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The SUN of self-compassion

Shining the light of compassion on our most important relationship

Contemplating a topic for my February blog, and, perhaps predictably, alighting on the traditional milestone of Valentine’s Day got me thinking about love and relationships.

I asked my youngest son, who’s fast approaching 13, what he thought was our most important relationship. After a considered pause – he’s a thoughtful boy - he answered tentatively, “With others?”

“Ah, yes, which others?” I followed up?

“Maybe it’s actually with the Earth.”, he countered. Wise words from the young!

“And what’s the common denominator in all of our relationships?” I asked.

Another thoughtful pause, a smile, “With ourselves!”

“Yes, and why is that relationship so important?”

“We are the ones who need to care for the planet and other people. And if we don’t like ourselves that’s not gonna work out well.”

I thought about his answer and let it sink in, allowing myself a sense of comfort and pride in this young man. Letting the sense that, in the midst of all the doubts, insecurities and self-criticism that being a parent inevitably gives rise to, maybe I’ve done a good enough job in creating space for this wise young man to blossom.

Oh, and also huge gratitude for the fact that he is in touch with, even has a felt sense of, a truth it’s taken me until nearly 50 to fully embrace!

I have been practicing mindfulness since 2013 and found it hugely supportive in shifting the way I relate to my low mood and depression. However, for many years, something was stuck. It felt like I was missing the last piece of the jigsaw.

In 2020 things came to a head, on both the personal and global level, with the onset of the pandemic. This coincided with of some particular personal challenges and a familiar feeling of sliding down the old rabbit hole of insecurity, self-doubt and helplessness.

I’d been introduced to the work of Kristen Neff a while back, but hadn’t been quite ready to take it on board. Now, seeking help for the next stage of my growth, I was ready and was able to attend an online Mindful Self Compassion course.

As I worked through the program, week by week, it was like the fragile protective veneer around my heart, that I’d worked so hard to protect and maintain, slowly began cracking open. And that cracking revealed not the brokenness that I always thought it was hiding from the world. Instead, it revealed a tender, beautiful vulnerability and power that I hadn’t know was hidden inside all along.

On one particular week of the program we were invited to offer kind wishes to ourselves through a specific form of meditation practice. First, we were guided through a reflective process to discover what our own wishes for our self may be.

That was uncomfortable, but, I like writing and the thinking realm of the head is my comfort zone, so I gamely follow the instructions during our personal reflective time. However, when it came to offering the wishes to myself in a guided Loving Kindness practice things got more sticky. I felt uncomfortable and unnatural and realised I was referring to myself in the second person, “May you ….” creating a bit of a buffer, as if I was sending well wishes to someone else.

The invitation to switch to the first person and bring the wishes to myself, in the form of “May I….”, felt excruciatingly uncomfortable. I was surprised to find a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes. I was taken aback by the strength of my response and how hard it felt to send myself these genuine, simple wishes of love and kindness.

This phenomenon is something Chris Germer, one of the founders, along with Kristen Neff, of the Mindful Self Compassion course, refers to as backdraft. It is, in fact, a common phenomenon in the world of self-compassion. So many of us have, for different and complex reasons, resisted this opening to kindness to ourselves.

When we finally allow it in, it is a little bit like offering oxygen to a starving fire. Much like the explosive backdraft that courageous fireman face when entering a closed room in a burning building.

Applying tender self-compassion and taking baby steps, staying within my window of tolerance, rather than rushing myself along, has enabled me, over time, to develop not only comfort in but appreciation and gratitude for this exercise.

If fact this loving kindness with compassion meditation has become a part of my regular practice. If you would like to experience it for yourself, you can listen to a guided practice by Chris Germer.

I have found that, slowly, the work of mindful self-compassion has begun to make a shift in my way of being. I notice I am kinder to myself. And that, in turn, helps me be kinder and more patient with those who matter to me: family, friends, clients.

Of all the mindful self-compassion practices we were introduced to on the course, perhaps the one that I use most is the Self-Compassion Break. This is a powerful short practice which can be used as a first response at times of stress, overwhelm or challenge.

The Self-Compassion Break consists of 3 short phases where we:

  1. Recognise a moment of suffering or challenge

  2. Acknowledge our common humanity

  3. Offer ourself nurturing comfort, as we would a friend who was struggling

Those who have worked with me will know I love an acronym so I have coined it the SUN meditation to help remember the stages:

S - Suffering: “This is a moment of suffering.” U – Unity: “I am not alone.”

N – Nurture: “May I be kind to myself.”

You can read more about the Self-Compassion Break here and you can listen to me guiding an audio meditation on the audio resources page of my website. The Self-Compassion Break is the third meditation down.

I encourage you to explore kindness and self-compassion for yourself and see if it may also be the missing piece you have been looking for. I will close with words of the poet Hafiz,

How did the rose Ever open its heart

And give to this world All its beauty? It felt the encouragement of light Against its being. Otherwise, We all remain

Too frightened.

- Hafiz -

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