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Privilege, Power and a Pair of Plastic Earrings: A reflection on the inner capacity of self-compassion

September 29, 2018

MUOgF0wLRWSCQVXjJzvo5QI rode into the Casabranca favela (slum) in Rio de Janeiro knowing full well that, in an hour or so, I could ride right back out and slip into the tidy stream of life outside of poverty and danger. I felt a little apprehension at getting my hands dirty like this, but I could humor my hosts and find out how people live here and what the healthcare providers who work here face on a regular basis. I was literally “slumming” for the first time in my privileged life.

And of course, it was messy, stark, meandering and daunting as the living spaces, piled on top of each other, extended as far up the hillside as I could see. But there was a kind of spirit here that I saw in the eyes of the people. The children playing in the street, the women toiling in their living spaces and the hard-working healthcare workers in their bright white uniforms and their playful smiles and cheerful attitudes. My physician colleagues back home in the US struggle to help their privileged (by contrast) patients stay healthy and alive. I could just imagine what it’s like to do the same for people who may not always have fresh water, enough healthy food or even vaccinations for infectious diseases that we get routinely at home.

And then we sat. I joined a tiny weekly mindfulness group led by Berenice, a psychologist who is part of the “collaborative care” team in this small primary care clinic in Casabranca. Three young women and the 10-year-old son of one of those women gathered in a small consultation office, closed their eyes and dropped their awareness onto their breath. After a few minutes we moved on to the quintessential mindfulness exercise: the raisin. One woman, who had not done the exercise before was dismayed that she was only given a few raisins in the bottom of a cup. “This isn’t enough to eat!” she said laughing. The others nodded knowingly and smiled.fullsizeoutput_2051

We explored the raisins together and then we explored the experience. The group went on to share how they are noticing mindfulness unfolding in their lives (all have been coming for some time to this weekly group with Berenice). They shared brief stories of noticing their old patterns and being able to shift course and choose options that work better for them. One woman with the tendency to get angry at her husband reported that she could begin to see the anger arising and take a breath to shift her old pattern of expressing the anger impulsively and hurtfully. She was clearly excited at this new development, and there was a softness to her realization that warmed the very obvious deep inner strength that she possesses naturally. It was a winning combination and unexpected in a place where I expected not to encounter hope, joy or resolve for something better.

The little boy said he used to get bullied more but now he is able to not react as much when he is upset and walk away from situations. His face lit up when he reported quite proudly that, because he is staying out of trouble more, he gets to actually speak at church on Sundays. His beaming face filled me with love and compassion and made me think of my own son at that age and how tender and full of love our hearts can be, even in the lap of poverty and in the shadow of privilege.

And then there was the woman with the plastic earrings. I didn’t catch her name, but her earrings caught my eye. Neon bright green lacy discs about three inches in diameter dangled from each ear. My first thought was that you could probably buy a pair for a dollar at home. My privileged mind wanted to scoff at the gaudy, cheesy, cheap decorations, but it couldn’t. She told a story of a problem with “nerves” (a syndrome in some Latin cultures that roughly equates to anxiety) and she showed numerous scars on the inside of her forearms where she had scratched or cut herself over the years. She didn’t say a lot. She didn’t have to. None of the marks was fresh and there was a kind of solid self-confidence to her that intrigued me. I kept looking at those earrings and realizing she wore them with pride and a kind of commitment to her own worth as a human being. She had made an effort to make herself attractive, not for the world around her, but for her and who she sees inside. I saw her smile warmly at the little boy telling his story and could see her love for humanity in that look.

And those earrings looked perfect on her. The radiance, the lack of self-consciousness, the spirit of a Carioca (a resident of Rio) all shone through because she could embrace her true nature as a glorious, lively, perfectly imperfect human being who simply wants to be happy and free from suffering.

jTELCrL7Tkan6y+%uXbd%QMindfulness is a powerful and transformative practice. I have known that for as long as I have been practicing and teaching it, but even more than that, I could see quite clearly that what emerged from each of these people, including Berenice herself, was a clear and growing inner strength that came from loving themselves just a little bit more, and by extension, standing strong and resilient in the face of conditions that have crushed many others. It is the little triumphs, in the moments of awareness, that foster our sense of friendliness toward who we are that allows us to shake the bonds of shame and self-criticism, commit to doing right by ourselves and our fellow human beings, and put on our own version of those dayglo earrings as an act of kindness and a manifestation of our deep connection to the good of ourselves and humanity as a whole.

