“The beauty of self-compassion is that instead of replacing negative feelings with positive ones, new positive emotions are generated by embracing the negative ones. The positive emotions of care and connectedness are felt alongside our painful feelings. When we have compassion for ourselves, sunshine and shadow are both experienced simultaneously. This is important—ensuring that the fuel of resistance isn’t added to the fire of negativity. It also allows us to celebrate the entire range of human experience, so that we can become whole. As Marcel Proust said, ‘We are healed from suffering only by experiencing it to the full.'”
The last number of years have been dedicated to deeper self-compassion within myself. This has not been an easy practice, given that my small child brain carved out neural pathways over and over, to be mean and harsh towards myself more times than being kind and compassionate. I know this is many of our stories. Our inner critic voice has often taken centre stage. Changing those pathways, and carving out new ones, takes time and practice and intention.
Life is full of suffering. As a therapist who resonates with Existential modalities, this is a reality that feels most true. We cannot escape this, especially if we seek to live life wholeheartedly and with openness. We will suffer. Not because of anything we have done or haven’t done, but simply because we are human.
It may not seem like an optimistic approach, yet within this we can lean into the invitation of suffering. To hold it tenderly, to nurture our suffering selves and extend compassion to her. Psychology shows us that if we suppress and repress the negative emotions and feelings, we also numb and suppress the ability to feel the joy and hopeful feelings too. We must learn to hold both, tend to both, allow both to be with us and us with them.
Compassionate Touch. A practice introduced by the wonderful leading researcher in compassion, Kristin Neff. She has put language to something we have intuited since the beginning of time. The mother or father’s tender touch and embrace of their newborn. The reaching of a hand to a friend in pain at the playground. A hug in the hallway from a housemate in despair. Our bodies speak, intuit and feel this truth, especially when in front of each others. This however, is much harder when it comes to self.
During this time of isolation and a lessening of physical touch, I personally have felt the need for compassionate touch more than ever. I have felt the yearning for touch and for gentleness to embrace me when life feels too hard, and my feelings too big. I have felt the instinct to reach out through the phone or computer screen to those suffering, and just hold them. To touch them, because words don’t feel enough. There is something about skin to skin that softens us.
What do we do when we can’t or don’t have that otherness, that human to human contact? Or when we do, but it just doesn’t feel “enough”?
We have Self-compassion. A compassionate touch towards ourselves.
I say this as someone who has researched self-compassion quite a lot, but mainly as someone who has experienced the healing and embodied sense of wholeness that has come from self-compassion. This is a life-line. This practice is a lifelong one. A continual returning to. My dear friend Jenn and I have been practicing this together for a good while through our RAIN practice (see Tara Brach’s RAIN meditations). Having a partner to do this with, has continued to strengthen the self-compassion muscle for when I am on my own and need it most. Spiritual friendship is such a gift — something I will write on at a different time. But, having someone in your life to remind you how and when to come back to your deepest and highest Self, to experience compassionate presence is to me, the definition of being rich in life.
So, with all of that, here is a ritual on how to practice Compassionate Touch with Self and a more simplified version following this.
- Begin sitting or lying down, in a position that feels comfortable and open.
- Start by taking three deep belly breaths. Slow and full inhales. Slow and long exhales.
- Begin to recognize what you are noticing within your body. What sensations do you feel? Where do you feel tension, stress, sadness, anxiety, numbness etc? Is it hard to access your emotion?
- After you have recognized this, just allow these sensations and emotions to be there. Without judgement or criticism, allow them. Perhaps whispering “I see you”, “you are allowed here” or “hello there…”. Just be with these emotions. If you can access where you feel it in your body, put your hand on that part. Perhaps on your chest or stomach. Rest your hand gently. Feel the warmth of the sensation.
- Next, investigate a little further. Look with curiosity at what is coming up for you. With your hand still gently touching the part of your body holding the sensation, and maybe asking “What are you trying to say to me?” and “What do you need to hear most right now?”
- Finally we nurture. Take a moment now, with your hand still resting on your body, call to mind a compassionate figure. It could be your highest Self, a friend, a Divine figure or even a pet. In the silence, listen for and position yourself to receive. What is this compassionate figure doing or saying? Listen. Be still.
- Receive and Rest. Studies show, it takes about 15 seconds of really soaking in and mindfully taking in positive affirmations and experiences to begin changing our neural pathways. Take a sacred pause here, and soak it in.
Perhaps you don’t have the space or time to really go through these steps. That is OKAY! Something I have started doing with Compassionate Touch when I am suffering in some way, is to go into a space that feels quiet. And simply putting my hand over my heart. Breathing deeply, and asking my heart:
“I see you. I love you. I know this is hard. How can I care for you? What do you need right now?”
Self-compassion allows us to experience the tenderness we so often want to give to the world. We really can only offer others what we have been able to give to ourselves. Our world is in need of deep kindness and compassion. Our world is in need of less burn outs and more grounded presence. Begin with your own heart. Begin with your own body. And let that compassion bleed out into the world so desperately needing Compassionate Touch.
These steps are inspired by Tara Brach and Kristin Neff, and written/modified to what has felt authentic for me. I encourage you to go with what feels good for you!
You can check out their work here: