Self-compassion

Let a man lift himself by himself; let him not degrade himself; for the Self alone is the friend of the self and the Self alone is the enemy of the self. Bhagavad Gita Chapter 6 verse 5

Compassion is an important aspect in the practice of Yoga and one of the core values in Buddhism. I recently asked both my adult yoga students and my teenage yoga students what compassion is for them, and their answers inspired me to write this post.

I can start like I did with my students by asking what is compassion for you? Take a moment to think about it before you read further.

The common definition that most of us use is being understanding and kind towards others. The definition in the dictionary is slightly different: sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it.

Very few students include themselves as an important object of compassion when defining the word.  However, according to the Yogic and Buddhist traditions, in order to cultivate compassion towards others, we have to first cultivate compassion towards ourselves. If this is a new idea for you, take some time to reflect on it. Doesn’t it make sense? But what does that mean? How do we show compassion towards ourself?

I asked one of my teenage yoga students how she shows compassion towards herself, and she answered “by eating chocolate”. Eventhoug there is nothing wrong with enjoying something we like,  I think this illustrates how we sometimes tend to misunderstand what self-compassion is, and that is why I opened this post with the quote from chapter 6 in the Bhagavad Gita.

We often think that we are being kind towards ourselves by indulging in something, especially when we experience distress. It can be food, alcohol, TV, social media, you name it. In my perspective, this is only a way of escaping from that distress. We might get the illusion that we are alleviating it, but in reality we are just hiding it or pushing it away. That is not self-compassion.

Self-compassion requires courage, it requires the ability to see beyond our fear. We have to first have the courage to stop running away and face the source of our distress, which we often have the illusion comes from the outside world, but if we look closely, we will discover that it comes from inside us.

So, I wonder, when am I doing something ‘kind’ towards myself that will allow me to continue growing as a spiritual being and what am I using as crutches to avoid the fall, the pain, the distress?

I have already shared in a post the distress I sometimes cause inside myself because I get caught up in thoughts and emotions. I recently realized that I haven’t been showing self-compassion at all. Although it is positive to be aware of one’s flaws, one’s dark sides, it is harming to be judgemental about them. The advice in Yoga is so subtile, I think. We are encouraged to confront our inner darkness but we have to accept it first and then make small adjustments at a time. As a dear friend recently said to me, you need to embrace the monster inside you to move forward.

Only when we decide to live a life of awareness, of rude honesty towards ourselves, will we be able  be compassionate towards ourselves and thus lift ourselves forward.

In the process, compassion towards others starts to come easier and more naturally as we keep discovering our dark sides, our weaknessess and we then can identify with other people’s distress. This allows us to be less judgemental and more understanding, more tolerant, more willing to help.

 

 

A week of turmoil and Bhagavad Gita ch6

Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve had the tendency to get overwhelmed by the world around me. Or maybe it would be more correct to say, overwhelmed by my perception of the world around me. I don’t know why, but I tend to overthink and get carried away by my emotions. My dad used to tell me that I take life too seriously.

During the last five years, I have been studying and practicing Yoga with the hope that this side of me would fade away, but I still have periods where I get overwhelmed by all and everything, and to be honest, there is nothing to be so overwhelmed about. These episodes are maybe even stronger than before because emotions pile up as I want so badly to have control over my thoughts and emotions and I see how they get stronger and stronger until I can’t control them anymore.

I was listening to episode 94 of Secular Buddhism yesterday about The Five Hindrances in the Buddhist tradition: desire, aversion, disinterest, agitation, and indecision. One of the main points in this podcast is that we learn about these hindrances to be aware of them when they arise in our mind and to be curious and mindful but not to try to get rid of them.  I still have a lot to learn about my mind and what I can and cannot do about it.

I discovered that one of my biggest hindrances is that I believe that through the practice of yoga, I will no longer experience challenging thoughts and emotions. When they arise, I push them away, but after some time, they come back even stronger and that is when I lose my patience with myself and the rest of the world around me. Desire to control gets in the way of achieving a calm state of mind. The more I desire to be patient, the less patient I am.

My Yoga teacher encouraged me this week to study chapter 6 in the Bhagavad Gita. I am to savor one verse at a time allowing the message to sink in. So, here’s verse 1:

“Without dependence on fruits of action, he who performs action as duty, he is a Sannyasi and a Yogi. Neither without fire nor without action.”  

In this verse, we are encouraged to engage in the world with a sense of purpose and without any expectation. Everything we do, we do it as our duty, putting our best effort into it, and running away from our roles (like I sometimes really want to do) will not help.

Further, in verse 2 I read: “What they call renunciation, that know to be disciplined activity. O Pandava, for no one becomes a Yogin who has not renounced his (selfish) purpose. No one becomes a Yogin without renouncing expectation.”

The way I understand it we are encouraged to observe what drives us to act and discern between acting out of duty and acting out of need. We should then refrain from acting out of need, or at least be very aware of the motivation behind these kinds of actions and know that the outcome will mess up with our expectations.

So, I will experiment with this. When the need arises, I will sit with it, I will not reject it, but I will not put it into my actions because the outcome most probably will not meet the desired one and I will then again engage in the turmoil of my emotions. I will act out of duty, do my job in this world with my best intentions and efforts, knowing that the result is not in my hands.

I will continue with my daily Sadhana without expecting it to “fix” me. I will remember to be compassionate towards myself.

This is the path of spirituality, isn’t it? One step at a time. Learning, unlearning, adjusting our perceptions. Falling and standing up again. And in the meantime, hoping that those around us have the capacity to forgive our bad moments.

What I wonder about now is what are my real duties in life and what are my perceived duties?