In the final session of the 8-week Mindful Self-Compassion training program there is a teaching and practice on savouring pleasant experiences. After 7 weeks of learning to lean in to discomfort in a self-compassionate way, Session 8 is all about gratitude, appreciating beauty and savoring pleasant experiences. I usually feel that Session 8 is a little fluffy; simply a gentle way to wrap up the program in juxtaposition to the previous sessions’ focus on learning to respond to suffering.
The pandemic experience is teaching me that savouring is more than a fluffy topic and it has actually become an essential component of my equanimity practice.
I have been struggling off and on during this pandemic despite using all of my usual self-care and compassion practices. My attitude shifted after reading an article which reminded me that self-care strategies that work during “normal life” might be less effective when in crisis. I began experimenting with adapting and changing my strategies. I had been feeling the weight of all of the bleak news lately so one new practice involved bringing spring flowers into my house and intentionally enjoying the experience of their colours and fragrance.
At first glance, savouring a pleasant experience like admiring a spring flower seems a pretty simple task. However, it can be fairly challenging to shift our focus towards pleasant things because we are neurobiologically hard- wired to automatically notice negative things. This instinct was a very useful skill in cave woman days where our very survival depended on the speed for which we could perceive danger in our environment.
This negative perception bias is even more pronounced when we are suffering from low mood, as many of us are during this pandemic. To shift this we need to focus for 20 – 30 seconds on a positive event in order for the event to even register. Intentionally taking time to savour something pleasant may help to balance our perspective as we deal with the daily barrage of negative events. Savouring practice may help to lift our mood and foster equanimity, allowing us to weather the storm around us.
Back to my flowers…I am trying to savour the scent and beauty of my lily and hyacinths several times a day – as I do this I linger for at least 20 seconds and gaze at them, I savour the scent, I feel the leaves and notice the intricate details of these beautiful spring plants.
This experience reminds me that spring continues to arrive despite this virus and that the beauty of the natural world is all around me if I take the time to look. This is savouring. This one tiny practice may not be enough, but it is a start. I invite you to find something pleasant and try your own savouring experience. And if you feel like dropping me a line let me know how it goes I would love to hear from you.
PPE For The Heart
This post is dedicated to all of the professional caregivers – on the front lines of the COVID-19 response. These are the healthcare professionals who don’t have the choice to stay home and keep a safe distance from others. Their work involves putting their own needs (and concerns for their family) aside while tending at the bedside. Providing care for the sick even while they experience the same anxiety as everyone else about where this pandemic will take us. They are charged with remaining calm and steadfast in the face of the unknown while preparing for the health care system’s worst case scenario.
So I felt quite humbled this week when my co-teacher and I sat in the lotus position in front of a room full of nurses taking our Mindful Self-Compassion training program. We were saying good bye and wishing them a self-compassionate week knowing quite well what they might be facing in the next seven days.
“Do you have any suggestions for us?” one of the nurses asked.
My co-teacher and I suggested a couple on the spot practices that our students have learned over the last few weeks – but we knew that there would be a struggle for them to remember to practice when the stress level started to escalate at work. So I suggested this little practice; PPE for the heart.
PPE for the heart is a prompt to become self-compassionate. The suggestion is that every time you don your personal protective equipment (PPE) you ask yourself – “What am I doing to care for my heart? Is there something I need, in this moment?” Putting on your PPE becomes a little prompt to engage in self-compassion in the midst of the workday.
Suggestions for on the spot practice could include noticing the breath. Noticing if you are breathing quickly, taking shallow breaths from the chest? Can you slow down by engaging in three deep breaths? Are you firmly connected to the earth? Can you feel your feet? Can you take one moment to feel your feet firmly on the ground before rushing off to complete the next task?
What’s going on in your body? Can you do a quick scan and take note of what you are feeling? As you scan your body do you notice spots where you are feeling discomfort? If you notice places of stress and tension can you then ask yourself “What does my body need?”
Maybe what you need is to use the toilet; have a glass of water, stretch your back a little, rub your neck or just acknowledge to yourself that what you are experiencing is really tough.
Finally, just offering yourself a brief little moment of kindness and self-compassion because it is so tough to do this work; now more than ever.
