Last month I was honored to be a guest of Leo Babauta of Zen Habits, who had asked me to talk about and to answer questions on self-compassion.
It was supposed to be a video, but unfortunately my camera decided to stop talking to my computer just as the webinar began. But Leo kindly send me the audio of the conversation, and I invite you to listen to it below.
I discuss the practice of self-compassion in terms of a very useful Buddhist teaching extracted from the 12 nidanas (links) that illustrate dependent origination, or paticca-samuppada. These are (in a slightly adapted form):
- Contact: the mind’s filtered and interpreted contact with the world
- Feeling: the mind’s labeling of perceptions as pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral
- Volition: our cognitive and emotional responses, indicating how we should act in response to those feelings
- Action: our actual responses, created by the acting out of our volitions
As far as I recall I mainly discussed the first three of these as points where we can act to create a more compassionate response to ourselves.
I hope it’s beneficial to you. I’d love to hear what you think, and what your experience is.
I was talking to a Buddhist friend recently who’s a wonderful writer. She creates amazing blog posts that usually start off deeply personal but go on to teach important and universal lessons about life. I have a lot to learn from her about combining the personal and the instructional, and in many ways I regard her as the better writer. The thing is, she told me she hasn’t been able to write for two years now, because she’s a perfectionist.
And that’s the problem with perfectionism. Perfectionism makes us anything but perfect, because, for one thing, it makes it harder for us to create. Perfectionism is like teaching an animal to do a trick by beating it every time it doesn’t do exactly what you want. What would happen if you tried to do this? You’d end up with an animal that could only cower in terror. If the animal was sensible it would run away. If it was really sensible it would bite you first. And I think this is what happens with the creative parts of ourselves when we’re perfectionists. We end up training our creative energies not to create, and we produce what we call writers’ block, or (more generally) creators’ block. Our creative urges run and hide. They see the blank page, and don’t dare mar it because the critical part of us is sure to step in immediately and say “Not good enough. YOU IDIOT!”
But perfectionism is just another name for “low levels of self-compassion.” We need to recognize this because I think saying “I’m a perfectionist” is a way of humble-bragging: I won’t do anything unless it’s perfect, ergo, anything I do is perfect. I don’t create, but if I did it would be awesome. But while there are some high achievers who are perfectionists, their achievements come at a price. Perfectionism puts us on edge. It makes us rigid. When we’re driven by perfection we’re less likely to learn through play, experimentation, or trial and error. Self-compassion is where we treat ourselves kindly, even when we make mistakes. We recognize that we, just like everyone else, mess up. We recognize that mistakes are not only inevitable, but that they’re a helpful part of the learning process. To do anything meaningful we need to tolerate imperfection
I guess I’m an “imperfectionist.” A saying that I take as my pole star, my guide through life, is “If a thing’s worth doing, it’s worth doing badly.” So when I’m writing I just plunge in. I ignore my inner critic and allow myself to mar the page. The first effort may be ugly, repetitive, shallow, confused, or whatever. I don’t care. At least I have something to work with. Only after that initial creation do I go back and make improvements. That’s when the inner critic comes in handy. Your inner critic is an invaluable asset if you give it the right job to do — and that job is to tell you what’s not best about your work after you’ve written the first draft. Its job is not to prevent you from getting started. So I review and rewrite my work over and over, and each time I smooth the clunks out of my writing my inner critic has less and less to say. In the end it just shuts up because it’s done its job, and there’s nothing but good feelings when I read the text.
Beating yourself up just doesn’t work very well as a motivational strategy, and it has wider consequences for your wellbeing as well. Constantly being on edge in case we slip up, and then criticizing ourselves when we inevitably do, is a tough way to live. People who score low for self-compassion are much more prone to being stressed or depressed.
So self-compassion is a great habit. And it is a habit. It’s something that we can train ourselves to have. Just as with my iterative approach to writing, we won’t suddenly produce full-fledged self-compassion out of thin air, so at first we’ll do it badly, as we do with all things worth doing. But we keep practicing, and get better at it as we do.
