Let's start with self-compassion

Let's start with self-compassion

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The past couple of times I have taught my mindfulness course for musicians, the first topic we have explored is self-compassion. There are two main reasons for this, one practical and one more philosophical.

On the practical side, I noticed that musicians were coming to mindfulness practice with the intention of learning to be less hard on themselves. And mindfulness can indeed help with this. But I found that, for many people, the practice of mindfulness, which is meant to foster open, non-judgmental awareness, kept getting hijacked by a habitual orientation towards self-criticism and perfectionism. In other words, mindfulness just became another way to sneakily reinforce the habit of self-judgment that is reflexive for so many musicians. I heard a lot of things like, "I can't meditate because every time I try to focus on the my breath, a thought comes in. I'll never be good at this!" But here's a pro tip: When you notice that your mind has wandered from the intended object, that IS mindfulness. You did it! In a sense, mindfulness is the practice of failing again and again. The idea is not to stop failing, but to get curious about the failure -- its inevitability and predictability -- so much so that you stop thinking of it as failure and instead realize that this just how minds work. It's not personal. Then, things become much more workable. But musicians, I have found, don't dig this description of mindfulness. Even more than regular people, musicians really want to be good stuff and get really upset when they're not. So, I began introducing self-compassion as a foundational practice and mental attitude...a pre-requisite, if you will.

From a philosophical perspective, starting with self-compassion -- which could also be understood as non-violence towards the self -- serves to gently situate the practice of mindfulness within an ethical framework without needing to invoke Buddhist or yoga philosophy. For the record, I am emphatically pro Buddhist and yoga philosophy, but in academic settings, where I mostly teach, people sometimes get a bit twitchy at the merest whiff of anything remotely religious or spiritual. But the practices from which contemporary secular mindfulness evolved are deeply rooted in an ethical foundation and are concerned more with our relational lives than our stress levels. Starting with self-compassion is one way I have found to acknowledge this tradition within the context that I work.

I teach and practice self-compassion a la the work of Kristin Neff. Neff is an Associate Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Texas at Autin. Her book, helpfully titled Self-Compassion, was a game-changer for me. I highly recommend it, but you can also get a pretty decent sense of her work from this TED talk:

And, in case you don't want to take 20 min. right this very minute to watch it, I will summarize:

  • Self-compassion is a way of relating to ourselves with kindness.

  • Self-compassion is different from self-esteem in that it doesn't require us to be (or to be perceived as) special in comparison to others and it is not dependent on our success. Self-compassion recognizes our basic value without reference to how we do or do not "stack up" next to others and irrespective of success or failure.

  • Self-compassion, according to Neff, has three key components -- 1) treating ourselves with kindness, 2) recognizing our shared humanity and that we are all imperfect, and 3) acknowledging and accpepting that suffering is a part of life.

  • The number one reason we gravitate towards self-criticism instead of self-compassion is that we believe we need self-criticism in order to motivate ourselves. Does this sound familiar to anyone???

  • BUT, Neff's research has demonstrated that in fact the opposite is true, that self-criticism actually undermines our motivation because it stimulates our stress physiology. When we're responding to a perceived threat -- even one that is internally generated -- our systems are flooded with cortisol and our pre-frontal cortices go offline. Our attention narrows and we become unreceptive to new information. In this state, we are not primed for learning and growth.

  • Kindness, on the other hand -- including kindness towards ourselves -- stimulates a down-regulation of our stress response and the release of "feel good" hormones such as oxytocin. When we can down-regulate, we become more open and receptive to new information. It is in this state that we are optimally primed to learn and grow.

  • So, no, self-compassion will not turn you into a slacker. Instead, it will actually help you access the inner resources you need to succeed.

  • There's more...but those are the highlights.

Sounds pretty good, right? It is. It's great. A super-power, really. But here's the thing: it's a practice. For most of us, just deciding to be more self-compassionate isn't going to work. We'll notice that we're being self-critical and then berate ourselves for not being more self-compassionate. It's a vicious cycle. I follow Neff's advice and when I notice that I am being excessively hard on myself, or simply that things aren't going the way I wish they would go, I pause and remind myself:

This is a moment of suffering [or pain, or stress, or anger, or frustration, or worry, or disappointment...]. Suffering is part of life.

Everyone feels this way sometimes. This is part of being human. I am not alone.

I'm going to show myself some kindness, just like I would do for a good friend who was experiencing the same thing.

In future posts, I will outline lots of things you can do to show yourself kindness. For now, though, I'll just offer that placing a hand on your chest or wrapping yourself in a cozy blanket can be a good place to start. Maybe talking with a friend, snuggling a pet, or making yourself a nourishing meal would be more your jam. The idea is for you to feel cared for but not necessarily distracted from your suffering. (Think how your friend would feel if you said, "Wow, you seem down. I don't have time to help you right now, but here's my phone to play with.")

Anyway, try it and see how it feels. Repeat often. Is there a little softening in your experience as you go through this process? A little piece inside that feels good when you are kind to yourself in this way? That's the piece we want to nurture. It doesn't have to be dramatic. Tiny shifts can lead to big changes over time in the way we relate to ourselves and others. 

Practicing self-compassion can feel like a radical act, especially in environments in which productivity and achievement appear to be valued more than empathy, and kindness. I have spent the better part of the last 30 years in university music schools and I think the culture of setting impossibly high standards and punishing ourselves for failing to meet them is very strong. And I want to be clear that I am all for having aspirations and pursuing mastery with courage and determination. But I am interested in the possibility that there is a gentler way to get where we want to go. 

So...whaddya say we make this the year of self-compassion? Who’s with me??? 

Go deeper

Neff, Kristin. Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself. New York: William Morrow, 2011.

Germer, Chris. The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion. New York: The Guilford Press, 2009.

Article: Why Self-Compassion Works Better Than Self-Esteem

Article: What Self-Compassion Feels Like in Your Body

Kristin Neff's website: www.self-compassion.org

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