Thank you for the care you provide to us every day. May you all be kind to yourselves this week…..and remember in for me and out for you; one for me and one for you...
In kindness, Patricia
Crossing the Street in Hanoi
I love to travel and find the experience of visiting other cultures enriching and often life changing.
I recently returned from a vacation in Southeast Asia. It was a fantastic trip and a feast for all of my senses. Hanoi is a Vietnamese city of 9 million people and 8 million motorcycles. The city streets are jammed with motorcycles swerving and manoeuvring around each other. There are very few traffic lights and where there is one - no one obeys it. In fact, there was very little evidence that there are any traffic rules at all.
Thrown into this mix is the pedestrian. Our tour guide told us that we must be assertive when crossing the street; that we can’t stand and wait at the curb as the motorcycles just don’t stop. “They will swerve around you” she assured us; “You must walk slowly and purposefully”.
My first few attempts to cross made me want to cry. To step out into the street with motor cycles driving towards me went against every self-preservation instinct I had. I wanted to run or to retreat back to the starting point which is dangerous as this is not what the drivers are expecting.
Gradually, I got the hang of it.
I stretched my arm out with hand in a “back off” gesture and proceeded slowly and purposefully. I watched the closest motorcycles in my peripheral vision, but I did not turn my head to stare at them as this only served to scare me. It was an exercise in both assertiveness and trust.
Surprisingly, it all worked. The motorcycles swerved around me as I walked and my confidence in my ability to take care of myself amidst this chaos grew.
I’ve thought of this experience quite a bit since my return home and I believe it is a good metaphor for practising Fierce or Yang self-compassion.
One of the important functions of Yang self-compassion is self- protection; things like setting boundaries and saying no. Saying no can be difficult for a people-pleaser like me as I have to risk disappointing someone.
It occurs to me that I can strengthen my fierce compassion muscle just like the way I crossed the streets in Hanoi. If I visualize myself hand outstretched in the “no” position, eyes ahead, I can move slowly and purposely though moments that call for me to protect myself.
Just like on the streets of Hanoi, I can move calmly forward in faith that I will keep myself safe and trust that other people will be able to manoeuvre around me.
In Kindness, Patricia
Last week I attended a short workshop on the topic of Joy with facilitator Adrienne Enns (www.mayyouknowjoy.com). Adrienne’s key message was that we can set the intention to choose joy no matter what else is going on in our lives, even when we find ourselves in the midst of experiencing difficult emotions. It’s not about ignoring our pain and suffering; it’s recognizing that our pain and suffering isn’t everything that is going on at any given time.
Using an example from my own life, I recall that while deeply grieving the loss of my mother two years ago, I was also aware of the deep emotional connection I was experiencing with my siblings and friends during this time. In the days and months following her death, I often felt moved when I noticed things that she loved – trilliums in the spring, a book I knew she might enjoy, or homemade date squares. Although these moments were always tinged with sadness at her loss, they often made me smile and feel grateful for her continued presence my life. I think this is what Adrienne was getting at when she talked about choosing joy even when we are dealing with heavy emotions.
It occurs to me that choosing joy is closely associated with mindfulness and self-compassion. When we engage in acts of self-compassion in response to suffering, we feel comforted which in turn can help us to broaden our gaze to a wider field of experiences. To connect with joy, you have to be mindful of the good that is simultaneously occurring during moments of suffering – awareness of personal strength, feelings of gratitude or even acknowledgement of life lessons learned. Mindfulness helps us to avoid getting attached to our most challenging emotion when we realize that suffering is only one part of our
constantly shifting emotional state and experience.
Not long after the workshop, I went snow shoeing on a brutally cold day. I almost made the choice not to go because of the cold, a relentless headache and the fear that I would not be able to keep up with the group. The snow was deep and crisp and the trees were drooping from the weight of their thick blankets of new snow. It was almost silent in the woods and the white sparkling landscape was truly magical. All of my senses were engaged and I felt that I had never been in a more beautiful place and time. I chose joy that morning and I am so grateful that I didn’t let my earlier focus on what was going wrong stop me. I hope you will also decide to choose to joy today; whatever the day brings your way.