So, how do we get started? There are three things areas I’d like to focus on: perspectives for self-compassion, mindfulness, and kindness.
1. Perspectives for self-compassion
Everyone suffers. Everyone finds life hard in different ways. We all want to be happy and not to suffer, but happiness is often elusive, and suffering keeps coming along, often unexpectedly. We all mess up. Being human isn’t easy. These perspectives help us to let go of any expectation that life — and our lives in particular — should be free from difficulties. The also help us see that we shouldn’t expect creative work to be easy. As Stephen King said, “Sometimes you have to go on when you don’t feel like it, and sometimes you’re doing good work when it feels like all you’re managing to do is shovel shit from a sitting position.” Suffering — whether at the keyboard or in any other aspect of life — is normal.
Embrace this discomfort, because it’s through building your shit-shoveling muscles that you’re going to create.
Mindfulness is a form of awareness in which we observe our experience almost as if we were watching an external event. Being mindful of our experience — and especially of painful experiences — is a critical component of self-compassion.
First we have to acknowledge that there’s pain present, and this isn’t always easy, because too often we believe the stories that spring up to distract us from our pain. So you sit down to write and it’s emotionally uncomfortable. Instead of just acknowledging the discomfort and starting to write, you decide it’s time for a snack, or time to dust the shelves, or to update Facebook. And off you go; the story has won: it’s prevented you from working through your fear. Being mindful creates a gap between the stimulus of discomfort and our response to it, and this gives us the freedom to choose how to act. I feel restless? It’s uncomfortable, but that’s OK. I’m feeling uncomfortable and I’m going to write.
Mindfulness involves acceptance. In the “gap” that mindfulness opens up, there is peace. It’s OK to suffer. It’s OK to feel frustration, to feel disappointed, sad, frustrated, hurt, despondent. These things are not signs that we’re failing, but that we’re human and engaged in the process of living. And when we’re in the act of creating, and we hear the inner critic saying that our work isn’t good enough, we can be mindful of that critical voice and decide not to believe it. Just keep going.
Imagine you a friend shows you a draft of a short story, and it’s not very good. What do you say to them? “You idiot! You’re so stupid to try to write! No one’s ever going to want to read this crap!”? Of course not. But that’s the way we often talk to ourselves.
Elizabeth Gilbert says that self-discipline is overrated: “The more important virtue for a writer, I believe, is self-forgiveness. Because your writing will always disappoint you.” It’s by being kind and by forgiving the shortcomings in ourselves and our work that we get better at creating. This doesn’t mean that we recognize that a piece or work is bad, forgive ourselves, and leave it as it is. It just means not judging ourselves as “bad writers” for having written something that’s not yet good. It means treating what’s substandard as a first draft. It means looking at the crap head-on until we can figure our how best to shovel it. We accept imperfection and then go back and rewrite. Then rewrite again. And again.
What’s going on when we’re kind to ourselves is that the most mature and compassionate part of us is showing kindness to the part of us that’s most in pain. Our inner grown-up is comforting our inner child, giving it reassurance. Treating our painful feelings compassionately can be as simple as placing a hand on the part of our body where the hurt is most prominent, and saying “It’s OK.” We can offer reassurance by saying to our discomfort, “I know you’re hurting, but I’m here for you.” That might sound cheesy. That’s OK. I’d rather sound cheesy than be a blocked writer.
So next time you’re stuck on a project, staring at a blank page, or whatever your creative equivalent is, try on for size the perspective that discomfort is an integral — and valuable — part of creating. Have a mindful acceptance of any painful feelings that arise. Stay with the discomfort rather than turning away from it. Offer yourself some kindly reassurance as you shovel the shit.
Creating is hard, and that’s OK. Be an imperfectionist, and just keep doing it badly, at least at first. Because it’s worth doing.?
