Of the many responses you might have to chronic pain or stress, self-compassion does not usually top the list.
Self-compassion is often seen, at best, as a salve for when we struggle with something – a vague way to be “nice” to ourselves. We are often drawn to solutions or strategies about solutions, and our pain and anxiety can shift us into an increasingly turbulent state of mind I call the "Treadmill of Self-Improvement". On the treadmill, peace is just a shoulder roll away. We grasp at stretches or strengthening exercises, or whatever strategy we think might deliver us out of our situation.
Although there is nothing inherently wrong with exploring different techniques and healing modalities when we are struggling, the real problem is when we grasp for one not because it actually improves our experience, but because our harried brain is always commanding us to do more, be better. We are busy for the sake of being busy.
So what does this have to do with self-compassion?
The path towards well-being or healing can be confusing at times, excerbated by the many choices we must make regarding medical care, lifestyle, career, relationships, etc. Self-compassion is how we move past doing what we think we “should” be doing (our autopilot) to start operating with greater wisdom and humanity.
I am not recommending that you dwell on the couch in a fugue of Netflix, despair, and weight gain. I experienced significant chronic pain for years. I could not use my hands to open an envelope or dress myself at times. I understand it is crucial to address real and pressing problems that pain and emotional stress can cause.
But I have also seen, in my own life and with hundreds of students, how most self-improvement projects fail without a strong core of self-compassion. You have heard the expression, “failure is not an option.” I would agree – it’s a certainty! Undoubtedly we will fail to meet our lofty standards in one way or another, whether it is unexpected fatigue or a surprising recurrence of symptoms.
Self-compassion, or what has been translated as lovingkindness from Buddhist teachings, is the act of generosity and bravery – we can be friendly towards ourselves even in our underwhelming current state. This allows us to get back up on our feet and keep going. It is the opposite of sitting on the couch. You are willing to hang in there for the ups and the downs. You don’t give up on yourself.
A journey marked by humorlessness and isolation will not get you to the destination you are hoping to reach.
As a form of compassion in action, I practice and teach the Alexander Technique - a process of learning how to untangle our bodies from habitual tensions and misuse to help recover from debilitating chronic pain. The practice feels like tapping into a body that is 10 years younger and purging bad posture habits. It helps us feel spacious and lighter. Personally, I learned how to not be at war with my own body and, instead, tap into the greater posture and ease that was there all along.
Combined with lovingkindness meditation, the Alexander Technique offers a powerful, integrative practice of self-compassion and self-healing for anyone seeking to tap into their own widsom and refresh their senses.
- Dan Cayer, Founder of Fluid Movement
Join Dan and Kimberly Brown, Executive Director of the Interdependence Project, for their Summer Loving (Kindness) and Self-Compassion Retreat at Sky Lake Lodge in the Hudson Valley on August 18-20.