The wonderful reality is that MSC is a way of being in the world, a way that is kind, mindful and compassionate. I often think of MSC as an ongoing way of creating balance, the balance we are always needing of wisdom (mindfulness) and compassion (loving connected presence).
With all this in mind - it naturally evolved that after the MSC program is finished there needed to be a place for ongoing practice, growth and connection. The practice sessions held regularly at The Heart's Nest at Henley became this place. I will post the discussion notes for each of the sessions up on this page. So we can all stay connected.
We are biologically set up to connect and relate with others, and if we are starved of these connections our lives are greatly impoverished. - Paul Gilbert
In this MSC booster session we shared the practices of the river meditation, befriending the inner critic and then, in pairs did a version of the awakening hearts practice from the MSC program.
Our discussion focused on the role language can play in both fostering a sense of connection but also creating disconnection. We explored the depth of the three components of SC and exercises that deepen the Common Humanity component.
Judgment / criticism = separateness, and a sense of us and them
Compassion = common humanity, ultimately interconnection with all things
Mindfulness + compassion = spaciousness + warmth = courageous presence
Charles Darwin found that the primary reason for compassion is that it helps us survive – to make successful and cohesive communities. Compassion requires the courage to approach, turn towards and understand suffering and the dedication to alleviate and prevent it. It requires wisdom and skills. Seeing the one in the many and the many in the one.
As with so many of the practices in the MSC program, working with the inner critic is a practice of creating balance. Creatively engaging with our tricky brain - the one that has evolved to have a velcro like attraction to potential threat. When it comes to the inner critic fostering a sense of balance / equanimity involves getting familiar with our inner compassion - the part of us that is supportive, encouraging, caring and motivates with the balance of wisdom and compassion. The next step it to strengthen this compassionate self, developing an inner resource of strength, wisdom and compassionate motivation. We practiced this via activating the bodies calming system and then writing a compassionate letter. Research has found that this practice alone increases our self-compassion.
We discussed Paul Gilbert's work on the evolutionary context of the threat protection system and the link between perceived social threat and the origins of self-criticism.
"Your heart is the softest place on earth – take care of it." – Nayyirah Waheed
The practices prior to the discussion were an open awareness mindfulness meditation, mindful movement and then the Compassionate Friend meditation from session-7 of the MSC program.
A common source of suffering is relational pain; the pain of disconnection and the pain of connection (empathic pain). Mindfulness allows us to contact relational pain with greater understanding. Bringing compassion to our mindfulness allows us to cradle these moments of struggle in our warmth and courage. The Self-Compassion (SC) break is a wonderful practice to open the heart, strengthen or re-establish a loving-connection to oneself in moments of relational struggle. It can be done on the spot, once we notice a struggle, it allows us to ‘breath underwater’, stay present for ourself and perhaps others. MSC can evoke positive mind states, these states can widen our perspective – bring the depth and clarity that may assists us to identify our needs, meet them or speak them within in relationships.
My past personal experiences of shame had been soul crushing to say the least. When I began practicing MSC, the common humanity component was my way in. I knew how to be mindful (even if it was with a good set of blinkers at times). I knew how to be kind (just not to myself). So including my whole self in that wonderful disclaimer of 'am human - will make mistakes', was more than a blessing, it was life changing, freedom and growth. Bringing light, warmth, courage and connection to my seemingly not acceptable parts was a welcome and natural flow on.
So in reading Brené Brown's, ‘Daring Greatly, how the courage to be vulnerable transforms the way we live, love, parent and lead’, it was no surprise that she found self-compassion, empathy, courage and loving connections top of the list of qualities in people with shame resilience.
“Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging” (B. Brown: 69). It is a very innocent emotion that comes from our primal need to connect – therefore the fear of disconnections.
1. We all have it. Shame is universal and one of the most primitive human emotions that we experience. The only people who don’t experience shame lack the capacity for empathy and human connection.
2. We’re all afraid to talk about shame.
3. The less we talk about shame, the more control it has over our lives.
(B. Brown : 68)
When first learning mindfulness, one of my biggest blocks was creating space to be with difficult emotions – my resistance to this was huge. As I too am a result of numerous causes and conditions by my late 30s I had some pretty ‘firm’ beliefs running, one of which was that I could be consumed by difficult emotions – like the witch from the Wizard of Oz was from water – gone!!!
Now days I see it as my ticket to freedom, but in saying this, I still have that palpable memory that gives me such empathy when I am teaching MSC practices of learning to turn towards and make room for the difficult within our warm awareness – part of creating unconditional friendliness with ourselves, and ultimately the world that we are part of. In this session we re-visit the Soften-Soothe-Allow practice, share some Native American wisdom from Joseph Marshall, and then discuss an article from Joanna Macy.