I remember one day, thirty years ago, when I was living in Glasgow, Scotland, and was depressed. I can’t remember what I was feeling down about, exactly, although it definitely wasn’t a clinical depression. There were just things in my life that weren’t going well, and I was taking things too seriously. But there I was, in a state of self-pity, heading home on the bus. It was a rainy night, and being on a bus in Glasgow when it’s dark and raining, and the windows are running with condensation, is not a cheery experience. I guess I spent much of the bus-ride mulling over my woes and talking myself deeper into a state of despondency. Then I stepped out into the rain, and started trudging along the sidewalk in the direction of home. I must not have been paying enough attention, because the climax of my crappy day came when I tripped on a crack in the concrete and fell flat on my face in a puddle.
How do you imagine I felt? Despondent? Humiliated? Angry? Actually, I was delighted. So much so that I burst out laughing, and had a grin on my face all the rest of the way home. I bet that sounds weird.
The reason I was so happy was that when I landed in the puddle, my first thought was “It’s a test.” I can’t say exactly why that thought popped up at that particular moment, but the notion of treating difficulties as if they were tests — of mindfulness, of character, of spiritual development — was one I’d heard a number of times. And so, instead of interpreting my fall as a sign that the universe had it in for me, or as a confirmation that things were going badly in my life, or as affirmation that I was a failure, I took it as an opportunity to practice patience, acceptance, and mindfulness, and to meet difficulties with good humor.
This kind of reinterpretation of our experience is called “reframing.” Reframing is one of the approaches that I teach to help people develop greater self compassion. Self compassion is when we relate with kindness to our painful feelings. Those feelings arise because ancient parts of the brain constantly scan our environment, looking for things that may be threats or benefits. When your mind detects a potential benefit, it sends signals into the body, creating feelings of pleasure — perhaps a sense of pleasant anticipation, or a warm glow. When your mind detects a threat, or potential threat, it sends signals that activate pain receptors in the body, and so we have a painful feeling, often in the heart or solar plexus. This painful feeling may be the heaviness of depression, or the nervousness of anxiety, or a feeling of hurt, for example. The point of this is to catch the attention of the rest of your mind, so that you can bring heightened awareness to the threat or benefit.
Falling flat on your face into a puddle is usually interpreted as a threat. We’ll assume that our clumsiness is a sign to others that we’re incompetent, and that our social status will drop, which is a painful thing.
But this thing is that this is just an interpretation, not a reality. It’s possible to change our interpretations — the filters that lead to the arising of pleasant and unpleasant feelings — either so that different feelings arise, or so we’re able to bear our suffering more easily.
- We can reframe by considering unpleasant experiences as being a test, or an opportunity to cultivate patience.
- We can reframe by considering our misfortunes to be the ripening of past karma, so that we’ll suffer less in the future, that particular stream of negativity having now passed though our life.
- We can reframe by considering that unpleasant experiences are impermanent.
- We can reframe by considering that unpleasant experiences are not us, but are simply passing though us, like clouds through the sky.
- We can reframe by reminding ourselves that there are others who are suffering as badly, or worse, so that we feel a sense of gratitude.
- We can reframe by seeing our misfortunes as being a way to develop empathy with others who are suffering, so that we can increase our compassion.
What’s we’re doing in all of these reframes is changing the mental filters that interpret our experience and that normally lead to the mind flagging up potential threats by creating unpleasant sensation. Now the mind registers our experiences as opportunities. We’ve turned a threat into an opportunity, and although we may not find that our unpleasant feelings vanish (though that happens sometimes) we’ll find them easier to be with, and so we won’t cause ourselves unnecessary suffering by engaging in self pity, and won’t cause others unnecessary suffering by acting out in anger.
I’ve recently been trying out a new meditation timer app for iPhone. It’s very nicely designed and has a lot of promise. And it’s free today, and for the next two days.
The app is called ZenFriend, and it has a very clean and, well, friendly design scheme. The other app I use for timing meditations is the well-known Insight Timer, which I enjoy using, although I don’t like the faux-wood design. Skeuomorphism is so iOS6!
As you’ll see from the first screenshot, there’s a nice blurred-out background image, beautiful typography, and nice clean “buttons” for pausing or ending your sit.
