It's that time of year when the days remain dark, the drive for change that felt so strong and positive when the new year was rung in may have faded a little, and as busy life kicks back in we are reminded that this culture doesn't allow much room for hibernating.
Amidst it all an abundance of red hearts can be found slowly creeping around us in shop floors and windows. Whilst this could be a lovely addition to these mid-winter days, I don't know many people (whether in a relationship or not) that look forward to their cause - Valentine's Day.
Connection and love, is one of our most basic human needs. Research has shown that loneliness can be as damaging to our health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day (Holt-Lunstad, 2010). However this slightly artificial and hugely commercial day only shows us one side of love. For those in a couple it determines that "this is the day you express your love" regardless of where you are, or how you feel in your relationship. For those outside of a relationship it says "this day isn't for you, you're not a part of this celebration".
When we restrict 'love' to purely the romantic sense we lose touch with the abundance of connection, love, kindness and compassion that is open to us - both to give and receive. Whilst most of us are aware of this, it can be helpful to remember all these avenues for love, and ensure we don't forget the form of love that is most within our control, but somehow the most challenging to engage with, loving ourselves.
Over the last year or two (largely through the inspiring qualification I took in Teaching Mindfulness and Compassion with Mindfulness UK) I've been working a lot with compassion practices and been amazed by their powerful and hugely healing impact. Within the context of mindfulness - which invites us to see our present moment experience with more clarity - it is compassion that enables us the to be with it, to explore it, so that we can be with the challenging sides of being human, rather than ignoring, or getting overwhelmed by them. It allows us to meet the parts of ourselves that we bury because we feel they somehow make us less than adequate, flawed, week, or shameful. The irony is that when we meet them, see them for the humanness they are, offer them attention, space and kindness, their power over us can lessen.
In the words of Tara Brach, a Buddhist meditation teacher;
"The two parts of genuine acceptance - seeing clearly and holding our experience with compassion - are as interdependent as the two wings of a great bird. Together they enable us to fly and be free"
And yet whilst we can expend a lot of energy seeking love and approval from others, we can often experience a real resistance to loving ourselves. Many of us who consider ourselves to be kind and compassionate people instinctively meet others' sorrows with a kind, listening ear; yet when it comes to our own challenges our inner critic pours layer upon layer of judgement about how silly we are, how we should be stronger, should know/do better etc. etc. etc. We may think carefully about the healthiness of the food we eat, the exercise we take, but do we consider the health impact of the thoughts we feed ourselves?
When I look back on my younger self I see this pattern hugely. Working in the charity sector because I wanted to help people, being there for others when they needed support, but when it came to my own challenges my own inner dialogue took the form of a tough, cane-bearing school master rather than a kind, supportive friend. Being someone whose school reports consistently said "must have more confidence in herself" year after year, I assumed that self-esteem and self-confidence played a part in this. I assumed that this was something in my nature, something that I couldn't change, and therefore low-self esteem was another thing that my inner-critic could have a field day with.
In Kristen Neff's brilliant book Self-compassion she talks about the difference between self-esteem and self-compassion. In a culture which can promote high self-esteem as the ideal goal she highlights how this quality only really works for us when life is going well, it doesn't offer us a tool box for the full range of human experience which encompasses loss and sorrows as much as achievements and joys. Self-compassion on the other hand can truly transform our lives, as we become our own friend through life’s dark times. She writes:
“Self-kindness, by definition, means that we stop the constant self-judgement & disparaging internal commentary that most of us have come to see as normal. It requires us to understand our foibles and failures instead of condemning them. It entails clearly seeing the extent to which we harm ourselves through relentless self-criticism and ending our internal war”
“when we treat ourselves as a kind friend would, we are no longer totally absorbed by playing the role of the one who is suffering. “Yes, I hurt. But I also feel care and concern. I am both comforter and the one in need of comfort. There is more to me that the pain I am feeling right now, I am also the heartfelt response to that pain”.
Self Compassion: stop beating yourself up and leave insecurity behind
Research shows that people who are more self-compassionate:
suffer less from anxiety and depression
have lower stress levels
have increased levels of oxytocin (the love hormone that makes us feel happy, safe and connected)
feel more resilient to life’s mistakes and challenges (learning from them rather than berating themselves)
feel more connected - recognising our shared humanness - it's joys and challenges
And the good news is that self-compassion is like a muscle that we can strengthen. It may not be our natural starting point, it certainly wasn’t mine for many years, but it is something that we can cultivate. For this reason I’ve popped below some links to some of my favourite teachers who share many practices for free:
Tara Brach – www.tarabrach.com offers a whole range of talks and meditations with a compassion focus.
Chistopher germer - http://www.mindfulselfcompassion.org/meditations_downloads.php - offers a range of free meditations. I love the “soften, soothe, allow” one (amongst others).
Kristen Neff - http://self-compassion.org/category/exercises/#exercises – offers a range of free practices. She also has a great TED talk here on Self Esteem v Self Compassion https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IvtZBUSplr4
Another practice I’ve been introduced to and love is that of talking to ourselves in tender, endearing terms (e.g. refering to ourselves as “darling”, “my love” etc in our own heads). This boosts our oxytocin levels, in feeling loved and supported, our stress response lowers. Sometimes is makes me chuckle when I’m having a particularly busy or bad day and I catch myself saying to myself “stick with it honey, you’re doing really well”. That voice isn’t always the overriding one but I can say for sure that my inner friend shows up a lot more now than my inner critic, and it certainly make for a better feeling day.
Although it may initially feel selfish to focus so much on our relationship to ourselves, through investigating our own beautiful, fallible, imperfect humaness from a kind place, we are able to see the shared connection we have to others. We may even recognise that even those that cause us difficulties are fallible human beings guided by their own desire to be loved and be happy. And from this place we find it easier to feel connected, compassionate towards all others as well. In the words of the Buddha
Like a caring mother
Holding and guarding the life
of her only child
So with a boundless heart
Hold yourself and all beings
So with this in mind, I challenge you to be your own valentine this February and see how life feels. I would love to hear about how you find it. The beautiful image for this blog was drawn (without any prompt) by my dear friend Isabel’s daughter Kiki when she was about 4. It certainly is a lesson to us all from a little guru in the making (I’m not so sure about the cake and chips combination though!!)
Moving from a Compassionate Heart Workshop | Saturday 13 February | Yoga On The Lane
If you are keen to explore compassion practices further I am running a workshop on Saturday 13th February exploring how we can use our yoga practice to cultivate compassion both on and off the mat. Do get in touch or click here for more information.