Of the many responses you might have to chronic pain or stress, self-compassion does not usually top the list.
It’s ineffectual. It’s Stuart Smalley.
Self-compassion is often seen, at best, as a salve for when we stink at something — a vague way to be “nice” to ourselves.
What we are drawn to are solutions, or at least strategizing in our head about solutions. Often, pain and anxiety can shift us into an increasingly turbulent state of mind I call the Treadmill of Self-Improvement. On the treadmill, peace is just a shoulder roll away. We grasp at stretches or strengthening exercises, or whatever strategy we think might deliver us out of this mess.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with Pilates, PT, Alexander Technique, which I teach (more on that in a bit). The real problem is when we grasp for one healing modality or numbing agent (like our smartphone) not because it actually improves our experience, but because our harried brain is always commanding us to do more, be better. We are busy for the sake of being busy.
So what does this have to do with self-compassion?
The path towards well-being or healing is confusing at times, with many possible choices to make around medical care, lifestyle, career, relationships, etc. Self-compassion is how you move past doing what you think you “should” be doing (your autopilot), and start to operate with greater wisdom and humanity.
I am not recommending that you dwell on the couch in a fugue of Netflix, despair, and weight gain. I experienced significant chronic pain for years. I couldn’t use my hands to open an envelope or dress myself at times. I understand it’s crucial to address real and pressing problems that pain and emotional stress can cause.
But I’ve also seen, in my own life and with hundreds of students, how most self-improvement projects fail without a strong core of self-compassion. You’ve heard the expression, “failure is not an option.” I would agree — it’s a certainty! Undoubtedly we will fail to meet our lofty standards in one way or another, whether it’s unexpected fatigue or a surprising recurrence of symptoms.
Self-compassion, or what has been translated as lovingkindness from Buddhist teachings, is the act of generosity and bravery — we can be friendly towards ourselves even in our underwhelming current state — which allows us to get back up on our feet and keep going. It’s the opposite of sitting on the couch. You are willing to hang in there for the ups and the downs — you don’t give up on yourself.
We don’t harden our way towards greater health and well-being since we won’t like the person we’ve become when we get there. In other words, a journey marked by humorlessness and isolation will not get you to the destination you are hoping to reach.
Compassion in Action: The Alexander Technique
So, as I was saying, the Alexander Technique. I used the AT to help recover from debilitating chronic pain. It’s a process of learning how to untangle your body from habitual tensions and misuse. It feels like tapping into a body that is 10 years younger. It also feels like someone just purged your mental attic of junk; you feel spacious and lighter. The AT is learning how to not be at war with your own body and, instead, tap into the greater posture and ease that was there all along.
This August, the wonderful Kimberly Brown and I will be teaching a weekend retreat, “Summer Loving (Kindness) and Self-Compassion” at Sky Lake Lodge in the Hudson Valley. The workshop integrates the body wisdom of the Alexander Technique, the refreshing practice of meditation, as well as the healing power of lovingkindness meditation which Kim has been extensively teaching for many years.
It’s a powerful combination, made more so by the delightful setting: 22 acres of woods, ponds, and gardens on top of a mountain in the Hudson Valley. Sky Lake Lodge is fully accessible via mass transit from NYC. There will be time for hiking, relaxing with a book on the porch, and visits to a nearby swimming hole. For Brooklynites (like myself), yes, there will be locally sourced cuisine.
It’s not boot camp. It’s a chance to recharge your batteries, taste what summer offers, and set your path forward in a kind, conscious way.
Sign up here.
The Early Bird rate will save you $80 and expires the end of Saturday, July 8.
Hope to see you in August!