Deepening self-compassion

Dr James Kirby


 NOTE: This transcript may have been automatically generated using software and, as such, may not be completely accurate.

Hi, my name is James and today we’re going to work on a new exercise called “Deepening Our Compassion Itself”. This exercise takes a little bit of time and incorporates a number of the skills and exercises we have been developing. It actually builds directly from the exercise “Building The Compassion Itself”.

In the first exercise of “Building The Compassion Itself” we focus on the qualities of compassion, those being wisdom, strength and commitment. Then like an actor, we imagined we were this compassion itself, imagining how we would look, walk, speak and what our posture would be. We also looked at how this compassion itself is a pattern we can generate in our mind with practice. It helps organize how we see the world, ourselves and others.

Often other patterns easily arise within us and they come from our threat system, like angry self or anxious self or critical self, and they will try to come in and run the show. But with practice and cultivation, we can deliberately start to generate our compassion itself, which helps create a sense of calmness and stability.

Now let’s see if we can take these skills and deepen them. There are six basic qualities that relate to developing our ability to engage with suffering and distress. First comes the courage to engage with this suffering rather than avoid, turn away, or closed down. And then we dedicate ourselves to alleviate suffering and distress. So courage here is the sense of “this is something I want to try and do. This is something I want to try and help with. I care for your well-being. And this is the first quality. Having the motivation to care for well-being in you and that of others.

The second quality therefore is learning to pay attention. Learning to pay attention to suffering within ourselves and others. So we begin to note the feelings that flow through us. We become mindful of our thoughts and feelings. We become mindful when we are angry, anxious or critical. We don’t act on those things without awareness. When we become more mindful and aware of what our patterns are, what our mind and body is doing, we can have a sense of sympathy for that. And that’s the third quality. We can be aware of the pain that might be within us or within others. The sense of sympathy can be quite automatic.

And then we start to develop an ability to tolerate that pain, the fourth quality. This is where the courageous element of compassion comes in, where we make the decision to learn how to tolerate stress rather than to avoid it. Now here it is not all or nothing, not black or white. Learning how to tolerate distress means small steps. Learning to tolerate a little bit and then a little bit more. Just gradually building up to being able to deal with whatever it is that we need to deal with. Making sure we’re treating ourselves kindly along the way. how to be committed to address suffering, pay attention to suffering, and learn how to work with the feelings of suffering, whatever it is.

The fifth quality is empathy. Now there are many aspects to this, and that is beginning to make sense of what it is we feel. Trying to understand what it is we are feeling, or what others are feeling. Trying to understand what is going on in the mind of others, and what is going on in our own mind. So for example, if we become angry with somebody, we might recognise that anger might be a sense of upset or hurt or disappointment or a feeling of unheard. Empathy allows us to move behind the scenes. We can see what sits behind our emotions.

Let’s take this a little further. So suppose a friend of yours has had a major loss and you phone them up and they say to you, “Look, I’m feeling upset right now and I don’t want to talk to anybody.”

And then they put the phone down. If you are able to empathize with this person, you recognize that they are upset.

And they’re putting the phone down on you is not personal. It is not an attack on you. It is because of the state that they are in. If on the other hand you struggle with empathy, then you might take it as a personal insult.

Because we aren’t really able to see what is sitting behind the hurt, what is sitting behind this person’s behaviour.

When we start to develop empathy, we begin to recognise that people respond to things in the world because of motivations and feelings that are going on behind the scenes. Some people might get angry and lash out, because underneath they have been very hurt, maybe as a child, or they are very frightened of rejection.

Empathy is not always easy. Sometimes we have to really try hard to imagine what it is like to be in the shoes of another person. And sometimes we need to try hard to think, “Now why did I react like that?” “What is really behind this?” “Why did this make me so upset?”

But if we have a compassionate orientation to this practice, it gets easier.

And this quality is what we call non-judgment. What this means is we aren’t criticising or condemning the process, our actions, or what we did. We aren’t criticising what we feel or what other people feel. We learn to have an acceptance and be open, and that’s the sixth quality.

So the first element of compassion involves those six important attributes, and they don’t happen step by step. They’re very interdependent and occur in different ways for different people, but the Six attributes include having a motivation to care for your well-being and that of others, having a sensitivity or paying attention to suffering within us and others, sympathy, being moved by this suffering to wanting to do something, distress tolerance, learning how to tolerate difficult emotions and thoughts which are very difficult to sit with, empathy, being able to see what is sitting behind the scenes of this person’s hurt or your own, Why did we react like that? With anger and so quickly.

And all the time in doing so we are being non-judgmental or non-condemning, and rather being open and curious as to what has happened or is happening. And we can practice these things. So now let us turn our attention to the qualities of action, the second key part of compassion, the alleviation or prevention of suffering. Compassion isn’t just about alleviating suffering in the moment, it is also about drawing upon our wisdom, courage and commitment to prevent future suffering from happening for ourselves and for others. And there are six skills we can develop here.

