Self-Compassion Practices That Go Deeper

I’ve just received The Self-Compassion Skills Workbook by Tim Desmond, and it is fabulous. There are some hefty exercises to:

* motivate yourself with kindness

* overcome negative emotions, depression, and anxiety

* let go of self-criticism

* feel happier and more alive

More than just a regular workbook with a series of good exercises, this skills workbook offers a Map of Self-Compassion that you can use like a decision tree:

“I can stay present” – do this next exercise
“I feel overwhelmed” – do that next exercise

“I feel completely well and relaxed” – do this next exercise
“I notice some discomfort or suffering” – do that next exercise

And each exercise has instructions, examples, links for audio recording here, and space for journaling and reflection.

Tim, a psychotherapist and long-time student of Thich Nhat Hanh, especially helps the reader go deeper into healing pain from the past in ways that are supportive and effective.

Sample from the 14-day training program:

Practice 4: Healing Pain from the Past

If we imagine a 100-year-old tree, we can see that the 50-year-old tree is contained within it. We could count the rings and point to the exact place where the 50-year-old tree is present in the 100-year-old tree. We can see that the 20-year-old tree and the 10-year-old tree are all concretely present in the 100-year-old tree.

It is the same with us. Every experience we have is recorded in the shapes of connections in the neural networks in our brains. If a past experience is still impacting us in any way, it’s because the connections that were made during that experience are still concretely present in our brains. Someday brain imaging technology may become so accurate that we will be able to identify the exact place where our brain stores the experience of our 5-year-old self being humiliated by an older sibling, or our 10-year-old self being bitten by a neighborhood dog.

This is why healing the past is possible. We cannot change what happened in the past, but we can change how it impacts us. The metaphor of the rings in the tree illustrates how the past can be accessed in the present because its marks remain within us. We can access how those experiences are stored in our brains and change them.

In fact, neuroscientists have demonstrated that the key to transforming pain from the past is to get in touch with that pain while experiencing compassion at the same time. This triggers a process in your brain called memory reconsolidation that literally rewrites your emotional response to a past experience. The memory isn’t erased; it is simply changed to that it doesn’t cause distress anymore.

For this type of deep transformation to occur, all we need to do is to get in touch with the pain from our past as well as our compassion for ourselves – both at the same time.

– Just bringing up pain with no compassion is the same as continuously ruminating, which only causes the pain to get worse.

– Just bring up compassion with no pain builds joy and regulates emotions, but is not transformative.

– Bringing up pain and compassion together can lead to deep transformation.

Healing the Past Practice – Example

Darrel was emotionally abused by his parents when he was a child. He now suffers from insecurity and self-criticism. As he begins this practice, he allows himself to get in touch with his insecurity as a shrinking feeling and the sense of wanting to cry. He feels this in his body for a few breaths – just allowing himself to feel it. Then he reflects on the first time he felt this way. He remembers a moment when he was very young (he thinks around 5) when his father was yelling at him and is mother wouldn’t look at him. As he recollects that image, the feelings in his body become stronger.

Now he imagines standing next to this sad and lonely 5-year-old boy, and feels a well of compassion arise in him. He tells the little boy that he is perfect, and his or her parents are only like that because they haven’t learned how to be kind to anyone. It is not the little boy’s fault. He expresses to the boy that he loves him very much and wants to help him. The boy seems relieved, and Darrel spends nearly an hour feeling this connection with himself as a little boy. When he ends his practice, he notices a profound sense of peace in himself.

[The following practice instructions correspond to track 6 on “Guided Meditations for Self-Compassion” at here.]

Arrange yourself in a comfortable posture. You can have your eyes open or closed, whichever feels more comfortable.

Become aware of the suffering that is present in your in this moment. Whatever form this distress is taking – whether it’s anger, fear, sadness, frustration, loneliness, tension, or heaviness in the body, or anything else- you recognize that it is there. In this practice, you are not trying to make your suffering go away. You are grounded in deep acceptance toward yourself and everything you are experienced. Describe how you are experiencing your suffering right now.

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As you are feeling this suffering in your body, ask yourself, “When was the first time I can remember feeling this exact feeling?” It doesn’t need to be the first time ever, just the first time you can remember. Write down a brief note about the specific memory or general time period that arises.

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(Note: If you start to feel overwhelmed, go to Practice 8: Cultivating Joy)

Picture yourself at the age you were in that memory. Do not visualize yourself during a traumatic event. Instead just picture yourself at that age. You are still your present self, and you are looking at our past self. No one else is around in these scene. Look at your past self and pay attention to the expression on your past self’s face. Notice the feelings that come up for you and what you feel like saying to your past self. Write down these feelings and what you feel like saying:

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(Note: If your feelings or words could be considered caring or compassionate, continue with this exercise. However, if you feel angry, blaming, or indifferent toward your past self, go to Practice 6: When Compassion is Difficult.)

Now express your compassion to your past self. You might say what you’ve been feeling, or interact in some other way. Consider telling your past self that he or she is lovable and does not deserve to be treated badly. Alternatively, you can imagine someone else who symbolizes great compassion expressing their love for your past self. Notice how your past self responds. Does he or she accept the affection? Seem defensive or argue? Write down a brief description of the interaction:

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Continue to dialogue with your past self until you are sure that he or she can receive your compassion. Then go on expressing your compassion in whatever way feels most powerful to you. Pay attention to the sensations in your body as you express your love.

Continue this practice for 5-20 minutes.

Still picturing your past self, try saying the following phrases. Feel free to change them to something else if these aren’t helpful:

– May you be happy.

– May you be healthy.

– May you be safe.

– May you be loved.

– You are completely lovable.

– You deserve to be treated well.

If these phrases make your experience of compassion stronger, then continue this practice for 5-10 minutes. If not, express your love to your past self in your own way.

Question:

Did you have a strong positive experience with this practice?

– If yes, continue with this practice for the rest of the time you’ve allotted for this training session.
– If not, try Practice 5: Going Deeper