulness (presence), is one component, which counters overidentifying with an experience. In other words, mindfulness is our capacity to be open to the moment as it is, acknowledging our pain without judgment and without losing ourselves in emotional reactivity. Think back on my example of the stubbed toe. Bringing mindfulness to that experience would look something like, Oh, I stubbed my toe and feel an intense unpleasant sensation – without adding on to it, which is the judgment and reactivity. Common Humanity (connectedness), is another component, which counters the sense of isolation, of feeling alone in one’s experience. In last week’s practice on lovingkindness, we began to access our understanding of common humanity. It is helpful in times of pain and difficulty to remember that everyone makes mistakes and experiences pain. We are not alone in our experience, even though it may feel that way. It is important to remind ourselves that there is nothing wrong with us for having these unpleasant experiences because it is a part of being a human. Self-Kindness (loving), is another component of self-compassion, which is the antidote to self-judgment. It is about being supportive and understanding toward ourselves when we’re having a hard time, rather than being harshly self-critical. This is where we become our inner ally. In essence, self-compassion is feeling the hurt without judgment and finding out what the hurting part needs. For example, asking ourselves what a friend might say to us right now.

What are we doing when we practice self-compassion? I like to use the analogy or anatomy of an orange. The outer layer, the rind, is called the flavedo. It represents a thick covering that many of us have developed throughout our lives via our survival mechanism. In this way, the threats we have experienced growing up have been to our self-concept. We have learned through conditioning and socialization to respond to our emotions, our sensations, our thoughts in certain ways that have not always been helpful or even healthy. Hence, we have a protective covering. It may have served us at the time, but it may not be serving us now. Beneath the flavedo is the second layer of the rind, the albedo. This is the white fleshy part that can be difficult to take off when peeling the rind. This represents the painful experiences that we may not have processed in our lives. The experiences that contribute to the protective covering and particularly to the inner critic. The last and most significant part is the vesicle, the juice of the orange. This represents our true nature – our sweetness, our goodness, our worthiness as human beings. Getting to and remembering this is the benefit of self-compassion.

In practicing self-compassion, we begin to peel away the protective covering and notice the pain beneath, the harsh inner critic. Sometimes we can experience an unexpected flooding of difficult emotions. This is called “emotional backdraft.” Like in a fire, backdraft is the result of fresh air being introduced too fast into a building fire causing it to explode. Thus, holes are poked to expose the air slowly. The same is true for when we practice self-compassion. We sometimes need to begin slowly and gently to avoid emotional backdraft. If one does experience this flood, it is important to stabilize oneself through the use of an anchor or other resourcing techniques, like stopping the practice and taking a walk.

Self-compassion is about being with pain (emotional or physical) in a kind and supportive way, rather than trying to make the pain go away or fix the problem. R.A.I.N. practice (recognize, allow, investigate and nurture) helps us cultivate self-compassion. This meditation is about tuning in, uncovering and being a friend to ourselves. This practice is based on Tara Brach’s work. Check out her latest book Radical Compassion to learn more about this insightful and supportive practice.

Guided RAIN Meditation

The meditation ends with a poem by Rashani Rea.

There is a brokenness
out of which comes the unbroken,
a shatteredness
out of which blooms the unshatterable.
There is a sorrow
beyond all grief which leads to joy
and a fragility
out of whose depths emerges strength.

There is a hollow space
too vast for words
through which we pass with each loss,
out of whose darkness
we are sanctioned into being.

There is a cry deeper than all sound
whose serrated edges cut the heart
as we break open to the place inside
which is unbreakable and whole,
while learning to sing.

Informal Practice

For this week, I suggest trying out the self-compassion break as shared by Kristin Neff, Ph.D.. It is a quick way to apply the 3 components of self-compassion when feeling stressed, overwhelmed, sad, angry or any other difficult emotion. Here are some steps to follow…I suggest placing a hand over your heart center as you practice compassion for yourself. It helps access our care response and provide a sense of groundedness, which is particularly helpful when our sympathetic nervous system is activated.

  1. Pause what you are doing (or leave the room if in a heated conversation).
  2. Notice the sensations in the body – tingling, warmth, tension, etc.
  3. Say to yourself slowly –
    • This is a moment of pain (or suffering).
    • Pain (or suffering) is a part of life. I am not alone in experiencing this.
    • What does this hurt part need? How can I care for myself right now? What supportive message do I need to hear?

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