In theory, self-compassion makes good, healthy sense. Go easy on yourself, the research suggests, and you'll be happier, healthier, slimmer, too. But with America's breathless pace of living, the practice of meditating on loving-kindness has been a hard sell. In our high-speed nation, which values "doing" more than "being," exhaustion more than rest, punishing discipline more than loving-kindness, many have considered self-compassion a snooze.
Several celebrities have done their part to wake up Americans to a kinder, gentler way of life, and they've succeeded in rousing interest. Think: Oprah's endorsements of spiritually enlightened ideas a la Geneen Roth, or Julia Roberts' cinematic translation of "Eat Pray Love." Most recently, Lady Gaga, the artiste formerly known as Stefani Joanne Germanotta, took it upon herself to spread the self-compassionate word on "The Ellen DeGeneres Show." Time will tell the impact of this latest wake-up call, but, in the meantime, I can tell you a thing or two about the gal behind Gaga's caring message.
In case you missed the monster musician on "Ellen," let me catch you up to speed. When America's most beloved talk-show host asked the world's biggest pop star about starting the day with self-kind thoughts, Gaga explained: "My yoga teacher Tricia always says: 'Please try every day to have 15 minutes of compassionate thoughts by yourself.' I have narrowed it down to five because 15 drives me mental. It's very helpful!"
DeGeneres shared her heart-felt support with the nouveau poster child for self-compassion: "I think if everyone did that, I think the world would be a kinder place!" When the popular princess of pop added: "Love yourself. Love who you are," self-compassion practice catapulted from good idea to real possibility for adoring fans everywhere, as well as joke fodder for at least one late-night talk show host.
On "The Late Late Show," the incorrigibly insensitive Craig Ferguson added his two Scottish shillings: "I think Lady Gaga's right actually. I think you should probably love yourself and love who you are, but I'm incapable of that. So I'm just gonna stay hatin' myself, and be angry about it, and it feels kind of comfortable."
Jokes aside, as a psychotherapist who prescribes loving-kindness for the range of eating problems, this declaration of self-compassion not only thrilled me, it inspired me to track down the yogini who got Gaga to be nicer to herself: Tricia Donegan.
Donegan, the owner and director of New York's Bikram Yoga Lower East Side, stepped out of her hot yoga studio to answer her "celly," as she calls her cell phone, and a few questions about Gaga's five minutes of self-love. (Lady Gaga isn't the only celebrity benefitting from Donegan's love-yourself prescription. The soccer star turned Bikram inspiration has influenced Robert Downey, Jr., Chelsea Clinton and George Stephanopoulos, among other celebrities, while they were sweating it out in downward-facing dog.)
Q. What prompted you to prescribe self-compassion practice to Lady Gaga?
A. I knew her before she became Lady Gaga, and she was creative, brilliant and giving. Everything she gave out was so super-generous and clear, but then she had problems with so many people wanting to be close to her. It was hard for her to distinguish who was genuine and who was not. If she were more compassionate with herself, [I told her], everything would be clearer. If she focused more on herself, she could keep giving like she did before she was Lady Gaga.
Q. Do you prescribe self-compassion for one and all?
A. Most Americans don't have a lot of self-compassion. To be successful, to improve themselves, they try to motivate themselves with self-criticism. I don't think self-criticism is motivation for change. If it were, there wouldn't be so many yo-yo diet books out there. I think self-compassion is all the motivation you need. If you do incorporate self-compassion, eating healthy is easy. If you like yourself, you put the right things in your body, and the benefits explode from there.
Q. Isn't Bikram a kick-ass style of yoga? What's self-compassion got to do with Bikram?
A. Bikram is an extremely cardiovascular, hard-working, change-your-life work-out. I have to sneak in self-compassion, but that's fine with me. I was raised in this culture by intelligent, loving, supportive, career-oriented parents. I was raised to be super-compassionate to others, but not compassionate to myself.
Q. How do you sneak in self-compassion?
A. When you spend 90 minutes with a lot of people in room that's over 120 degrees, everyone's too hot. It doesn't matter if you're a celebrity, a marathon runner or a 250-pound woman on Food Stamps, the room levels the playing field. No matter how smart you are, how much money you make, we're all the same. You're going to become more aware of others, more aware of yourself, and eventually start to see yourself as no different from anyone else. Even if you don't know why you came in, you come out nicer.
Q. Is that how self-compassion works for you?
A. Self-compassion helps you feel more connected, less isolated, [especially when times are tough, as they were for Donegan when, six months before she opened the studio, her brother died in a car accident.] Your story is my story. We're all going to feel the same way at some point. Now that I have a three-and-a-half year-old kid, self-compassion is a huge focus. She'll find self-esteem, she'll find self-confidence, she'll do what she wants to do, but I want her to be able to leave this world a better place.
Q. Do you recommend any special self-compassion practice?
A. I try to keep it simple. Every morning when you first wake up, before you get on Facebook, sit down with a cup of hot water and lemon and think compassionate thoughts about yourself. If you get stuck on critical thoughts, repeat the last [compassionate] phrase like a mantra. Do that for five minutes, 21 days in a row.
Q. Why 21 days?
A. It's less overwhelming. When I try to change something about myself, one month is too long. But I've got five minutes. I've got 21 days. Once you get your groove on in the morning, you can do it all day long.
Q. And then what?
A. After that, it'll stick. The longer you practice, the more the rest of us will feel it. Self-compassion enables us to find generosity. It helps us give more than we think we have.
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Jean Fain is a Harvard Medical School-affiliated psychotherapist specializing in eating issues, and the author of "The Self-Compassion Diet." For more information, see www.jeanfain.com. Got a comment? Please post it below.