Several years ago, I began the journey of understanding, embracing, and living the practice of compassion. It seemed a natural progression to take in my quest to be a better, more enlightened person. I did my best to set aside 10 minutes every day to open my heart with compassion to my family, my friends, my community, and especially any person with whom I might be experiencing difficulties. I learned to see more clearly the struggles of other people and how those struggles might be influencing their behavior. I touched the place within my heart that wants nothing but the best for all beings. I looked for, and always found, the spark of light within others, the part of them that wants all the same things I want ~ love, happiness, peace, and fulfillment of our dreams.
As my practice of compassion evolved, so did my sense of patience, my willingness to forgive, and my hesitation to judge too quickly or too harshly. I found myself less fearful, less distrustful, and all around more open to receiving and giving the blessings of human connection. I was quite pleased with the fruits of my compassionate practice. But, as so often is the case, just when I was feeling comfortable with my practice, the universe gave me a little nudge to go deeper.
My son’s therapist suggested a book on Self-Compassion, by Kristin Neff, Ph.D. I was so certain my own practice of compassion was on-track, it never even occurred to me he was recommending the book for me. I purchased it and gave it to my son. The following week, he asked if I had found the book. I told him I’d given it to my son, but he had yet to start reading it. He looked at me with surprise, and said, Oh, was it for him? I thought it was for you.
The first thought to cross my mind was, wow, is my lack of self-compassion written all over my face or what? I wondered what made him think I needed such a book. Of course, now that I’ve read the book, I reflect on that initial reaction with an inward giggle. It is precisely that sort of self-critical thinking that self-compassion helps to dissolve.
Even though all my learning on the practice of compassion had taught me the importance of first extending compassion to myself, and then to others, for 2 years I’d been devoting the bulk of my practice to developing compassion for others. I had found it easier, more noble, to open my heart to compassion for other people. I would even judge myself for not being compassionate enough. Despite the diligence of my practice, I had completely missed the boat.
Now, as I’ve begun to offer that same kindness, understanding, and goodwill to myself, I am experiencing a profound shift in my quest to be a better, more enlightened person. In fact, that shift is so fundamental it has altered the very intention of my quest. I can see that the desire to be a better person inherently implies there is something wrong with who I am to begin with. Like a hamster on the wheel of self-improvement, for many years I’ve been tirelessly running toward a goal that can never be attained ~ perfection. What a different perspective I have now that I’ve stepped off that wheel.
For one, I can see and accept that as a human, it is in my DNA to make mistakes, to be less than perfect, to fall, to do and say things I’m not proud of. It’s in my nature to be afraid sometimes, as well as to be sad, angry, jealous, and so on. Struggle is as much a part of the human experience as is joy and celebration. I am shadow as well as light. It is when I embrace all aspects of my experience, my being, with loving compassion, rather than denial or resistance, that I am finally able to understand and embrace what it means to be alive.
This is the incredible gift of self-compassion ~ to see ourselves with clarity, warts and all; to understand more deeply our emotions, reactions, and struggles; to wrap ourselves in the arms of our own loving support and be comforted and inspired. It is a gift no one else can give or take away. And, it is the fertile ground from which a more compassionate world arises. Every thing we experience is first and foremost a personal experience, filtered through the lens of our own inner-terrain. Compassion for each other flows naturally from the springs of compassion we nurture for ourselves.
I highly recommend Kristin Neff’s book entitled Self-Compassion, as well as her website http://www.self-compassion.org/. Her book can be purchased on her website or on Amazon, but the website offers good information as well as guided meditations.