Mindful Moment is a mindfulness column from Psych Central that invites you to look within. Each installment features 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 all that’s going on in the world — an ongoing pandemic, gun violence, war, and attacks on civil rights — practicing self-compassion may seem selfish when so many people are suffering.
But self-compassion is actually selfless and benefits both the individual and the collective. It’s a mindfulness practice that teaches us how to be present with difficult emotions and to care about our pain instead of avoiding it.
And by being kind to ourselves we’re more capable of being kind toward others, which benefits our well-being from the inside out.
Spring Washam, a meditation and Dharma teacher based in Oakland, California, 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 is asking us to be honest, to be present with whatever’s arising.”
Washam, who’s been practicing 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 anxities, sadness, anger, physical pain, or whatever may be arising at the moment.
It’s much easier to be present with joy, love, and happiness. But the challenge of mindfulness is to be present with what’s difficult as well.
“Compassion is care,” Washam said, adding that it’s important to care about our pain. “A lot of times we don’t care about our own pain — we try to get rid of it or suppress it.”
From the Buddhist perspective, practicing mindful self-compassion is about learning how to be present with ourselves and our difficulties. And learning how to care about our own pain is a journey in and of itself.
The more we learn to sit with discomfort and care about our pain, the more we’ll experience compassion toward ourselves.
Research from 2021 shows that mindfulness and self-compassion enhance emotional well-being and help reduce feelings of depression and anxiety. Mindful self-compassion, therefore, can be an effective coping skill.
Washam explained that practicing mindfulness is similar to building muscle memory. Each time we sit to meditate, for instance, we’re honing 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 as you can’t outrun the truth. She said the more we learn to sit with discomfort and care about our pain, the more we’ll experience compassion toward ourselves.
According to Washam, when we deny our emotions, vulnerabilities, and pain, we may 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 to be present and mindful is to be 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 those feelings.”
Developing compassion toward ourselves can also show us how to have empathy for others who share different experiences, viewpoints, and even ideologies. We learn how to meet others just as they are.
Together, mindfulness and compassion can show us deeper, more meaningful ways to connect with others despite differences — whether it’s culture, race, gender, sexuality, religion, and even politics.
“Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive.” –Dalai Lama
The world can be such an unsettling and difficult place — particularly in light of current events.
For many people, witnessing yet another atrocity may activate acute stress or trauma responses.
“We are more resilient and less resilient at the same time emotionally,” Washam said. “These days we are just running on fumes — and we are practically out of gas.”
Washam added that in order to be present with what’s happening in the world, we must have compassion. We have to hold ourselves when we’re experiencing pain, despite that it all may feel exhausting at times.
Compassion fatigue is very real — but we have to be willing to pause, take a breath, put our hands on our bodies and care about the pain and discomfort we’re experiencing — about our own sorrow in the face of collective sorrow.
Buddhist teachings suggest that you cannot grow compassion without experiencing difficulty. But practicing compassion is simple, and starts by intentionally being kind to yourself.
To paraphrase a parable by the Buddha, “Take the arrow out instead of shooting yourself with another one.”
A simple practice for self-compassion
Consider the following self-compassion practice the next time you’re having an emotional moment:
- Take your left hand and place it in your right hand. If it’s comfortable close your eyes and begin to breathe deeply.
- Say to yourself silently or aloud: “I care about this pain. I care about these emotions and difficulties.”
- Place your hand over your heart and breathe deeply as you recite the phrases. If your mind starts to wander, come back to your breath and the phrases.
- Sit here as long as needed or until you reach a point where you feel comforted.
Washam recommended the following resources for building self-compassion whenever you may need additional inspiration.
- “The Guest House,” by the Persian poet Rumi, describes emotions as temporary visitors that you welcome at the door.
- “Radical Compassion,” by mindfulness teacher and psychologist Tara Brach, PhD, includes a 4-step meditation technique to work through difficult emotions.
In the throes of challenges, difficulty, and suffering, a little compassion toward ourselves 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 kind 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 each moment with our hearts, no matter how difficult it may be.
“Compassion recognizes impermanence — that nothing stays for too long unless we feed it,” Washam said. “Compassion is the love that meets the pain.”
Spring Washam is a well-known meditation teacher, author, and visionary leader based in Oakland, California. She is the author of The Spirit of Harriett Tubman: Awakening from the Underground and A Fierce Heart: Finding Strength, Courage, and Wisdom in Any Moment. Spring is considered a pioneer in bringing mindfulness-based healing practices to diverse communities. She is one of the founders and teachers at the East Bay Meditation Center, located in downtown Oakland, CA. She received extensive training from Jack Kornfield, is a member of the teacher’s council at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in northern California, and has practiced and studied Buddhist philosophy in both the Theravada and Tibetan schools of Buddhism 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 Lotus Vine Journeys, an organization that blends indigenous healing practices with Buddhist wisdom. Her writing and teachings have appeared in many online journals and 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 worldwide.
Andrea Rice (she/her) is an award-winning journalist based in Raleigh, North Carolina. As an editor at Healthline, she covers mental health news and trending topics. Her work has appeared in news outlets such as The New York Times and INDY Week, and wellness publications such as Yoga Journal, Verywell, and mindbodygreen. As a yoga and meditation teacher since 2010, Andrea’s book, The Yoga Almanac, offers seasonal practices to nourish the body and mind. Connect with her on LinkedIn and Twitter, and read more of her work on her website.
- Pérez-Aranda A, et al. (2021) Impact of mindfulness and self-compassion on anxiety and depression: The mediating role of resilience. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1697260021000107?via%3Dihub
- Washam S. (2022). Personal interview.