Moment of Mindfulness: Self-Compassion as a Coping Skill
Mindful Moment is a mindfulness column from Psych Central that invites you to look within. Each episode includes a conversation with a mindfulness expert, plus tools, tips, and inspiration to help you tap into your inner resources to create meaningful change in your life.
With everything going on in the world – an ongoing pandemic, gun violence, war and civil rights abuses – practicing self-compassion can feel selfish when so many people are suffering.
But self-compassion is actually disinterested and benefits both the individual and the collective. It is a mindfulness practice that teaches us to be present with difficult emotions and to worry about our pain instead of avoiding it.
And by being kind to ourselves, we are more able to be kind to others, which benefits our well-being from within.
Spring Washam, a meditation and Dharma teacher based in Oakland, Calif., explained to me that mindfulness and compassion are simply opposite sides of the same coin.
“Without compassion, you can’t really practice mindfulness because you can’t really be present for what’s difficult,” she said. “And that quality of mindfulness asks us to be honest, to be present with whatever is going on.”
Washam, who has practiced mindfulness for over 20 years, described compassion as a foundational tool that emphasizes the qualities of the heart. She said it takes compassion to be able to sit with our anxieties, our sadness, our anger, our physical pain or whatever may be happening in this moment.
It is much easier to be present with joy, love and happiness. But the challenge of mindfulness is to also be present with what is difficult.
“Compassion is caring,” Washam said, adding that caring about our pain is important. “Often we don’t care about our own pain – we try to get rid of it or suppress it.”
From a Buddhist perspective, practicing conscious self-compassion is learning to be present with ourselves and our difficulties. And learning to care about our own pain is a journey in itself.
The more we learn to sit with discomfort and care about our pain, the more we feel compassion for ourselves.
Research from 2021 shows that mindfulness and self-compassion improve emotional well-being and help reduce feelings of depression and anxiety. Conscious self-compassion can therefore be an effective coping skill.
Washam explained that practicing mindfulness is similar to building muscle memory. Each time we sit down to meditate, for example, we are refining a certain mental state or quality.
“The more we practice it, the more it grows,” she said. “The ability to practice not running away from the moment is what leads to happiness.”
Emotions, as we know, are often fleeting, but they can also be so powerful that we want to run away from them.
But Washam said you can’t outrun the moment just like you can’t outrun the truth. She said the more we learn to sit with discomfort and care about our pain, the more compassion we have for ourselves.
According to Washam, when we deny our emotions, vulnerabilities, and pain, we can also end up denying the emotions and experiences of others.
“We have this idea that feeling emotion is weak or that we don’t realize that being present and aware is constantly feeling and processing, and being with moments of sadness, fear, anxiety, loneliness or love,” Washam explained. . “With mindfulness, we naturally develop empathy for others in these feelings.”
Developing compassion for ourselves can also show us how to empathize with others who share different experiences, viewpoints, and even ideologies. We learn to meet others as they are.
Together, mindfulness and compassion can show us deeper and more meaningful ways to connect with others despite differences – whether it’s culture, race, gender, sexuality, religion and even of politics.
“Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them humanity cannot survive.” -Dalai Lama
The world can be such a confusing and difficult place, especially in light of current events.
For many people, witnessing another atrocity can trigger acute stress or traumatic reactions.
“We are more resilient and less resilient at the same time emotionally,” Washam said. “These days we’re just running on fumes – and we’re practically out of gas.”
Washam added that to be present with what is happening in the world, we must have compassion. We need to hold ourselves back when we feel pain, even though it can all feel exhausting at times.
Compassion fatigue is very real – but we must be willing to pause, breathe, put our hands on our bodies and care about the pain and discomfort we feel – our own grief over the collective grief.
Buddhist teachings suggest that you cannot develop compassion without encountering difficulties. But practicing compassion is simple and starts with being intentionally kind to yourself.
To paraphrase a parable of the Buddha, “Remove the arrow instead of shooting yourself with another.”
Washam recommended the following resources for developing self-compassion whenever you need extra inspiration.
- “The Guest House”, by Persian poet Rumi, describes emotions as temporary visitors whom you welcome at the door.
- “Radical Compassion,” by mindfulness teacher and psychologist Tara Brach, PhD, includes a 4-step meditation technique for overcoming difficult emotions.
In the midst of challenges, difficulties and suffering, a little self-compassion can go a long way.
But practicing self-compassion doesn’t have to be complicated — in fact, it can be as simple as saying something nice to yourself. And the more you practice compassion, the more it can become a way of life.
There is wisdom in compassion, reminding us that we can meet every moment with our heart, no matter how difficult.
“Compassion recognizes impermanence – that nothing stays too long unless we nurture it,” Washam said. “Compassion is love that meets pain.”
Spring Washam is a well-known meditation teacher, author, and visionary leader based in Oakland, CA. She is the author of The Spirit of Harriett Tubman: The Underground Awakens and A fierce heart: find strength, courage and wisdom at all times. Spring is considered a pioneer in introducing mindfulness-based healing practices to various communities. She is one of the founders and teachers of East Bay Meditation Center, located in downtown Oakland, CA. She received extensive training from Jack Kornfield, serves on the board of teachers at the Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Northern California, and has practiced and studied Buddhist philosophy at Theravada and Tibetan Buddhist schools since 1998. In addition to being a teacher, she is also a shamanic practitioner and has studied indigenous healing practices for over a decade. She is the founder of Journeys in the Lotus Vine, an organization that blends indigenous healing practices with Buddhist wisdom. His writings and teachings have been published in numerous journals and online publications such as Lions Roar, Tricycle and Belief.net. She has been a guest on many popular podcasts and radio shows. She currently travels and teaches meditation retreats, workshops and classes around the world.
Andrea Rice (her) is an award-winning journalist based in Raleigh, North Carolina. As a staff writer at Healthline, she covers mental health news and hot topics. Her work has appeared in news outlets such as The New York Times and INDY Week, as well as wellness publications such as Yoga Journal, Verywell, and mindbodygreen. A yoga and meditation teacher since 2010, Andrea’s book, The Yoga Almanac, offers seasonal practices to nurture body and mind. Connect with her on LinkedIn and Twitterand read more of his work on his website.