In kindness, Patricia
This is my second blog post about shame and I’m starting to believe it won’t be my last. Just when you think you’ve uncovered all the dark stuff, you find some more lurking in a shadowy corner. Self-compassion practice is like peeling an onion; when we start to treat ourselves with more kindness, old problems and emotional wounds begin to reveal themselves one layer at a time.
I’ve discussed my struggles with body image and relationship to exercise in previous blogs. When I discovered Kristin Neff‘s work on self-compassion 6 years ago one of the first big revelations was that trying to stay motivated by berating myself was an ineffective strategy to achieving my health goals. I’ve done a lot of work in this area and I have experienced some success. I can honestly say that I usually motivate myself with compassion and rarely ever beat up on myself. But there is one sticky area. I have never completely given up monitoring my weight and feeling discouraged or jubilant in response to the number on the scales. I’m consistent with a healthy diet and exercise regime and my weight has remained stable for about 5 years. If I am really strict with myself and restrict carbs I can lose about five pounds but I always come back to the same weight range as soon as I start eating normally. Sometimes up a couple pounds and sometimes down.
I bought some clothes a few weeks back and it must have been during one of those times when I was down a few pounds. The clothes were a little snug, but I told myself that I was doing well with my diet and exercise and I would likely lose a little more. So I bought several articles that are too small. Now every time I put these clothes on I feel uncomfortable and unattractive since all of my bulges are showing. While reading Brene Brown’s book Dare to Lead and reflecting on the tight new clothes I suddenly realized “OMG - I feel like I am not enough as I am”. Here I am, a 56 year old self-compassion teacher, still making purchases for the body that I intend to have in the future! Still not accepting my body as it is today. It’s so humbling to discover yet another layer on this shame onion!
But it’s ok. As Brene says – shame cannot survive when you take it out into the light, acknowledge it, share it and realize that you are not alone. Everyone has shame. This is our common humanity. And I know the antidote to shame is self-compassion. I recognize that I’m not alone with shame related to my beliefs about my weight – lots of women feel this way. I can become more mindful and name it when shame happens and then choose to respond to myself with kindness.
So today I’m revealing another layer on my shame onion. This layer was developed by a lifetime of self-critical thoughts and cultural messages that said my inability to make my body perfect made me not enough. I will speak about this shame with all of you and I will bring it out into the light. I’ve decided to make a vow to give up the ever present goal to lose ten pounds and this will be a hard habit to break. I have shared this vow with friends and with my personal trainer. I want to cherish and be grateful for my health and level of fitness that my body has today. I want to know that I am enough – just as I am.
If this resonates with any of you please drop me a line. I’d love to hear from you.
With Kindness, Patricia
Using Yang Compassion this Holiday
What do you think about the phrase “Self-Compassionate Christmas”? Does it sound like an oxymoron? I know it sounds strange – after all, the holiday season is traditionally the season of giving; a time when people demonstrate great generosity and compassion for others. I’m not suggesting that we throw all of those lovely giving traditions aside – I just wonder if we could put our own health and well-being on our list of things to do this year.
We can start by tuning into how we are feeling right now. Can you take a moment to check in with yourself? Ask yourself if you are feeling anxious or like you are under pressure over the holiday “to do” list. The presents to buy, the decorating, the food and the expectation that you will see every one of your friends and family within a four week time span (really daunting for those of us who are introverts) – it can all seem like just too much. If you notice that you are feeling stressed and pressured, perhaps this is a good time to implement some self-compassionate strategies.
There are two sides to Self-Compassion – the Yin and the Yang – and we need both in equal measures to truly feel equanimous in times of stress. Today I thought we might explore using our Yang Self-Compassion. While Yin compassion is soothing and nurturing, Yang is more motivating and action oriented. Yang compassion allows us to see and feel our own “inner truth”, what we value and our
knowledge about what we really need to be healthy. Yang self-compassion motivates us to be self-protective when we are getting pushed (or are pushing ourselves) to do the things that aren’t good for us. It can help us to set boundaries and take protective measures to conserve our time and energy. In short, Yang self-compassion empowers us to say “NO”!
