Are you on our own side? I don’t mean are you on your own side against other people, but rather: Are you consistently loyal to your own well-being and highest good? Are you self-forgiving and patient with yourself when you make mistakes, or are you more inclined to be angry and self-punitive? When you go through difficult times do you respond to your own suffering with acceptance and self-compassion, or with self-blame and guilt? Do you regard yourself as your closest friend, or are there times when you treat yourself as an enemy? These are important questions. Recently in this column I reported on research which suggests that self-compassion is more important than self-esteem in creating resilience and emotional well-being.
But the human mind has an amazing capacity to turn against itself. One of the effects of growing up in a competitive and individualistic society such as ours is that almost everyone in our culture seems to have an “inner critic” which relentlessly evaluates our performance in the tasks of life, and consistently finds it deficient. I believe that the attacks of this inner critic contribute to a myriad of problems – anxiety and depression, dissatisfaction and despair, addictions and compulsions, and on and on. In addition, when we turn against ourselves, we lose motivation to overcome our own suffering or protect ourselves from abuse at the hands of others. We may also feel that we aren’t worth the effort to try to meet our goals and achieve our dreams. It is also possible that gay people may be especially vulnerable to acquiring the habit of harsh self-criticism because so many of us have grown up with a conviction of our own “basic badness” – a sense that in some vaguely understood way we’re out of step and not who we’re supposed to be. Even for those of us who have long ago come to terms with our sexual orientation, our inner critics often continue the habit of telling us that we’re unlovable or unworthy of respect because we’re less valuable than others in some undefined way.
But the good news in all of this is that, just as self-denigration is learned behavior, self-compassion is also a skill which can be taught and learned. I’ve become convinced that meditation and concentration techniques exist, which, when practiced regularly, can do much to make us friendlier to ourselves. I call these “heartfulness practices” because they all originate in the intention to hold oneself in one’s own heart, and to develop a loving acceptance of one’s own experience. All of the practices are based on the ancient Buddhist idea that we develop the kinds of qualities we want to have by deliberately “inclining the mind” in their direction.
Here’s a brief description of a heartfulness practice that I have been finding especially helpful with anxious patients:
Sit in a relaxed posture and close your eyes. Imagine that, behind you and slightly above your head, are beings who love you and wish you well. These beings can be family or friends; they can be spiritual figures; they can even be purely imaginary beings or pets who have a special love for you. These beings have your back. Imagine them radiating love and compassion into you. Bask in that warmth like a puppy lying on a rug in the sunlight. Once you’ve evoked feelings of comfort and safety, bring to mind a specific worry you may be currently having, such as concerns about your health or finances. Imagine that your loving beings are sending love in the form of compassion into the heart of your worry. You might go through several worries in this way. If your brain pairs the worry with the experience of being loved and cared for, you will find that the intensity of the anxiety diminishes. At the end of the practice, let go of visualizing both your worries and the loving beings, and spend a few minutes basking in the soft glow of compassion and safety which the practice has evoked.
Regular practitioners find that, once they are intimately familiar with the bodily experience of self-compassion they can evoke that felt sense at will, and once that skill is developed, it becomes possible to take regular heartfulness pauses throughout the day. This simple practice involves briefly stopping whatever you’re doing, taking a few deep breaths, noticing whatever you’re sensing and feeling right now, and then deliberately holding it in compassion and acceptance. This simple practice can do much to lower stress, clear the mind, and reset our intention to live with self-compassion.
I am so convinced of that value of heartfulness practice that I am starting a heartfulness skills training group with my colleague and intern, Mark Sponseller. The group will meet on Thursday evenings, and in each session we’ll introduce and practice a new heartfulness practice. Anyone who feels they might benefit from being a part of this group should feel free to contact me at (415) 626-1346.