Healing Suffering With Self-Compassion

 

In the past blog posts I talked about how evolution has hard-wired us to protect ourselves so we can survive to see another day. One of the mechanisms for survival I mentioned was the fight-flight-freeze response when we saw a tiger. In this day and age we know we are not going to be eaten up by a tigers or be harmed by anyone under ordinary circumstances when we step out of our houses; we have developed very sophisticated rules to be able to live in our crowded society without coming to harm.  You may have noticed that living in our society does not however eliminate the problem of stress we feel almost everyday; this stress is not unlike the stress we felt when we saw a tiger, although now it is in the form of emotional and internal stress. Strangely, we are still using our thousands of years old way of coping with this stress: the fight becomes self-criticism and we turn on ourselves, the flight becomes the self isolation and we avoid relationships, and the freeze becomes self-absorption and we get struck in our own thoughts.

In the last 10-20 years there has been lot of attention given to coping effectively with stress. It is becoming apparent that what ever that’s causing the stress or suffering becomes amplified if we try to resist or ignore it. With resisting we may turn sleeplessness into chronic insomnia, anxiety into panic attacks, temporary grief into chronic depression, back pain into chronic pain syndrome. We may feel this resistance in the body as a muscle tension, in the mind as rumination and in our behavior as avoidance. There is lot a of information about “techniques” that will allow you to feel better within minutes but unfortunately these are not lasting solutions. If we want real change we have to feel and accept our suffering.

Mindfulness and acceptance are opposite of resistance; it changes the process by which the resistance amplify the psychological suffering. When we turn our attention to the source of our suffering it may at first amplify the suffering so it is really important to use our intuition to distinguish between safety and discomfort. Feeling vulnerable and uncomfortable doesn’t mean unsafe; hurt doesn’t necessarily mean harm but we must know the difference. Generally speaking it is best to take the middle path between facing and avoiding.

When our suffering is profound than mindfulness by itself may not be enough. When we are anxious and we try to be mindful our anxiety may become worse. In this kind of situation loving kindness and compassion towards oneself will diminish any intractable discomfort. Self-compassion is bearing witness to ones own suffering and responding with kindness and understanding. It means taking care of ourselves just as we treat someone we dearly love. We have to also remind ourselves that we are not the only person suffering in the world, it is common to all humanity; and we needs to have open-balanced awareness and not get absorbed in our troubles, rather we need to approach our feeling with sense of curiosity.  Self-compassion is a way of responding to what’s happening within us and who we are in a healthy way. We don’t want to assume that there is something wrong with us that should be fixed. We don’t want to throw ourselves away and become something better; rather it is about befriending who we really are. This is the essence of self-compassion.

We give ourselves kindness and understanding NOT TO FEEL BETTER, but BECAUSE we feel pain. We have to contact the sorrow before we can become compassionate.

Resources:

The art and science of self-compassion by Christopher Germer

http://flickrhivemind.net

 

Can the brain be trained to cope with suffering and bring about feeling of contentment?

In the last post I talked about how we feel inside, depends on how we view the world . We produce stress hormone if you see the world as hostile and healing hormone if you view the world as friendly.

It would be nice to live in a world where we feel safe and nurtured. You may wonder if such a world exists in reality; for most of us it probably doesn’t.  Even the father of the young Buddha tried to create such a world for him  but he failed. Later the Buddha himself realised that we cannot live without unpleasant things happening to us; in fact he thought life was suffused with suffering and that it was not just periodic good and bad events in life. The continuous suffering from ordinary life events ,such being late for work , getting a speeding ticket , weather either too hot or too cold , seasonal allergies , burning the tongue with hot beverage, argument with a colleague etc  can all contribute to the ongoing suffering; and chronic suffering will eventually give us ill-health. Buddha suggested minimising this suffering by being fully aware of it at all times; by being aware allows us the opportunity to react appropriately when we do suffer so that our behaviour or our reaction to it doesn’t produces more suffering to us or others.

The obvious question is if we can train our brain to always come up with the right action so that we cause no or minimal suffering to others and ourselves. The answer is yes; we can train our minds to do extraordinary things. We train our soldiers to kill when in combat. The training they get prepares them to kill in the war zone, if they don’t they will put their selves and their comrades in danger.  If mind can be trained to kill in certain situations why can’t it be trained to come up with right action at the right time? The right action is generated by cultivating compassion for all living being. It is the compassion that ultimately matters and guides us towards the right action. The science, with the new technology have studied brains of Buddhist monks and who practice cultivating compassion for all living beings. The part of the brain that is involved in compassion is markedly more developed than the average person who led an ordinary life. The monks have the ability to show compassion even to a psychopath. That does not mean they condone their bad actions or behavior, rather that even when they see how bad their behavior has been they still don’t want to cause them more suffering. The compassion they show is by seeing the situation as it really is, yes the psychopath may have lied, cheated, harmed others but after seeing all that their action is going to be based on how to prevent further suffering to psychopath and others. They do not believe (like most of us have the tendency to) that punishing and causing more suffering to them can avoid further suffering. Rather they believe that change in psychopath’s behavior is going to come from behaving differently towards him so that his view of the world is slowly converted to one where the world looks lot more friendly and caring. When one feels cared for and feels safe in the world then one will be predisposed to acting in a beneficial way to himself and to others. Of course the behavior of the psychopath is not going to change from one interaction but it may give him pause to think that there is another way of acting which maybe more beneficial to all concerned. With repeated showing of compassion his behavior may change.

When one is showing compassion to others don’t forget there is also a great benefit for to the one showing the compassion. As I suggested in my last posting they act from place where the world feels and seem friendly and their relationships are better; their level of stress hormones are lower and their feel good brain chemicals higher and their immune systems are more robust. The same is true when one show compassion to themselves.

So how can we learn to be compassionate and receive/give these good benefits? I said in my last posting I will go over some exercises to enhance the system that controls the feeling of contentment, but before I do that we need to know more about compassion; which will be the topic of the next posting. Until then may you see and find the world friendly.

Resources

The Compassionate Mind by Paul Gilbert

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