So, getting back to that “to do” list. How could you make any one of the things on your list a little bit easier and align more fully with your priorities or values? What if you could limit your time (and plan an escape route) to 30 minutes while visiting with a friend or relative who is always so negative and critical? Could you say “No thank you” to one of the parties that are back to back on Christmas Eve? Could you schedule one afternoon or full day doing exactly what you would like to do with your nearest and dearest during the holidays? Could you honour your own spirit by starting a ritual that would really nurture your soul this holiday?
So I invite you to try tapping into the wisdom of Yang Self-compassion this holiday season. Let’s try to experiment with saying “no” to unreasonable expectations and the over-scheduling of social events that make us feel physically exhausted and emotionally deflated. And if you decide to give our experiment a try, I’d love to hear back from you about the results.
Happy Holidays, Patricia
Just one more thing…
With a show of hands, how many of you delay self-care activities in an effort to try to get things done? I’m not talking about big self-care activities like a spa date or a vacation. I’m talking about little everyday actions like drinking a glass of water, taking time to stretch or even going to the toilet. Although I can’t see you I am betting there are a lot of hands in the air and I’m not alone. As I become more mindful in my day to day life, I have become me increasingly aware of the tendency to delay caring for myself in these small but significant ways.
When I shared this observation with my friends and work colleagues they confirmed that they do this as well. Here are some examples of common bargaining tactics that I use with myself: “Just need to get this load of laundry started and then I will go out for a walk. Just straighten up the kitchen and then I will sit down and visit with my guests. Just finish this email and then I will get a drink of water. Just return this call and then I will go to the bathroom. Just this one more thing!!!!”
The problem is it is never just one more thing; it becomes 10 more things and before I know it I am completely dehydrated and literally running to the bathroom in agony! Somehow, I have become an unreasonable tyrant depriving myself of care and comfort in order to push myself to complete tasks.
If you recognize yourself the scenario above, don’t worry there is hope; we can change this pattern. It starts with deciding that we will care for ourselves in the midst of completing our tasks/chores and whatever else our lives hit us with. We don’t need to use caring for ourselves as a reward that needs to be rationed out.
Caregivers are especially prone to comparing our suffering to that of the person we are supporting. When we do this we feel guilt for our natural desire for rest, or to take care of ourselves. So, we ignore our needs and push them down, stop listening to the signs that we need to tend to ourselves and we need to be on the list of priorities.
Using my example, it all begins with being mindful of what my body is telling me; followed by the question - “What do I need now?” Once I know the answer I can choose to give myself what I need. Give it a try and see if you can practice responding to your needs with just a little more kindness the next time you catch yourself saying … “I just need to do one more thing.”
With Kindness, Patricia
Today I enjoyed a swim in Lake Huron; I found a warm shallow spot and squatted so that the water was at my chin. I remained like this for some time and let the warm water wash over me, my gaze was transfixed on the water as it was sparkling in the sunlight. My soul was at peace; in an instant I felt balanced. I rested there for a long time, with closed eyes; I drifted into a lucid calm state. As the waves came and went, some were subtle, some stronger. While in the water I moved with the flow and adjusted in order to maintain balance; it was graceful and intuitive. When I was hit by a stronger wave I lost my balance and watched my automatic response, which was a mix of fear and grasping. I asked myself "do I let this loss of ground unravel me or do I focus on making adjustments?" After I stopped struggling I easily regained my footing. I felt grateful for this experience and for nature because it is a wonderful teacher for me; it speaks to me and shows me the way. I caught a glimpse of understanding related to equanimity.
Previously, I had believed that cultivating more moments of balance and peace would lead me down a path to having more equanimity in my life. However, today I realized there is valuable learning when I lose my footing. When I stumble it is an opportunity for reflection and growth. And so I dug a little deeper and asked myself: how do I respond when I feel suddenly unbalanced? Do I cling; become indifferent; treat myself with kindness, withdraw, beat myself up: give myself a break; go into action mode because the situation requires this; get angry because my peace has been interrupted; toss & turn at night; internalize and feel sick over it? The answer was: I do all of these things.
My experience today showed me another way to cultivate equanimity … next time I feel that punch in my gut in response to a difficult situation, I am going to recall how it felt in my body to move in the waves and make adjustments when necessary & will ask myself what I need. And I will try to listen and be open and accepting of the answer.