This is what Kristin Neff and Chris Germer refer to as the “yang” of self-compassion. The active, motivating, protecting, providing aspect of self-compassion that says “no!” to injustice and opens us to moving through the world with purpose and intention to care for ourselves as we would for our loved ones, and to proudly don those plastic earrings. The comforting, soothing and nurturing “yan” side of self-compassion is there too, to support us through our suffering and to soften our touch, but the active side often is overlooked.

This is the unique and ultimate human privilege that every one of us possesses. The capacity to simply include ourselves in the circle of compassion and to see that our struggles, our challenges and our deepest fears about ourselves actually bind us together with every human being on the planet. When we feel bad, flawed, irreparably broken and unlovable, it hurts, but it stems from this deep desire within us to BE loved. I want to be loved as much as those people in the group and as much as you do, and we all want to be free from suffering. We share the privilege of being able to honor that in ourselves no matter what we own, where we live, or what our history held.

In this short venture into the favela, my privilege, as a white, middle-aged, financially comfortable man actually afforded me the opportunity to see how those with the least privilege can teach us all a lesson about the most important privilege: to be able to give ourselves compassion whenever we suffer, to love who we are as individuals and as human beings, and to proudly wear our own version of those plastic earrings. I am grateful to all my teachers for this realization, especially those four people in that little room.
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I am inspired by my new friends here in Rio who provide healthcare to the residents of all the favelas in Rio and they are hungry for self-compassion training to help them weather the overwhelming challenges of their work and how it can benefit their beloved patients. With economic conditions the way they are in Brazil, this is quite a challenge. My dream is to find funding from around the world to underwrite more self-compassion training here and ultimately to bring MSC teacher training to Brazil to support this amazing work. If you know of people or organizations who might fund this work, I would be thrilled to be connected to them. Please simply email me directly at steve@centerformsc and I will happily follow up. Stay tuned. In the meantime, if YOU would like to donate to the non-profit Center for Mindful Self-Compassion, go here to do so.

 

 

 

 

What Actually IS a Retreat & Why Go?

August 8, 2018

Guest Post by Beth Mulligan, PA-C

Silent Retreat: The best way to deepen your meditation practice

August 3, 2018

Consider giving yourself the gift of silent meditation retreat practice. Amidst the colors of fall in Connecticut at the Copper Beech Institute, my dear friend and colleague Beth Mulligan and I will be leading a 5-day program entitled: “Coming Home to Kindness” blending mindfulness and self-compassion in a space for contemplation, rejuvenation and deep reflection. I would be honored if you joined us. hashtag#mindfulness hashtag#meditation hashtag#retreats

For more information, see the Copper Beech website.

Practicing Through Becoming: No Place For “Trying”

April 21, 2018

As a teacher of self-compassion and mindfulness, I often have occasion to hear from people about their personal practice. I might ask “How is your practice going?” and quite often the answer is “I’m trying to practice, but it’s not easy.” And therein lies the rub: practice is often not easy, even though it is remarkably simple.

But it’s that word “trying” that really gets me. Are YOU “trying” to practice self-compassion? What is that like for you? For me, just hearing the word “trying” makes me a little bit tired and disheartened on your behalf. What if you were to turn that term upside down and shake it to see what comes out. As the Jedi (Zen?) Master Yoda famously said “Do. Or do not. There is no try.”

As we learn in exploring self-compassion, if what you are doing is a struggle it is not self-compassion. If we let go of needing to get to a specific destination (“trying”) and instead see ourselves as simply practicing (“doing”) self-compassion moment by moment, we find that we are actually on a continuous journey that is traversed one step at a time, and each step finds us just a tiny bit farther down the path. Patience is the key. Perhaps you have had the experience of taking a long journey in a car with small children who ask every five minutes “Are we there yet?”. The wise adult in you knows that life doesn’t work this way when you are on a journey, and so it goes with the inner journey of mindfulness and self-compassion, but we forget that.

Is it possible for you to see yourself as simply practicing self-compassion through the process of becoming more self-compassionate? What if you stopped being the nagging child in the back seat asking, “Am I there yet?” and instead say “Here I am!” and perhaps even go on to inquire: “What do I need in this moment?”

Bingo! You just practiced self-compassion through your process of becoming more self-compassionate. No trying required, no effort expended, no destination but simply a journey in the process of becoming . . . a more self-compassionate you. See if you can stop trying and practice instead. Do you really need to “try” to put your hand on your heart when you notice a moment of suffering? Or could you just do it?

