Self-compassion and the ego continued...
Buddhist teacher Ajahn Brahm (2015) tells the story of a group of monks who are meditating in a cave when a band of robbers shows up threatening to kill them. The head monk negotiates with the robbers and it is agreed that if he sacrifices one monk they will let the rest of them go. Most people might think it right that he would sacrifice himself. But he values his own life as much as the other monks’ and refuses to choose. The story ends there.
I told this story recently in a class and it brought up strong feeling in the subsequent discussion. It seemed an alien concept to many that the heroism here is in the head monk equalising his own worth to that of the others. How do you feel about it? The answer may provide some insight into what unspoken cultural expectations underlie our choices and behaviours in relation to self-care. Admittedly the story is an extreme example of a life or death situation which most of us, hopefully, will never face. And there are certainly many times in our lives when we naturally and rightly put others before ourselves - raising children, looking after loved ones when they need us. But do we actually have the capacity or even the intention to take care of ourselves as well as we take care of others? Can we see it as a responsibility that is no more and no less important as securing the wellbeing of our loved ones? What are the possible ramifications if we can’t?
This is one aspect of reflecting on self-compassion and developing “wise selfishness” as His Holiness the Dalai Lama called it during his recent visit to London. It is about open heartedness and willingness to put ourselves out, both for the benefit of ourselves and others. The other question is then, how do we develop the wisdom to make choices that ensure we don’t stray into unwise self-sacrifice or selfishness?
The yoga and Buddhist sutras connect our human suffering to the mind’s reactivity. “I don’t like this”, “I want that” - the general delusion or ignorance of human existence casting over the mind the shadow of the klesha. If, as Krishnamurti (2003, p. 238) famously said: “The seeing is the doing”, how can we accurately and courageously see the workings of the ego, without self-compassion? Would it not just become an exercise in self-chastisement, possibly producing feelings of unworthiness? Or would we just turn a blind eye to avoid the discomfort of seeing our own shortcomings? I have certainly seen all this playing out in my own mind.
Practising compassion-based mindfulness hepls me to see, with kindness, parts of myself that I previously felt too uncomfortable with to acknowledge. This has reduced their power over me. What has also helped is understanding how we humans operate. It is helpful to recognise and learn to accept that we are complex social animals, both with capacity for being judgemental, ignorant and selfish, but also the ability to be loving and wise. Gilbert (2009, p. 139) illustrates how we can benefit from recognising the power of emotion with a compassionate attitude:
“The compassion approach is always to recognise that the very experience of emotion is an evolutionary design (not our fault), and so by learning (as best we can) to understand the depths, textures and nature of our emotions, we will be able to cope with them. Imagine that you are riding a powerful stallion (your emotions). Without guidance, education and graded practice, such a horse will rush off in all directions, throwing you, its rider. But with understanding, kindness, gentleness and training, it may allow its power to be put at your disposal. Trying to beat it into submission, suppress it, tie it down or ignore its power will not help you.”
Gilbert (ibid) emphasises that we cannot help that we find ourselves with a mind which to a large extent responds to primordial instincts embedded in the oldest part of our brain. Emotion plays an essential role in human development and survival. Linked to our autonomic nervous system, it is so instinctive that it is not easy to regulate. Yoga and mindfulness give us respite and increased resilience, but the challenge of life off the mat remains. As human beings we do have the advantage that with our highly developed level of consciousness, we are able to examine our lives and minds not only from the viewpoint of “I”, but with greater, more objective awareness and compassion. Gilbert (ibid, p. 100) clarifies:
“The compassionate point is to focus on what is common to all of us – which is the struggle we have within our own evolved brains and minds with so many competing urges and feelings. We can open our eyes to the ease with which we can become deluded and not see the realities we are creating around us – through no fault of our own.”
Self-compassion is essential because it helps us view unpleasant emotions such as anger and anxiety in a non-judgemental way, with less egoistic self-focus - the judgement is coming from the ego (Neff, 2008). To reduce our natural tendency to identify completely with our emotions and feelings, Neff argues for cultivating self-compassion rather than ignoring, suppressing or subordinating one’s self to others. A (self) compassionate attitude involves kindness, understanding of our common humanity and mindfulness (ibid).
In yoga, we can bring a kind, self-compassionate attitude into the whole of the practice. It is useful to explain the benefits and reasons for this practice more clearly to yoga students and encouraging them to reflect on self-compassion more deeply after class, bringing it into their lives. And, of course, encourage them to regularly look at their own mind with kindness.
Recommended resource: self-compassion.org
BRAHM, A., (2015). Who Ordered This Truckload of Dung? 2 edn. Boston: Wisdom Publications.
CCARE (2015). Available: http://ccare.stanford.edu/research/compassion-wiki/definitions-wiki/ [Date accessed: 10/10/2015].
GERMER, C. and SIEGEL, R., (2012). Wisdom and Compassion. Two Wings of a Bird. In: C. GERMER and R. SIEGEL, eds, Wisdom and Compassion in Psychotherapy: Deepening Mindfulness in Clinical Practice. New York: Guildford Press, pp. 7-34.
GILBERT, P., (2009). The Compassionate Mind. London: Constable.
KRISHNAMURTI, J., (2003). The Beginnings of Learning. 3 edn. London: Orion Books.
NEFF, K., (2008). Self-Compassion: Moving Beyond the Pitfalls of a Separate Self-Concept. In: J. BAUER and H. WAYMENT, eds, Transcending Self-Interest: Psychological Explorations of the Quiet Ego. Washington: American Psychological Association, pp. 95-106.