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Compassion Goes Global

Mindful self-compassion in Kenya

photo by Chris Germer
Source: photo by Chris Germer

The trip to Kenya to teach Mindful Self Compassion (MSC) with Chris Germer was off to a rocky start. The yellow fever, typhoid, tetanus and hepatitis C shots, given all at once, made me sick. The malaria pills were rumored to cause nightmares, the Kenyan e-visa website wasn’t working, and I read that wearing black or blue attracted the Tsetse fly, whose bite could cause African sleeping sickness. And, of course I almost always wear black and blue. Plus, there had been recently political violence. What to do? A colleague who works in Sierra Leone and Rwanda told me to chill. “You’ll be fine. You’ll love Africa, and Africa will love you back.”

When we finally arrived at the hotel outside Nairobi, after over 20 hours of travel, it was well past midnight. As I was getting ready for bed, exhausted and bleary-eyed, I noticed a large, hairy spider in the bathroom. Was it a tarantula? I didn’t have internet in the rustic cottage, so I couldn’t google it, which was perhaps for the best; I’ve never been a fan of spiders. I closed the door very, very tightly and tried to go to sleep.

Our intensive training program was organized by Waleed Fatth of Global Engagement Institute, a group that is passionate about positive change in the world and committed to social justice. We partnered with Amani Counseling Centre and Training Institute in Nairobi (with offices throughout Kenya), a comprehensive mental health clinic which is run by the visionary Florence Busiega. Our participants included clinicians working with adults, children, teens, couples and families and specializing in trauma, addictions, depression, and anxiety, as well as policemen, teachers, and clergy.

The training in Mindful Self-Compassion is research-based and was developed by Christopher Germer and Kristin Neff in 2010. It teaches participants skills for emotional healing, including how to respond to difficult emotions, such as fear, anger, sadness, and shame, holding ourselves and others with loving and kind awareness. I’ve been teaching with Chris since the beginning, but this was our first foray in bringing this training to Africa: how would it translate into another culture with different beliefs and values?

To help make it accessible, we focused on the scientific research on which the program is based as well as how compassion is at the foundation of many religious and cultural traditions. While some of the participants were wary at first, as in any program, but when we started teaching the self-compassion exercises they jumped right in and we were met with enthusiasm, depth, and humor.

You might want to try the following exercise, which I have adapted from the training. See for yourself. It is a good place to start.

How Do I Treat a Friend?

Take out a piece of paper and reflect on the following question:

  • Think about the times when you’ve had a close friend who was suffering in some way, who failed, had a misfortune or felt inadequate. How do you respond to your friends in such a situation? What do you say? What tone do you use? What is your posture?
  • Write down what you noticed.
  • Now think about the times when you were suffering in some way, when you failed, had a misfortune, or felt inadequate. How do you respond to yourself? What do you say? What is your tone? Your posture?
  • Please write down what you noticed. Did you discover any differences between how you treat a friend and how you treat yourself?

Many of the participants in the recent workshop noticed that they were very hard on themselves. But when we get some perspective and notice that we can be supportive and kind to others, we can begin to bring compassion to ourselves as well. In fact, recent research by Kristin Neff and Marissa Knox has found that 78 percent of the people in the US are more compassionate toward others than themselves.

“I am so mean to myself, I would never say those things to a friend,” one of our Kenyan participants laughed, as did many others when they joined in agreement.

As the intensive program unfolded over the next four days, we were joined by both our joy and sorrow. We all laughed together and cried together, sang and danced together, finding the common humanity that united us.

When we visited our colleagues at Amani’s Center in Nairobi a few days after the program ended, we were greeted with big hugs and warm smiles. “Susan, I have stopped hating myself. All my life I hated myself, I never felt good enough. What a great gift,” one participant told me with tears in her eyes. Another participant said that he isn’t yelling at his kids as much. “I used to be annoyed by their noise when I came home after a long day at work, but now I see that they are happy and just playing and having a good time. I want them to be happy. Why get irritated and yell? My wife tells me that I’m a different person,” he smiled.

I’m now back in the States, missing the warmth of Africa, but inspired by the possibility of bringing the healing gift of self-compassion to many people in many cultures, finding a way to bridge our differences and recognize what unites rather than divides us. In these challenging times, we certainly need it.

And yes, the spider was a tarantula, but after being in Africa I learned to worry a little less and go with the flow “They don’t usually bite, and it won’t kill you.” the hotel staff told me, putting it in perspective. Maybe moving ahead I’ll be less neurotic.

On our last day, after we had all danced together and sung together, one participant inspired me. “You are like us,” she said, “you are strong and you go with the flow.” Well, on a good day. And yes, we can all inspire and learn from each other.

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