Mindfulness & Self-Compassion Work Together | Omega

Mindfulness and self-compassion can work together to help you end suffering, says Steven Hickman, executive director of the University of California San Diego Center for Mindfulness.

Omega: How do you define self-compassion?

Steven: The most common way we talk about it is treating yourself the same way you would treat a good friend when they suffer, fall short, or fail. In general, people are more prone to being kind to other people than they are to being kind with themselves. Self-compassion gets them to direct this kindness toward themselves in the same situations. 

Omega: What’s the difference between mindfulness and self-compassion? How do they work together? 

Steven: Kristin Neff, the creator of Mindful Self-Compassion (MSC), has defined self-compassion as having three components: mindfulness, common humanity, and kindness. Mindfulness is part of the foundation of self-compassion; they can’t be totally separated.

I like to think of mindfulness as a cooling practice and self-compassion as a warming practice. Jon Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as "Paying attention in a particular way, on purpose and in the present moment, nonjudgmentally." The "in a particular way" part sometimes gets glossed over and people forget that there’s the possibility of warmth there. Instead, people tend to think of mindfulness as bare attention. That’s part of it, but there’s more.

Mindfulness practices can help us settle. We can feel our feet on the floor or ground ourselves in a moment of distress by using an external object, like a polished stone or a sound. These practices can help us recognize we’re actually suffering, which can be hard for many people to notice. When you do notice it, there’s a better chance you’ll be able to muster up a kind response. 

For example, I had a client who would come in every week and talk about how various people had disappointed her and hurt her feelings and hadn’t come through for her. I stopped her at one point and asked, “In this moment, right now, as you’re sharing this, who is suffering?” She realized that the other person’s behavior wasn’t happening in that moment, but that her stories about it were causing her to suffer. 

Once my client used mindfulness to get herself out of the story and recognize she was suffering, we could then shift into a warmer self-compassion practice. I asked her to imagine if a friend were in this situation, what she might offer them. Maybe she would give them a hug or place a hand on their arm, or comfort them in some way. We can then see how to do that for ourselves. That is when mindfulness transforms into self-compassion.

Omega: Does someone need to take a mindfulness-based training, like Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) or Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), before taking a Mindful Self-Compassion Program?

Steven: These programs offer different things, and you don’t need to have taken one to benefit from the other. If people have a harsh inner critic, they may benefit more from an MSC program first in order to develop the capacity to meet their shame and their history with some warmth. This hasn’t been empirically tested, but I’ve taught both and I suspect many people drop out of the MBSR course because when they begin to open up to their day-to-day, moment-to-moment experience and everything they’ve been trying to avoid comes up, they can’t tolerate it. I’ve also seen people who didn’t take to MBSR really blossom in the MSC program. MSC gave them a path for meeting themselves with kindness and warmth in the face of a harsh inner critic. 

Another difference is in MSC there is much less focus on formal meditation and yoga practices. It focuses more on informal practice so you have something to use on-the-fly. Formal practices support the likelihood that the informal practice will be there for you when you need it, so both are important and both are in each training, but with different emphasis. If you’re drawn to meditation, you might want to try MBSR first, and if you’re intimidated by the idea of sitting still on a cushion for a half hour, then you might try an MSC program first. 

Omega: Do you have a favorite self-compassion practice?

Steven: In MSC we do a guided imagery called the Compassionate Friend meditation. You call to mind the image of a beloved being. It can be a grandparent, a friend, a spiritual figure, a fictional character, or a pet. Any being that brings you comfort, ease, or joy. You spend a little time with them, savoring the experience of being together. When you come out of the visualization you are guided to recognize you actually conjured this compassionate space and experience for yourself. It lives within you already, available for you when you need it. That can be eye-opening for people. I use this if I start to get caught up in being a little self-critical. I reconnect with that inner compassionate voice and spend some time with it. 

© 2018 Omega Institute for Holistic Studies

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