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Mindfulness and Compassion

Mindfulness and Compassion

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people will not feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It is not just in some of us; it is in everyone and as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give others permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.” – Marianne Williamson

We humans have a terrible tendency to instinctively fight negative experiences and find fault in ourselves when things go wrong: “This shouldn’t be happening!” “What’s the matter with me!?” Unfortunately, this tendency just adds stress to our lives and the critical self-talk defeats us before we know what’s happening. For example, the more we struggle to fall asleep, the harder it is to sleep; fighting with anxiety makes us feel worried all the time; and blaming ourselves for feeling bad just makes us depressed. But what would happen if, instead, you took a moment to calm and comfort yourself when you felt bad, just because you felt bad—much like you’d do for others? In other words, what if you learned the art of mindful self-compassion?

The science behind mindfulness and compassion

New neurological research is showing that the results of practising self-compassion are real and measurable. It has been shown, for example, that the vagus nerve (the longest nerve in the body going from the brain and down through all the major organs) controls inflammation in the body. Inflammation is one of the major contributors to aging of the body and plays a key role in illness and disease. We think of it as arises after injury, as when we cut a finger – but inflammation is also a side effect of unhealthy lifestyle factors – like poor diet, drinking, stress, etc. It plays a key role in heart disease, some cancers, and in fact it is involved in just about every serious disease we know of in western medicine. Indeed, it is one the ‘Major Agers’, which are phenomena that most cause aging. So much so, in fact, that many gerontologists believe that if science could develop a powerful body-wide anti-inflammatory drug then the average person would live until they were around 150 years old.

New research is finding that people have different vagus nerve activity, or what is sometimes called, ‘vagal tone’. Think of it like muscle tone. A person who exercises regularly might enjoy good muscle tone and similarly a person who exercises or does meditation, yoga or tai chi, might enjoy good vagal tone. Recently, a link has been identified between the vagus nerve and compassion. In recent studies it has been found that people who are most compassionate were found to have the highest vagal tone (and vice versa). Dacher Keltner, psychology professor at Berkley, calls these people ‘vagal superstars’. According to much of his research, the association between the vagus nerve and compassion is very strong. So could training ourselves to be more compassionate actually train the vagus nerve and reduce inflammation in the body? In a 2009 study, scientists at Emory University School of Medicine, trained 33 people in a compassion meditation, which involved the structured generation of feelings of compassion on a daily basis, and compared them with a group of 28 people who didn’t do the meditation. After 6 weeks those who did the compassion meditation had much lower levels of inflammation in their bodies than those who didn’t.

Me? Self-compassion? Sounds a bit silly, even a bit embarrassing!

Well self-compassion is a skill that can be learned by anyone, even those who didn’t receive enough affection in childhood or who find it embarrassing to be kind to themselves. Self-compassion is actually a courageous mental attitude that stands up to harm—the harm that we inflict on ourselves every day by overworking, overeating, overanalysing, and overreacting. With mindful self-compassion, we’re better able to recognise when we’re under stress and face what’s happening in our lives (mindfulness) and to take a kinder and more sustainable approach to life’s challenges. Self-compassion gives emotional strength and resilience, allowing us to recover more quickly from bruised egos to admit our shortcomings, forgive ourselves, and respond to ourselves and others with care and respect. After all, making mistakes is part of being human. Self-compassion also provides the support and inspiration required to make necessary changes in our lives and reach our full potential.

Research has shown that self-compassion greatly enhances emotional wellbeing. It boosts happiness, reduces anxiety and depression, and can even help you stick to your diet and exercise routine. And it’s easier than you think. Most of us feel compassion when a close friend is struggling. What would it be like to receive the same caring attention whenever you needed it most? All that’s required is shift in the direction of our attention—recognizing that as a human being, you, too, are a worthy recipient of compassion.

So why is it so difficult to love ourselves?

  • Our experiences don’t match what we’re told or shown in the world. As young children we go out into the harsh world where our appearance and talent , everything about us, are compared to others, where we are judged, and where we learn to judge ourselves. Our own family are often part of this self-doubt system – and even if they were loving, teachers, friends, and others around us can tarnish our sense of self-worth
  • We tend to pay more attention to negative experiences than positive ones. In psychology this is called “The Negativity Bias,” and it means that we humans are much more likely to remember and hold to the negatives of life than the positives. We’ll never forget the time our teacher said we were stupid, yet we ignore the dozens of things the people who know and love us see and say about how beautiful and intelligent we are.
  • We don’t trust ourselves and go looking for ways to build our “esteem” in the outside world–to feel better about ourselves by being better than someone else, or finding the right person to build us up, or becoming a perfectionist so we feel worthy of love.

Self-compassion isn’t self-indulgence or self- pity or even self- esteem

It offers the same protection against harsh self-criticism as self-esteem, but without the need to see ourselves as perfect or as better than others. It’s a powerful way to achieve emotional well-being and contentment in our lives, helping us avoid destructive patterns of fear, negativity, and isolation. When we soothe our agitated minds with self-compassion, we’re better able to notice what’s right as well as what’s wrong, so that we can orient ourselves toward that which gives us joy.

The three core components

Self-compassion entails three core components. First, it requires self-kindness, that we be gentle and understanding with ourselves rather than harshly critical and judgmental. Second, it requires recognition of our common humanity, feeling connected with others in the experience of life rather than feeling isolated and alienated by our suffering. Third, it requires mindfulness—that we hold our experience in balanced awareness, rather than ignoring our pain or exaggerating it. We must achieve and combine these three essential elements in order to be truly self-compassionate.

Go to my Mindful Self Help page for more information.

Need more information?

For more information on practicing mindfulness and self-compassion, check out these resources, or call me, Alison Winfield, Mindfully Well Counselling Cork on 087 9934541.

Book a counselling session today!

  • Tedtalk Kristen Neff (researcher on mental health benefits of Self Compassion)
  • Sharon Salzberg “Loving Kindness The Revolutionary Art of Happiness” excellent book on lovingkindess meditation
  • Google “Dacher Keltner” for more information on research on why kindness counts more than survival of the fittest