I would love to have you join Beth Mulligan and me for a silent meditation retreat entitled “Coming Home to Kindness” on November 9-14, 2018 at the lovely Copper Beech Institute in Hartford, Connecticut. Retreats can be a remarkably rejuvenating experience to deepen our commitment to practice and facilitate our journey of becoming. See the Copper Beech website for more details.

 

 

 

Meditation and Worry: The mindfulness solution

May 21, 2017

How can I meditate when I am extremely worried about something and can’t take my mind off that?

Sit down, settle your body, notice your breath, catch yourself when your mind wanders and invite it back, and repeat as needed, for 30-45 minutes per day. Pretty creative huh? That’s because I meditate.

On the one hand, that might seem like an overly simplistic response to an important question. And I have to admit that it is, but I am trying to make a point. The practice is the practice is the practice. At its core, mindfulness practice is simple, but the challenge is that it isn’t always easy.

In situations where we are particularly captivated by worrisome topics or situations, our mind’s tendency is to go to the content of our worries, to try and solve the problem, or simply become immersed in anxiety and fear. Our minds like to serve up a big heaping bowl of delicious, enticing, anxiety-provoking fruit, and we can’t resist snatching an apple of anxiety or pear of panic, when our real task is to simply be the bowl. See if the next time worry arises, you can instead notice worry. Perhaps tuning in to sensations in the body that accompany worry, notice how worry actually feels, and let the thoughts that come with worry rush past you as if you are sitting beneath a waterfall that is pelting you with thoughts and you’ve just chosen to take one step back and watch the thoughts fall. You might even practice a bit of self-compassion and soothe yourself with a gentle touch of the hand to your heart, not to get rid of the worry but just to acknowledge that worry is present and you are suffering in that moment.

This piece originally appeared in Mindful magazine in the recurring feature “Am I Doing This Right?”)

How to get your significant other onto the cushion

May 18, 2017

“My boyfriend doesn’t want to meditate. How can I persuade him to do it? I think it would help him.”

I recommend a high, whiny, annoying vocal tone and if you can muster up a few tears, that would be amazing. Another option would be to let go of needing to change your boyfriend’s behavior and instead tend to your own practice. Nothing is more convincing than the embodiment of mindfulness practice that allows others to see their own selves in a different light because of the way in which those around them carry themselves. Unless, perhaps, you’ve already been effective in getting him to pick up his dirty socks from the floor of his apartment and wind the toilet paper the proper way on the roll in the bathroom. In which case, you’ve got mad skills at boyfriend motivation and I wish you well on the direct approach.

This piece originally appeared in Mindful magazine in the recurring feature “Am I Doing This Right?”)

Meditate even when they send in the clowns

May 15, 2017

Is it OK to start out with the idea that I’ll keep meditating until I don’t feel like doing it anymore, or should I choose a set period of time?  

89b25d9549b27d2ea95dd6fe8259b19fFirst of all, to some degree if you sit down to practice meditation, then it’s always OK. The real question is whether a certain approach is advisable and whether it supports a regular and beneficial practice. I can also tell you what would happen for me if I decided not to meditate for a set period of time and just meditated until I didn’t want to meditate. I believe my average time per meditation would be somewhere in the range of 30 seconds to a minute, tops.

As long as that’s where you’re aiming for your daily practice, go for it.

But most of us aspire for a tad more practice on a regular basis. The challenge is, of course, that the “not feeling like doing it” is simply a thought that the brain has offered up as if it is a truth. But what are thoughts anyway? Really, they’re just brain secretions. They have no inherent truth or fact to them, and they often come and go fairly randomly. When we settle in to the cushion or chair and allow our minds to settle as well, we can see the coming and going of this thought stream, and we don’t have to latch on to any given thought.

Setting a time to practice (even if it is a modest goal for you) allows you to have the stability of your intention (to stay in practice for a set time), which leaves you less subject to the impact of a random neuron firing that leads to an equally random thought entering your awareness. It is the stability that is developed through repeated encounters with all of the phenomena of attention—including ideas about having meditated enough—that deeply serves us in our daily lives when we are virtually bombarded with thoughts, feelings, sensations, and clowns. Well, the latter is a little less frequent, but remember, they don’t always wear makeup and big floppy shoes. They come in all forms and sometimes they’re kinda creepy.

(This piece originally appeared in Mindful magazine in the recurring feature “Am I Doing This Right?”)