It’s easy to be hard, harder to be soft

Contentment is hard to find in January. There’s a letdown after the holiday months of November and December. Many of us are experiencing winter at its harshest. And the resolutions that we made a month ago with optimism and enthusiasm have collapsed, wavered, or become a struggle to maintain. It’s easy to fall into patterns of judging ourselves pretty harshly and with a lot of negativity. If ever there was a time to practice self-compassion, this is it.

This morning, feeling like I needed to start my days in a more positive way, I hauled myself out to an early yoga class. When it came time to set an intention for the practice, I realized that I rarely set an intention or dedication of love toward myself. I usually send love and compassion to someone else in my life, or if I do direct an intention toward myself, it leans toward self-improvement: Energy! Patience! Greater productivity! I’ve become attached to outcomes in a big way, and forgotten to treat myself with the care and kindness of a good friend.

By the end of January, it’s easy to get into patterns of negativity and isolation, beating ourselves up about not reaching our goals, and cocooning ourselves at home with TV and comfort food while we wait for spring. But by looking forward rather than in, we miss an opportunity to flourish right now. Practicing self-compassion can, on the other hand, help us realize greater emotional well-being and more of that elusive feeling of contentment.

Kristin Neff, a professor at the University of Texas, says that there are three core components to self-compassion: self-kindness, recognition of common humanity, and mindfulness. Mindfulness means that we acknowledge our pain and discontent, our flaws and our failures, along with all of our good qualities. But we don’t feel isolated by those imperfections and our mistakes don’t feel so personal, because by recognizing our common humanity, we see that everyone else has the same needs and desires, and ups and downs that we have. And by directing loving kindness to ourselves and others, we reap a lot of potential benefits.

Neff’s research has shown that people who have more self-compassion experience less anxiety and depression, and have increases in happiness, optimism and other positive emotions. They engage in less negative self-talk, and their self-esteem  stays higher when something goes wrong for them, because they realize that everyone makes mistakes and they don’t take it so personally.

Author Karen Armstrong says that, “Compassion is a practically acquired knowledge, like dancing. You must do it and practice diligently every day.” The recommended way of practicing compassion is through loving kindness and compassion meditations. Here is an example of loving kindness meditation (practice it by directing it first to yourself, then one-by-one to others: benefactors/teachers, beloved friends and family, a neutral person, a difficult person):

May I be happy.

May I be peaceful.

May I be safe from harm.

May I enjoy happiness and the root of happiness.

May I experience ease and well-being in body, mind and spirit.

And a compassion meditation (practice the same way as loving kindness):

May I be free from suffering.

May I hold myself with softness and care.

May I be free from suffering and the root of suffering.

May I be free from the suffering caused by greed [or anger, fear, confusion, etc]

May I experience ease of body, mind and spirit.

May I respond to suffering with compassion.

Each time I go through these meditations, I return to the line, “May I hold myself with softness and care”, because I know that sometimes this is the thing we forget in our day-to-day lives. Softness and care, rather than harsh judgment: That’s what we need in January, and beyond.

Letting go of fear

Does Cory Booker practice yoga? I wonder because the Newark, NJ mayor was speaking the language of yoga in an interview with the Washington Post’s E.J. Dionne a few days ago. Discussing violence and crime prevention, he said, “Fear is a toxic state of being. You’ve got to lead with love.”

At its essence, the word yoga means to yoke, join or unite. It strikes me that Booker is speaking that language when he says that love can unite people when it replaces the fear that’s at the heart of so much of our distrust of each other. Yoga teacher Kathryn Budig says that in order to meet challenges, we need to “let go of fear and move back into a place of love.” I think they are saying the same thing.

Stress often comes from being unfamiliar with a person, place or experience. That fear of the unknown often manifests itself by us labeling someone or something as “other”, as different from ourselves. By focusing on differences we harden ourselves to feeling any compassion for the other, and we rationalize conflict and dislike. We use otherness as an excuse for our feelings about people of different nationalities, religions, races, political parties, social groups, or abilities. It makes it easier to ignore the paths that might lead to understanding.

Cory Booker’s interview covered a lot of topics, but he was talking in the aftermath of the George Zimmerman acquittal in the death of Trayvon Martin. While there’s a lot we’ll never know about that tragic evening, we can be pretty sure that it started when one person saw another and labeled him as “other”.  It started with fear and distrust.

I’ve written here before about the “Just Like Me” meditation developed by Chade-Meng Tan. Combined with a loving kindness meditation, it becomes a powerful process for tearing down those feelings of otherness. The heart of it is acknowledging that the other person has the same needs and desires for health, happiness and love that you have.

As Meng says, “There are three premises behind this practice. The first is that when we perceive somebody as being similar to ourselves (“just like me”), we become much more likely to feel and act positively towards that person. The second is that kind and loving thoughts towards another can be generated volitionally. The third premise is that mental habits can be formed with practice, so if we spend time and effort creating thoughts of similarity-to-others and loving kindness, over time, these thoughts get generated habitually and effortlessly…”

circleIt takes practice to get to the point where we react with love and kindness first. But isn’t it worth the effort? The “Just Like Me” meditation is a tool for finding our common ground, our humanity. President Obama said last week that, “we should ask ourselves if we’re doing all we can to widen the circle of compassion and understanding in our own communities.” That circle starts with compassion for self, then widens out to families, friends, to neighbors, communities, and eventually encompasses the stranger, the “other”, even perhaps an enemy, by admitting the truth that they are “just like me.”