A truce can be called in your inner war. Peace is possible. Your old habits of self-criticism don’t need to rule you forever. What you need to do is listen to the voice that’s already there, even if a bit hidden — your wise, compassionate self. ~Kristin Neff
The theme for the first week of Feast was self-compassion. If you’ve been reading my blog for long, you know this is one of my favorite topics. It started when I went to a new doctor almost two years ago. I’d had crushing, constant fatigue for almost three years and my longtime doctor had tried every test and treatment she could think of, finally suggesting maybe it was time to try a holistic approach, and admitting that was outside her expertise. I found an integrative practitioner who was also certified in internal medicine and made an appointment. After an hour long conversation with this new doctor, one in which I revealed I had an eating disorder, she told me I was obese, tried to put me on a diet that would restrict my calories, not allowing any dairy or gluten or sugar, and recommended I do more cardio. She hadn’t run any sort of tests to rule out an underlying cause and it was clear to me that this was her prescription for every patient, no matter what their issue.
The visit broke my heart a little. I went in with so much hope, and was so honest with her about everything, only to have her offer me the same old story. I was looking for an expert, someone who could fix me, ease my suffering, make me feel better. What she offered was an option I could have found in just about any women’s magazine, in any gym or weight loss program. As a women in this culture, I am constantly bombarded by the message that if I just lost weight, I’d be happy. If I just ate less and moved more, I’d be healthy. If I just got myself into the “normal” range on the BMI chart, I’d be okay.
Even back then, something deep in me knew that was bullshit. The cake is a lie. The afternoon of that appointment, I left for a retreat at Shambhala Meditation Center with Susan Piver. I spent the weekend contemplating my situation, attempting to answer the central question: “how do I heal myself?” With Susan’s support, the magic of the space, the specific practices we did together that weekend, and the community of people in attendance, I came to an answer: self-compassion.
If we think our job here on earth is to fix ourselves, we will keep looking for the broken places. If we believe our job is to be kind, we will keep lavishing love on ourselves. ~Geneen Roth
Self-compassion is the ground of everything. As Rachel says, “Before we can address whatever unrest, misalignment, or longing that has shown up in our life, we must first bring to life a compassionate and loving relationship with ourselves.” If we aren’t already practicing self-compassion, this is where we must start, and where we may find ourselves returning over and over again.
Building a foundation of self-compassion is hard work. I’ve been practicing and studying for almost two years, and I am still such a beginner. I retook Kristen Neff’s self-compassion test again this week, and even though my score had gone up almost a full point, I still fall into the low self-compassion range. One example of how much I’ve changed though is that when I started this process, a result like that would have triggered self-aggression, judgement and criticism. I would have smashed myself to bits for not being better at this, not scoring higher, not evolving faster. Now, I simply notice, work to maintain my curiosity and sense of humor. I might feel disappointed or sad, but I’m not going to make things worse by beating myself up for it.
I did make myself giggle because before I took the test I had to pee, but it was late and I felt like I needed to hurry up and finish, so my first and habitual instinct was to hold it, to wait until I was done with the self-test. Do you see, kind and gentle reader, just how ridiculous that is? I was going to make myself suffer in order to rush my way through a test that would measure my self-compassion. I still have so much to learn. But, as Kristin says,
It does take work to break the self-criticizing habits of a lifetime, but at the end of the day, you are only being asked to relax, allow life to be as it is, and open your heart to yourself.
This same message is repeated over and over again in my Buddhist studies. Pema Chödrön often talks about how meditation practice is simply the act of befriending yourself. She also says,
The most fundamental aggression to ourselves, the most fundamental harm we can do to ourselves, is to remain ignorant by not having the courage and the respect to look at ourselves honestly and gently.
In a talk given through the Daily Dharma Gathering about “How to Love Yourself,” Lodro Rinzler talked about the same, saying,
It’s okay to actually look at yourself. It’s okay to become familiar with who you are. And who you are is basically good — whole and kind and strong.
Spending the week contemplating self-compassion, the way I practice it, I noticed how much kinder I am to myself, how far I’ve come, the willingness I have to be gentle and kind and patient — to nourish myself. I also noticed the places where I still have work to do. One thing I realized this week that surprised me is how much I still use self-aggression as a way to motivate myself, a way to make sure “shit gets done.” What’s so silly about that is most of the stuff I’m trying to get done involves helping other people, attempting to ease suffering — but in my approach I’m generating suffering, and that math doesn’t work.
For some reason, we are truly convinced that if we criticize ourselves, the criticism will lead to change. If we are harsh, we believe we will end up being kind. If we shame ourselves, we believe we end up loving ourselves. It has never been true, not for a moment, that shame leads to love. Only love leads to love. ~Geneen Roth
May we all be kind to ourselves today. May we rest if we are tired. May we eat if we are hungry, and savor what we eat. May we ask for help if we need it. May we tell someone we love them, even if the person we tell is ourselves. May we open ourselves to joy. May we allow ourselves to take up space. May we be nourished, both cherished and well-fed. May we notice where we are suffering and lavish that hurt with love.