Dharma Talk - Week of May 13, 2013 - Are you giving yourself enough?
We must first have compassion for ourselves before we can have compassion for others. We have so much more to give once we have nourished ourself. This can be a difficult concept to grasp when we just want to heal the world. But if we take on all the weight of the world on our shoulders and if we don’t nurture ourselves, we can become so deeply involved with helping, teaching, guiding, and supporting others that we almost forget to care for ourselves. This seems so intuitive, yet many of us forget to be kind to ourselves. In forgetting to be kind to ourselves, we shoot ourselves in the leg, we sabotage our own wellbeing and therefore the wellbeing of others we are serving. We see this a lot with work situations, sometimes even in our relationships. We give, we give more, we give our entire being. We come home stressed, wiped out, burdened. When we don’t give ourselves a little bit of time each day to do something that feels really good for our soul, really nourishing, then we have a greater potential to burn out and feel exhausted. Nurturing ourselves simply means doing something that feels kind to our body, our mind, our soul. It can be as easy as preparing a comforting meal, meditating, coming to our yoga mat, curling up on the couch with a blanket and watching tv, listening to relaxing music with candles, getting a massage, running, going to the gym, sipping some tea in a quiet space, or taking a warm bath (my personal favorite!) When we nurture out inner child, we can be so much more loving to others. We aren’t on edge, ready to crack. We are softer, more thoughtful, more generous. Our power to help, to serve, to be there for others is beyond limits.
A recent article in Yoga Journal takes the concept of self-compassion a little bit deeper: One of the world’s leading researchers on the topic is Kristin Neff, associate professor of human development at the University of Texas, Austin. She says, “The number one thing I’ve found in my research is that people think it’s good to be a little self-compassionate, but not too much. There is a strong belief that we need self-criticism to motivate us. Meaning, ‘If I’m not hard on myself, I’ll let myself get away with everything.’” This, says Neff, reflects a fundamental misunderstanding about what self-compassion is: being kind and supportive with yourself when you’re confronting personal weaknesses, challenges, and setbacks. “Self-compassion goes beyond self-acceptance,” she says. “It has an active element of caring, of wanting the best for yourself. It means saying to yourself, ‘I want to heal, to be happy, to be healthy,’ and knowing that sometimes requires you to make a change.” She says that if you view the change you’re trying to make as an act of self-care instead of trying to motivate yourself with anger or rejection, you’ll be more likely to succeed.
Neff also says that people think self-compassion means feeling sorry for themselves or letting themselves off the hook, but research suggests that the opposite is true. In a set of five studies she and her colleagues published in 2007 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, participants were asked to respond to real, remembered, and imagined failures. In every scenario, participants who scored higher on Neff’s self-compassion scale were less upset by failures and less likely to obsess about them. They were also less defensive and more willing to take responsibility for the outcomes.
Neff’s research has found that people who are hard on themselves are less resilient after a setback and more vulnerable to anxiety and depression. When you’re self-critical, you treat yourself in ways you would never want to treat someone you love: beating yourself up for every imperfection, punishing yourself for any weakness, and discouraging yourself from going after what you really want. Self-compassion provides the supportive emotional environment necessary for change. She says that without the usual guilt, shame, and self-doubt, you can look at yourself clearly, make conscious choices, and take the right steps.
While the ultimate goal of yoga is to reside in your true nature, which is free of suffering, getting to that point is—as Sri Patanjali points out—a long journey. Along the way, there are small steps you can take to cultivate self-compassion in your yoga practice and in your life.
Maitri karuna mudita upeksanam sukha duhkha punya apunya visayanam bhavanatah cittaprasadanam - Yoga Sutra 1.33
This sutra advises us to cultivate love for those who are happy, compassion for those who are suffering, joy for those who are virtuous, and equanimity for those who make mistakes. Patanjali’s advice also applies to how we relate to ourselves. Cultivating self-compassion enables us to cultivate compassion and freedom from suffering of all others.