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Self-Help 101: Compassion

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Some days are like a running a slalom- exhilarating, challenging and satisfying. Other days, we seem to hit all the road blocks or our mind naturally is drawn to the one thing that we did not think went so well. That one thing, those little missteps sudden loom large in our psyche. We get anxious, self critical. We reach for our self help books, our daily practice, our affirmations, we vent to our friends on the phone, but we are still drowning in those judgments. All of our efforts are directed to not acting, being, or feeling a certain way. Regret abounds.

We all experience judgment: the little voices in our head that say things like "Not THAT way, dummy." "I can't believe I did that." "I should have..." "I don't deserve, etc..." Essentially, for most of us, we have the overriding feeling that wherever we are, we should be somewhere else- better farther, deeper, more evolved. Whoever we are, we are supposed to be someone else. Judgment shapes our entire experience and for many in a negative way.

So here we are, our mind judging our every move and even our inaction. Do we heap on another layer of judgment for our predicament? Or do we respond with gentleness and compassion?

In this state, all the self help practices, philosophies and techniques only serve to remind us that we are not good enough; we need to improve and be better. It is true, based on some external standard, that we are not perfect. Imperfection is intrinsic to our humanity. There is always room for a little or a lot more evolution. But we forget that those tools are designed to help us become more aware and accepting- not more judgmental. If we use them in any other context, we are defeating ourselves, even as we believe we are "getting better" and trying very hard to do the right thing.

This is where the practice of compassion for self is so profound. For it is compassion for self that gives us the really big picture, the spaciousness that allows us to be truly human and relieves us of the necessity to resist parts of ourselves or to project them on to others. Defensiveness dissolves in the face of true compassion. Generosity of spirit and forgiveness emerge. A startling clarity and coherence frames our view. As we shift internally, we might even change some external aspects of our behavior. We breathe and we act.

The primary hindrance in developing compassion for ourselves and others is the rigidity of judgmental thinking. Where compassion is expansive, flowing and open, judgment is restrictive. To find our judgments, we must be still, willing to approach ourselves and behavior as an impartial witness. One way to do that is in the meditative state where our awareness, focus and attention invites that impartial witness of self. The "shoulds" fall away or at least are seen for what they usually are- harsh and unyielding taskmasters.

Compassion for self is not self indulgence or self pity as Dr.Kristin Neff points out on her website and in her research. It is not making excuses or engaging in hollow attempts at comfort that do not support our growth.

"Compassion is feeling the feelings of others"- Robert Thurman

Compassion is often talked about in the abstract and usually thought to be reserved for others. The reality is that we cannot in truth give fully of ourselves to others when we hide or negate some aspects of our being. Compassion for ourselves is in fact the best way to really develop compassion and tolerance and understanding of others. If we don't divide our selves into good and bad, then we experience our sameness/oneness with other humans. We are naturally empathetic.

With compassion, we can see ourselves as we are with much less fear. Since so much of our energies are usually directed to NOT seeing ourselves because of our fear of judgment, a view of ourselves with compassion is comforting and liberating. Courage and patience is summoned instead of fear, anxiety and self-loathing.

For example, suppose you often push yourself toward perfection and over-achievement and then find yourself exhausted, depressed and withdrawing from this behavior into a protective or resistive mode. Neither approach leaves you feeling present and strong. It is only when witnessing these behaviors with compassion for yourself and the suffering they create that you find the coherence, clarity and power to enable you to experience and know balance. And it is in that experience of self acceptance that you may reach a helping hand to others.

"You know, there's a lot of talk in this country about the federal deficit. But I think we should talk more about our empathy deficit -- the ability to put ourselves in someone else's shoes..."- Barack Obama

In practicing self-compassion we put ourselves into our own shoes first. Then we will know how we really feel, and free of judgment, know what is truly the right thing to do to for ourselves and for others.

Kay Goldstein, MA teaches meditation and writes poetry, fiction and articles addressing the challenges and joys of daily living and spiritual practice.

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