So first, we begin to pay attention to what it is that would be helpful in this moment.

Attention is the first step. What can we bring to mind that would be helpful with whatever it is we are trying to deal with or helpful for somebody else? So let’s look at an example here that might be helpful.

Imagine you went to the doctors as you had a broken arm. And you have a doctor who is very empathic. They have all those qualities we have spoken about. They are sensitive, they’re kind and non-judgmental. They have sympathy and empathy for you. And they have the ability to sit with your distress. That’s great.

But sooner or later you are going to want them to do something to help alleviate your pain and to fix your arm. So this is the taking action, the action component of compassion. So you want them to start to pay attention, to use their knowledge and their wisdom to help you.

So then, when we engage in suffering, we just don’t sit there experiencing suffering and experiencing suffering. We also think to ourselves, what would be useful here? What would be helpful? So the second skill is we can use ways of thinking and reasoning to help. We can check whether our thinking is black or white, or can we see the grey? Have we over personalised what has happened rather than trying to understand what is behind the scenes? We can check whether we have caught up in a depressive way of thinking or an anxious way of thinking.

We can also focus on helpful behaviour, the third skill. Sometimes this requires us to develop courage, so if we are someone who struggles with fears of going outside, compassionate behaviour isn’t sitting at home, soothing ourselves, being empathic for our distress. It is doing that but also recognising that it is about having the courage to go outside, step by step, using our body posture, facial expression, friendly encouraging inner tone of voice, using our soothing rhythm breathing, trying the best we can with what we find difficult. So compassionate behaviour is not about soothing away distress but by developing the kindness, the support and the encouragement to engage with it, to deal with and if possible alleviated. And if that is not possible, on how to accept it.

The fourth skill is recognizing feelings. Feelings are also very important for compassionate action, but those feelings can vary. Sometimes our compassionate feelings are ones of kindness and gentleness, soothing and being helpful. times they are action feelings. So for example, just say you are rescuing a child from a burning house, you may have an experience of anxiety or fear as you run into the burning house to save the child.

At that point you are not having an emotional experience of soothing calm, rather you have an activated anxiety, but in so doing with clarity of mind that can determine how to skillfully save the child. So your emotion is congruent and appropriate for the actions you need to take.

The fifth skill is noticing the sensory qualities of the experience, particularly in our bodies. So we have seen how we can train ourselves in compassion by practicing slowing down, by focusing on soothing rhythm breathing, our compassionate postures, our inner tone. This helps us find the point of stillness and stability, it helps ground us and slows a stamp and helps us become mindful of the pattern of mind we are engaging with. So for example, is it anxious self, angry self or compassion itself?

And we can also practice with imagery the sixth step, really thinking about and imagining how we would be if we were at our compassionate best. So when things arise we can imagine on how we would ideally like to respond and deal with what is arising in our mind or in the mind of others.

Now of course we may well struggle to do this, it is very hard to be the ideal that we would like to be, but we can make an effort to move towards this compassionate motivation. It is like it is on the horizon and we are always moving towards it.

At times we might experience being in a deep valley or being struggling up a mountainous range which is difficult but we are always moving towards this compassionate orientation. It is our motivation, our intention, the way we want to organize our minds. So that is the second element of compassion, the dedication or action part which involve those six skills of attention, thinking and reasoning, behavior, feelings and emotions, sensory qualities and also imagery. And these are all the skills that help us start to build that compassion itself. So that is the more complex, detailed understanding of compassion.

So then the compassion itself is a way of being in the world.

It takes practice and we are constantly building the qualities and skills needed to help us and others as best we can. And if we can just take small steps towards these, it can start to make subtle differences – to how you relate to yourself and to others. So small changes can be very helpful.

For example, try to think what is a small step I can take each day to build my compassion itself. Doing something slightly different. If you are walking along the road, notice your facial expressions. If you get on a bus or train, try smiling at people. At work, ask people how they are. Make a genuine interest in what they say. Small steps, small differences, but they can be very helpful.

When we start building this compassion itself in everyday life, it becomes much easier to then apply it and draw it on times when we really need it, like when we are dealing with our own self criticism and life difficulties.

To begin with, it might be helpful to try and to build your compassion itself with a simple morning routine.

So when you wake, try to engage with your soothing rhythm breathing for a moment or two. And then welcome yourself to the day. So bring your half smile to your face and use your friendly voice tone. Hello James. And then just for a minute or two, imagine how your day would look if you were at your compassionate best. How would you talk? How would you respond to others? How would you act? And how would you feel? And just try to do that as you begin each day. Not slowly, maybe every third or second day to begin with gradually building up to every day. When we welcome ourselves in this way, we are giving ourselves the best chance to be at our compassionate best.

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