‘The bud stands for all things, even for those things that don’t flower, for everything flowers, from within, of self-blessing; though sometimes it is necessary to re-teach a thing its loveliness, to put a hand on its brow and retell it in words and in touch it is lovely until it flowers again from within, of self-blessing’. - Galway Kinnel
Why is it often so difficult to direct our loving attention towards ourself? I know I had great resistance to offering myself loving phrases early on in my meditation practice - curiously, it made me angry...
I now smile inwardly when participants of the MSC share their forms of similar struggles - our old friend resistance, so much to learn here at this point where things are not going according to plans. So lets start by shining a light on what the Heart Practices are not:
‘Mindfulness is the awareness that arises through paying attention on purpose in the present moment with non-judgment’ – Jon Kabat-Zinn
In our practice we are not ‘creating’ awareness as such – we are creating intimacy with awareness. Awareness is always there – like the vast and edgeless blue sky, this space can allow all our thoughts and emotions to emerge and pass through, just like the weather that passes through the blue sky. This practice of R.A.I.N can help to open to an affectionate awareness – held in our own trusting and warm embrace.
The steps of R.A.I.N give us somewhere to turn in a painful moment, and as we call on them more regularly, they strengthen our capacity to be mindful and to include our own hard times in our flow of compassion.
Resistance refers to the wish that our moment-to-moment experience be other than it is.
As the Borg leader in Star Trek stated ‘resistance is futile’. There are definite moments where it may be wise self-care to distract and even protect one’s self from certain things in life. Unfortunately ‘what we resist persists’. As we strengthen our mindfulness and our self-compassion resources we can begin the process of ‘attending and befriending’ those things in our life that we would dearly like to be different.
Where we rest our attention grows stronger – where is yours? We are always placing our attention somewhere, either consciously or unconsciously. So perhaps the question of to resist or not to resent is a choice!
In this session we discussed some common misunderstandings regarding self-compassion, such as; confusion with self-pity, feeling we need self-criticism to keep us motivated, that it is self-Indulgence and may lead to us making excuses for poor behaviour.
Our threat system is a key driver here. Criticizing ourselves can also give the illusion of control, like there is a chance of ‘perfection’, if we just keep striving. Reality is so many things are at play: genetic, social, environment etc.
True self-compassion is not about self-improvement – more about acceptance.
"Slow down, be gentle and kind to the ‘old’ brain." - Paul Gilbert
In an evolutionary context, we didn’t chose or design our brain that generates; thoughts, feelings and reactions aimed for survival and protection but can also generate unhealthy stress. So as Paul Gilbert kindly repeats - "remember – it is not our fault!…But we can choose to do something about it." A good starting point is understanding the three main emotional systems that we humans share:
1. Threat system - sympathetic
2. Drive system - sympathetic
3. Contentment / calming, parasympathetic system
Our culture is based on the drive system; our brain is hard wired to default to the threat system. Research shows that we can make changes to bring about a greater state of ease, balance and well-being by consciously practicing turning on the contentment / calming system.
The word empathy means an affective resonance with someone else. If you are moved by the suffering of someone, even though you make a clear distinction between yourself and that person, you suffer because she/he suffers. You may also feel joy when she/he feels joy. Researchers found that a part of the brain network associated with pain is activated in subjects who watch someone being hurt. When repeated over time, empathic resonance with others’ pain can lead to empathic distress, exhaustion, or burnout. According to a study carried out in North America, 60% of all nurses, doctors, and caregivers who are in constant contact with patients experiencing suffering have or will suffer burnout at some point in their professional life.
Compassion is associated with positive emotions. Based on this, Matthieu Ricard in collaboration with Tania Singer, a neuroscientist Director at the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig, concluded that burnout was actually due to “empathy fatigue” and not to “compassion fatigue”. In fact, compassion far from leading to distress and discouragement strengthens our resilience, our inner balance and our courageous determination to help those who suffer.
The formal practices for this session were an open awareness followed by an imagery practice adapted from Paul Gilbert - finding your place of peace and contentment and your compassionate seat.
As mindfulness truly needs to swim and breathe in the virtuous and nurturing attitudes that Jon covers in his book 'Full Catastrophie Living' - we discussed them in relation to our practice and our lives.
The attitudes of; non-judgement, patience, beginner's mind, trust, non-striving, acceptance and letting-go. We all agreed that these are ongoing practices, alignments of the heart more so than destinations.
"We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploration will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time." -T.S. Elliot