Recently, during a journaling exercise, I listed characteristics that I find interesting and admirable in other people.
Next, stream-of-consciousness-style, I wrote qualities about myself. And when I reread my scribbles, I was surprised; the majority of the words on the page weren’t positive.
They weren’t terrible, and some were sort of neutral. It’s not like I wrote “selfish, ignorant, horrible hobag” about myself. But my inner critic was all over the page.
It was jarring because I’d like to think that I’m fairly realistic about who I am and also that I have relatively healthy self-esteem.
I told my therapist about this, and she guided me through a practice. She asked me to think of a person or animal that I loved and valued unconditionally. My marvelous sister, Meghan, immediately came to mind.
Since the moment my sister was born, I’ve loved her in the sweetest, most special, practically indescribable way.
My therapist told me to think about that feeling and describe how it felt.
I struggled; I rambled words I don’t remember, so she stopped me and asked me to feel it instead of trying to describe it.
I sat quietly and thought about Meghan. My chest filled with joy, comfort, ease, affection, gratitude, kindness. I was overcome with the most precious, pure love I can imagine.
Next, my therapist asked me to turn those feelings on myself.
Wow. That was something I’d never done. I had never thought about it like that.
This experience got me thinking about self-compassion, which is practiced through mindfulness.
So I sought out esteemed practitioners and teachers Janka Livoncova and Upasaka Paul to help me understand self-compassion.
“Compassion is a response to suffering,” Livoncova said.
Initially, I was confused, because I connected suffering to something heartbreaking—a death, for example.
But I thought about it more and remembered that suffering is part of the natural human condition.
Eckhart Tolle discusses this in “A New Earth.” He describes “our inherited dysfunction.”
Much of this suffering comes from the stories we tell ourselves and reactions to situations.
Livoncova explained this to me using the analogy of getting hit by two darts.
A person is struck by a first dart.
“When you are struck by a dart, that’s painful,” she said. “That pain is inevitable. It hurts our body.”
Then, the person is hit by the second dart.
With the second dart comes emotional pain.
Instead of taking the darts out and caring for the wounds, the mind starts spinning.
Who did this to me? Why is this happening? This is so unfair! I’m going to get whoever hit me with these darts!
My thoughts about what I wrote in my journal caused suffering, like the second dart.
Why did I just write these words about myself? What does this mean? I must hate myself deep down. This is an upsetting thing. This is something I need to fix.
That’s a relatively simple example, but as I’ve written before, the thoughts in our heads are not our true selves, and the ego thrives on the negative stories we tell ourselves.
“There are so many ways we create our own suffering,” Paul said. “It’s not necessarily that we are doing that purposely … We live with this notion that the way out of suffering is to keep in all the good stuff and keep out the bad stuff.”
Livoncova and my therapist echoed these ideas. We don’t like to be uncomfortable. We definitely don’t want to suffer.
My mindfulness practice has helped me identify negative self-talk. But I generally catch myself in midthought. And, more often than not, I judge myself for having the thoughts.
Livoncova said that judgment is an attempt to avoid suffering, but it only adds to it.
I’ve been working on mindfulness and meditation for years now, and I still struggle with a central part of the practice: acceptance.
“The experience of compassion—it’s acceptance of everything as it is,” Paul said.
It’s accepting that you’ve been hit by two darts. It’s treating and enduring the reality of the situation in each moment.
“It feels unbearable, but I can be with everything for one breath,” Livoncova said. “It’s when we say … ‘I cannot bear this’ [that suffering comes].”
The good news, which both Livoncova and Paul noted, is that, through practice, we can become more compassionate toward ourselves and others.
I think the reason I’ve struggled with this so far is because I was thinking too much. I was struggling to find the answer with my brain.
“Mindfulness cannot be … learned by reading a book or talking about it,” Livoncova said. “Through experience, it can be realized.”
Paul also expressed that practicing compassion is more about the feeling. We may use words to try to describe the experience, but we should practice turning our attention to the feelings, just as my therapist had me do.
One of the meditation practices that can cultivate compassion is loving-kindness, which I wrote about here.
The words said and thought during this type of practice may vary. And although it’s nice to think that if we just repeat the words, self-compassion will somehow appear, that’s not how it works.
“It’s not about saying the words, it’s about the experience,” Paul said.
The reminder to focus on the feeling—like the wonderful sensation I have when I think about my sister—is paramount.
I can easily summon that fondness and warmth when I think about her.
So, if you need me, I’ll be practicing sitting with that feeling and directing it toward myself.
What would happen if we all learned to do that?
The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.