HOW DO WE NAVIGATE AND EMBODY THE YIN & YANG OF SELF-COMPASSION?
This toolbox of self-compassion is a vast continuum from gentle, loving and open receptivity to the fierce discernment that comes from being in your absolute Truth, or standing firm for your beliefs in the world and in your life. Navigating this continuum of Yin and Yang forms of compassion is crucial for personal transformation and global transformation. I’d like to share with you here some of my learnings about my exploration of this continuum and how I see it in each of us on our paths of healing.
This exploration of Self-Compassion has been researched and taught in many settings from trauma work and the world of IFS, to Buddhist and Zen Buddhist teachings, to mindful self-compassion practices in a secular mindfulness setting. Both forms of compassion are crucial tools to either nudge us into our healing path or force us to surrender to our fear and pain — in both cases allowing our personal healing and transformation to progress. It teaches us how to counteract the unkindness of our Capitalism, our culture wars, our ancestral heritage and family traumas. Self-compassion helps us soften into the present moment of now where we can actually fully live and come back to in each moment of our daily lives, so it can be a tool we use everyday.
First, we need to understand the act of compassion. It is not being nice or pleasing others or having empathy for someone who is suffering or in pain. Compassion is an action. It is bringing care to someone who is suffering or in distress. It requires that we separate from, identify with, and attend to our own pain and discomfort that may arise in any situation before we can offer true compassion to another. It requires our own knowledge of this territory of deep loving. It is an innate force of love within all of us.
The yin and yang of self-compassion, as it has been called, is all about your own exploration of what kind of caring action evokes compassion in you and/or allows you to take it more deeply into your life of action in the world.
Kristin Neff, Ph.D. a prominent researcher of Self-Compassion, says it’s best to begin your exploration on this continuum of compassion with this question: What do I need to help alleviate my suffering? The answer changes depending on the circumstances. Sometimes what we need is to accept ourselves as humans who make mistakes; we are imperfect, but we still deserve love. This is tender or gentle Self-Compassion. However, sometimes when we need to find safety and protection, the elements of Self-Compassion require courage, fierceness and maybe a fight. Anger might be the right expression, though not the right action. Righting a wrong, or standing up for justice for ourselves or others requires compassion. It requires seeing and speaking the Truth—our Truth. But, the question still remains after we see what we need, what is the compassionate action now?
Actually, the act of compassion itself is fierce when it is fully engaged. Deborah Eden Tull, in her book Luminous Darkness describes it this way, “Compassion is found in being willing to venture beyond our comfort zones and walk through the portals of discomfort, pain, and vulnerability for ourselves or another.” Kristen Neff’s definition of Fierce Compassion, taken from her book of the same name, is similar: Acting in the world to alleviate suffering. It looks different depending on the action required but involves protecting, providing for, or motivating ourselves. Carl Jung said, “One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.” Eden’s way of saying this is that every time we welcome—rather than push away—what we have judged, rejected, feared or neglected, we activate Fierce Compassion. I quote Eden: “When we consciously go down in our bodies, our emotions, and our unmetabolized pain, we can remember our innate capacity for love.”
So, you can see the Fierce Compassion is a pre-requisite for doing your grief work which I call Deep Diving.
EXPERIENCING THE POWER OF SELF-COMPASSION FOR OURSELVES
In order to truly offer compassion to another, we must first know the experience of offering it to ourselves.
Self-Compassion is comprised of 3 elements: Mindfully noticing that we are struggling or suffering, noticing that this is a fully human experience and we are not alone in our suffering or our Common Humanity, and bringing in Kindness to ease our pain and offering care. Neff has researched this process of giving care to ourselves and each of these steps is important, she says, to dampen the negative impact of our nervous system in Fight/Flight/Freeze responses from stressful situations and awaken the mammalian reflex to receive love. This requires embodiment or allowing your body to be activated through these practices of soothing touch and calm soothing mindfulness, so that your body can shift gears and respond. Only when we can make this shift in our bodies can we actually be clear and available to take appropriate compassionate action. This cannot happen if we are just thinking or processing things intellectually. Self-compassion practices guide you into a deeper relationship with your body where you can actually allow deeper healing to occur. Our bodies know how to process our traumas and deep grief and pain, not our minds.
The more deeply we give ourselves self-compassion, the more we can find our own fierce compassion.
For example, recently I have been doing my inner work and have gotten in touch with a young preschool age part that I call “Girl on A Swing”. The more I get closer to her and watch her ride her swing up high to the treetops and jump out of it onto the soft sand under the swing set in my back yard, I see her fierce courage, anger, persistence and determination to be seen. She is acting so fiercely because she wants her mother’s attention and never seems to get it. I have finally been able to hang out with her where earlier in my life all my parts were afraid of her, just like my mom was. Now I value her energy and her dogged persistence to do things right, to make a difference in the world, her embodied courage and generosity.
The more I invite her in with my love and compassion for her, the more I accept and make room for my own fierce compassion which she embodies. I no longer long for my mother’s acceptance because I am able to hold all of me now, my dark parts and my bright parts, when I wasn’t able to do this before. Knowing and loving this part is teaching me the value of fierce compassion which I always had but was afraid until now to truly embody. Writing my memoir “A Midlife Voyage to Transformation” was another example of bringing in fierce compassion to all of me in order to bring forth healing. Telling my truth was fierce and scary! The healing that resulted has given me access to my full continuum of compassion and allowed my fierceness to be alive in me now.
I have seen so many powerful examples of women using their fierce compassion in midlife or even in their 60’s to decide to leave their husbands of 30 years, to strike out on their own paths. The most kind thing they can do for themselves is to leave a dysfunctional or unhealthy marriage, moving through and working with all the fear that that brings up. This kind of compassionate action that we take in our own behalf takes both gentle compassion and fierce compassion. When these women get in touch with and learn to face their fear and guilt and pain, they awaken their own fierceness. When these women struggle with forgiveness and anger, they learn to hold themselves in gentle compassion and kindness. Fierceness is our birthright, our darkness we learn to explore, and through it our true authentic selves emerge. We feel empowered as never before in our lives to live our Truth in the world. Not being afraid to turn our own grief and pain into compassionate action for ourselves and others, is the path of universal healing.
Come to my Self-Compassion Practice Circle on April 15th and learn how to awaken your own fierce compassion through gentle body and breath practices that will help you find calmness, insight and inner healing and possibly a glimpse into your own deep reservoir of fierce compassion.