The interface for selecting the length of your sit, whether there are stages, and the kinds of bells used for the start, finish, and intervals (if any) is relatively easy to use. There’s a choice of four bells: one called “outside,” a standard meditation bowl, a Tibetan-style chime, and a Zen-style woodblock. You can create “presets” with your most common combinations of length and number of stages. In case you think the status bar at the top clutters the look, this disappears when the app is running, leaving you with a clean and undistracting screen.
The timer keeps stats that can let you know how many sits and what length of time you’ve meditated in the last 30 days and since you’ve started using the app.
As with the Insight Timer, you can connect with friends and see how many other people are using the timer. ZenFriend isn’t as fully featured in this regard — there’s no map for example — but you can take that simplicity as a lack or as a welcome feature, depending on your taste. Since the app’s new there aren’t as many people using it as you’ll find on the Insight Timer.
You can set the app to remind you to meditate at particular times. This doesn’t have to be the same time every day.
So this is a nice alternative to the Insight Timer, especially if you like simplicity of design. And it’s free on the iTunes store for three days. I’d suggest getting it now and trying it out.
Last year we had an amazing response to our Free Bodhi campaign. Until last year I was up to my eyeballs in administrative tasks, like publicity, financial planning, and even buying office supplies. The Free Bodhi campaign was to raise funds so that we could take on Mark Tillotson as my business manager, and to free me up to teach and to write.
That’s worked out wonderfully! We reached our target, and now I spend my time writing and teaching. This has allowed Wildmind to run massive events as part of our Year of Going Deeper, like our Sit Breathe Love meditation challenge and our 100 Days of Lovingkindness, which both have had over 1,500 participants. Those events have been free, and we’ve asked for donations from participants to help cover the cost of running the office in order to make them possible.
Onward and upward!
Did you think there was a “but” coming? You’re right! The catch has been that, although many of the participants in our events have given very generously, the donations have come from a small minority. Plus, people who would have signed up for our online course, The Power of Mindfulness, have (naturally enough) been diverted to the free events, meaning that the donations have pretty much just covered the lost income from those courses. (Increasingly, though, I’ve been uncomfortable with those paid classes, and we’d like to move all of our activities to being on a donations basis. )
This has created a real financial crisis, and is putting us under a lot of strain. Our costs have increased because we have more staffing costs, and our income hasn’t gone up much. It looks like we’ll make it into early June, but whether we’ll be able to keep running our activities (the free meditation events, the blog, etc) beyond that is in doubt. Unless we can get more people to support us.
What’s been particularly helpful is regular monthly donations. At the moment about 115 people are supporting Wildmind with monthly donations ranging from $3 to $80. If we double the number of supporters, Wildmind should have a secure future.
So we’re encouraging you to make a monthly donation to Wildmind. The most common amounts that people donate are $3, $5, $10, $15, and $20. You can use the menu below to set up a donation via Paypal. (Prefer not to use Paypal?)
To help show our appreciation, we’re setting up a rewards program. Anyone who donates $15 a month or more will receive two things:
- Copies of all our new electronic products (MP3s, audiobooks, and ebooks) starting with the most recent at the time of signing-up (currently that’s our audiobook, the Power of Mindfulness)
- Access to our Lifemember program, which gives access to the materials from nine online meditation courses.
All current donors who give $15 or more each month will be sent login details for the Lifemember program over the next month.
At the moment I often find myself carrying around an unreasonable amount of anxiety. Wildmind’s future has been insecure, and neither myself nor Mark (there’s only the two of us working here full-time) have health insurance, meaning that a simple accident or illness could be financially catastrophic (and no, even Obamacare is not affordable for us at the moment).
So your help would be much appreciated. It would allow us to focus on what we’re good at, which is making teachings on meditation more widely available.
PS One time donations are fine as well.
If you prefer not to use Paypal, you can go to this page in our store, enter the amount you’d like to donate monthly into the text box, and then proceed to checkout. With your permission, we can turn this into a monthly recurring charge to your card.