The following quote by Paul Gilbert reminds me of what I learned today in Lake Huron:
“May I have the courage to face suffering where I see it and to acquire the wisdom to do something about it in the wisest way possible”
Paul Gilbert is a British clinical psychologist. He is the founder of Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT).
A Holiday Intention
It seems like it takes a lot of effort to take care of myself these days. When I was younger I never gave looking after myself much thought. I functioned on very little sleep, made horrible choices on food and basically fuelled my body with caffeine, nicotine and processed foods. Fact is, my 30 year-old self didn’t do a very good job of things. Now it seems, with each passing year, I need to expend more and more effort just to keep my body functioning and fending off illness and injury. My dental hygiene regimen alone adds about 45 minutes to my day - and don’t even get me started on the time and preparation to eat well! I don’t always go at these self-care tasks happily. Now as winter begins in earnest, social engagements ramp up and the encouragement to over-indulge surrounds me – it seems like all I want to do is retreat to the couch, eat chocolate and drink wine! Wake me up in next spring! But this year, I want to avoid the cycle of indulgence and self-recrimination that this season often means for me. I want to approach this season with self-compassion! So today when I began my morning meditation I repeated some loving kindness phrases that were taught to me years ago by my meditation teacher.
May I be safe, May I be happy, May I be healthy, May I look after myself with joy.
That last line made me pause. I have been begrudging the time and effort self-care takes; actually even resenting it. If I honestly compare the after effects of how I feel when I’ve been inactive and engage in short-term pleasure like over-eating, versus how I feel after self-care activities - there is little doubt which path is kinder to myself. Self-care activities often make me feel more buoyant, lighter and energized. So I asked myself – am I worthy of these caring efforts? Do I love myself enough to “look after myself with joy”?
So today I’m setting the intention to look after myself with joy. I doubt that I will be successful at this all the time; I am a fallible human being after all. I do believe however, that just like every other living being, I deserve to be lovingly cared for. It is gift that I would like to give myself this year. What about you, dear reader? What intention could you set to be kinder to yourself? I’d love to hear about it if you care to share.
I wish you many moments of self-compassion this season and always.
With Kindness, Patricia
The Suffering Compartment
Recently, I had the pleasure of facilitating a workshop for caregivers. I began the session by having each participant introduce themselves and list their various caregiving roles. I was deeply moved as each individual shared the family, friends, and pets that they provided support to in their day to day lives on top of their volunteer and work caregiving responsibilities. So many people relying on the 15 women that were assembled in the room! I felt honoured and humbled to be amongst such giving individuals.
The workshop focused on becoming mindful of the symptoms of caregiving fatigue so that we can respond with self-compassion; learning to comfort and care of ourselves in response to our suffering. One vibrant woman, I’ll call Betty, identified herself as someone who had very few caregiving responsibilities. Betty said that as a great-grandmother she felt lucky that most of the responsibility and the inherent stressors related to caregiving were behind her. Following the workshop, Betty approached me and let me know that her adult daughter was gravely ill. Betty said “I don’t know why I didn’t even think of this when you asked us at the beginning. I think I compartmentalize my feelings as a way to cope”.
Betty is not alone in “locking away” her suffering as a method of coping and at times it can be an effective short-term strategy. Compartmentalizing our suffering can allow us to get things done and not be overwhelmed with emotion when we need to perform. The problem is that as we continue to push our difficult feelings out of our awareness we become disconnected and less able to even recognize our suffering. The more we practice turning away from pain, the less likely we are to be mindful of the warning signals that our bodies are giving us as an alert that we are getting into trouble. When we fail to recognize our suffering we will even reject the compassion that is offered to us by others. Mindfulness is essential to enable us to respond to our suffering in a compassionate and caring way.
It’s never too late to learn to be more self-compassionate in response to suffering. Betty became mindful of the burden of her sadness related to her daughter’s illness during our workshop. With practice, Betty can try to respond more kindly when her feelings arise rather than stuffing them away in a dark and remote compartment. As the saying goes, what we can feel - we can heal. Mindfulness can be the key to unlock the door to the suffering compartment.
With Kindness, Patricia
Cathy & Patricia