Mindful Self-Compassion

Recently a friend interviewed me for an article she was writing about how to tame the inner critic and I delighted in describing the techniques outlined in Dr. Kristin Neff’s book, Self-Compassion. Over the course of the previous month, I had been regularly pausing to practice Neff’s three-step Self-Compassion Break. By simply acknowledging moments of suffering, reminding myself that suffering is a natural part of life and offering myself some kindness on the spot, I had noticed that I was increasingly able to let go of self-criticism and motivate myself from a place of love.

However, in the days following the interview I developed a terrible cold and didn’t feel like meditating, teaching mindfulness or offering myself compassion. As I dragged through my daily tasks, I became less objectively aware of the critical voice in my head and instead began to adopt its judgement as my new mantra: “You’re failing. You’re failing. You’re failing.” All the challenges I was able to see in a balanced way when I was healthy now seemed entirely my fault and completely insurmountable.

So there I was coughing and putting up a poster for an upcoming meditation workshop when a squat, untidy, older man approached and began to read my poster. “Ah, meditation. I’ve been meditating for 20 years,” he said smiling impishly. I wasn’t sure if he was being facetious, but I decided to take the bait. “Wow, that’s pretty amazing.” As I looked into his eyes, I realized that he was neither joking nor pestering, but quite likely to be a friendly person. “You know what the longest journey a person will ever make is?” he asked. I stared back at him blankly. “It’s the journey from here,” he said gesturing to his head, “To here,” he continued, placing a hand over his heart. “And do you know what the hardest part of meditating is?” he asked. I shook my head. “It’s convincing yourself that you’re worth that journey.” He laughed heartily here, seeming to remember a time when he really didn’t think that he was worth it.

I could blame the cold medication, but truth be told his words opened a floodgate of emotional relief and I was thankful to be wearing sunglasses. All the hardness of my harsh self-judgment softened in an instant. I don’t know what that statement meant to him, but here is what I heard: believe the kinder quieter voice that wants you to thrive on your own terms. Believe that this compassionate voice is always there, believe that it is right, and create the stillness it needs to be heard every single day. Or maybe he just meant that being self-compassionate is downright difficult some days. Either way, I think he’s right.

Kristen Swanson