Christa Smith Psy.D.


Self-Compassion Part II

What skydiving and self-compassion have in common

Posted Jul 06, 2016

© 2016 Christa Smith
Source: © 2016 Christa Smith

After many years of mindfulness practice I have come to think I know what to expect from a retreat. Without fail I am always wrong. Practicing mindfulness is like opening your front door to check the weather. You never really know what you’re going to get.

A few weeks ago I was taken by surprise again. I imagined that a 5-day mindful self-compassion retreat,* held outside of Red Feather, Colorado, would be delightful. It would be five lovely days of learning to be kinder to myself. What I failed to register was that what I had signed up for was not a self-kindness retreat, but a self-compassion retreat. In Buddhist thought, compassion is the way the heart moves when we recognize suffering and want to relieve it. It dawned on me as I sat in the meditation hall with my eyes closed, diving into our first meditation, that what I had signed up for was turning toward my own pain.

So often when we feel bad we want to ignore our feelings or stop them somehow. It is against our nature to open to pain. As neuroscience puts it, we are wired this way. We tend to seek pleasure and avoid pain and that includes emotional pleasure and pain. This makes a lot of sense as a way to keep ourselves safe and free of injury. But this mode of being can keep us from becoming the kind of inner ally that we all need. In order to extend the kind of love to ourselves that we offer so easily to others, we have to be able to turn toward our pain. Self-compassion cannot occur without this move

Whereas mindfulness feels like opening my front door, self-compassion feels a bit like storm chasing. Why would we want to do something so counter to our nature? Why chase the storm rather than hunker down, safe and dry in our homes? Why on earth would we do this when life already brings pain, even when we don’t look for it?

Although we may feel a sense of safety when we protect ourselves from inner storms like fear or anger, this is not the deepest kind of safety available to us. It’s also fleeting. As a therapist I have seen the same pattern play out in so many lives. Our efforts to protect ourselves from the pain of loss or the fear of failure, can have unintended consequences. We end up living a life that is smaller and far less satisfying than it could be. We end up trying to control how we feel because that’s the best approximation of safety we can imagine. We don’t ask for that date or allow ourselves to grieve.

I don’t mean to say that we should always open to difficult feelings. Sometimes that’s not wise. But it’s important to know that another kind of safety comes with making space for painful emotions and meeting them with compassion.

Compassion might mean saying some kind and supportive words to yourself when you’ve made a mistake or taking a break when you’re overwhelmed. Knowing how to do this offers a kind of safety that feels more steady because it does not depend on what happens in our lives. It doesn’t rely on someone else forgiving us for a mistake or offering a hug when we feel bad. Don’t get me wrong, compassion from others is vital, but it’s not enough on its own. Self-compassion carries with it a felt sense that feeling bad and making mistakes is part of being human. We realize that we are not awful, weird, or unique. As a result we feel less isolated. Research on self-compassion shows that it offers us the benefits of good self-esteem without all of the pitfalls. It’s linked to well-being and contrary to what we might think, it doesn’t cause us to have lower standards or less personal accountability.

Knowing this I trusted that my time on retreat would be well spent, even though it was uncomfortable. But after several days of calling up difficult feelings and situations and offering myself compassion, I began to ponder skipping class. I was getting weary. How easy it would be to go take a nap instead. I started counting the days until I could go home. Around that time I also began to notice a subtle feeling of safety, so strange to me that it was almost startling. Not because it was the first time I have felt safe, but because it was so deep and stable. What made it remarkable was that it wasn’t coming from having everything around me just as I wanted it to be. It wasn’t happening because I was feeling good. It wasn’t coming from my circumstances at all. It was coming from knowing that on the most basic level, I’ve got my own back.

From then on, opening to pain began to get easier. Like a seasoned skydiver who knows that when she pulls the chord the parachute will pop open and carry her safely down to the ground below, I knew that unconditional love and support would be available whenever I needed it.

There are many ways to practice self-compassion. One simple method is called a self-compassion break. You can click here for a description of this simple three-step process.

*Thank you to Dr. Chris Germer and Dr. Kristin Neff who led this retreat and shared the self-compassion research findings and some of the ideas mentioned here.