Archives for April 2018

How is a Retreat Like Rock Music?

Retreats are like the best rock music.

Please allow me to explain.

Tonight I spent the evening reliving the music of my husband’s youth at the local arena. My husband is a big fan of the British rock band Pink Floyd. To be honest, prior to tonight I knew next to nothing about Pink Floyd; I do have one faint memory of a moment of rebellion around grade three or four, when my co-conspirators and I hid among the winter coats in the back of the classroom and sang “We Don’t Need No Education” rather loudly to a flustered but good-hearted teacher. Nothing else.

I extend sincere apologies for my ignorance of Pink Floyd to those with a deep love and admiration for the artists, and to all those who may have a much more comprehensive rock music education than my own.

What I do know is that when the student is ready, the teacher appears. Tonight my teacher was Pink Floyd.

After an evening of soaking in the band’s iconoclastic sound, I came away convinced that the legendary rock music of Pink Floyd, is the perfect metaphor for the processes of transformation at work in the human psyche on a meditation retreat. If you are considering making an extended retreat part of your practice, consider the following and then, as my first zen teacher used to say “believe nothing I tell you; go, and find out for yourself”.

Ten Ways in Which Going on Retreat is not only like Rock Music, but like the Musical Genius Rock Music of Pink Floyd:

1. It explores what is underneath.

Going on retreat challenges our tendency to perceive and respond to the world in our habitual ways, just like listening deeply to the music of Pink Floyd begins to shake up our habitual modes of existence. We can no longer tune out; we have to enter into our experience in the five senses and ask hard questions about the way our world is in the moment. In a retreat, we begin to wake up our senses and inquire into our experience; we appreciate the questions that are resonating below the surface. In a retreat, just as when we first listen to Pink Floyd, we may feel a little disoriented when we first let ourselves open to the experience of the moment, but we may also begin to see creative opportunities.

2. It helps us hear the music in every day life.

Many of Pink Floyd’s songs begin with the sounds of everyday life: a clock tower ringing, a cash register clicking, the noise of conversation, or a plane flying overhead. These everyday sounds become enveloped in music when we listen closely. This is exactly what I have noticed happens on long retreats. Rather than disconnecting from our experience, we may begin to see the beauty and creative potential in everyday moments as we give ourselves extended contact with silence and temporarily take a break from our daily routines. In helping us hear the music in what is always there, we begin to experience each moment as unique and maybe even sacred.

Explore current CMSC retreat offerings here.

3. It is a long composition, so sit down and listen.

I am not sure Pink Floyd would be such a massive hit today as when they were at their peak in the 1970s. Some of their pieces don’t even have a narrative; they seem to take the time to explore the possibilities within each instrument, meandering from the original melody and discovering the range and textures possible for each sound. This takes a long time.

Who sits and pays attention to a directionless experiment for almost seven full minutes any more? People who go on retreat do.

We do not play rock music on silent retreats, but we do sit down and pay attention, allowing ourselves the same directionless, narrative-free, exploration of possibility in the present moment. Not only do we sit for extended periods, allowing ourselves to develop the attentional capacity to deeply explore creatively, we also walk for extended periods, rest for extended periods, and generally allow our attention to settle in for deep play.

4. It challenges the status quo.

Even a student in elementary school could see the immense benefit of questioning received narratives by singing “All in all I’m just another brick in the wall”. Going on retreat is an immense challenge to our status quo. We are not all inspired to live the life of a monastic, but we can gain valuable perspective on our lives by taking on the challenge of stepping out of the center of the action, and coming into loving and intimate contact with ourselves as human beings rather than as generators of productivity. We begin to value ourselves and our lives not for what we do or what we give out, but simply for existing. This embrace of being is the foundation of wisdom and skillful action. I think you can see the many ways in which the simple yet radical action of taking retreat could challenge the status quo in your life, work, and relationships.

5. It contacts and questions numbness.

“Hello? Hello? Hello? Is there anybody in there? Just nod if you can hear me/Is there anyone at home?”

is the opening for Pink Floyd’s piece titled “Comfortably Numb.” I do not know about you, but in daily life there are many experiences that reinforce a pattern of numbing: just listening to evening news, or sitting in traffic, or working and caring for others as part of an average human life can cause our senses to numb, both to the external world and to that still small voice of our own vitality. On retreat we need to start where we are, and sometimes when we first go on retreat we may find we are deeply tired, or stressed, or maybe even agitated by what we are discovering within. This is the point of retreat: to know how things are, and to generously offer ourselves the opportunity to reconnect to ourselves and refuel so that we are re-sensitized and able to make kind, intimate contact with both internal and external worlds.

6. It reminds us of the full range of our common humanity.

Pink Floyd sings of the incredible vulnerability we all feel at times: “And if I show you my dark side/Will you still hold me tonight?/And if I open my heart to you/And show you my weak side/What would you do?”. Pink Floyd’s work also implies the incredible strength and resistance we may contact when we face the intense challenges to our integrity that the world offers to us. As Roger Waters, one of Pink Floyd’s original members said recently “There is no ‘us’ and ‘them’; it’s an illusion. We are all human beings and we all have a responsibility to support one another…” (Grow, K. in Rolling Stone magazine, February, 2017). Going on retreat, and practicing mindfulness and compassion in the supportive community of others who share our intentions to strengthen these qualities within, is a marvelous reminder that we are not alone. In practicing in community, without the obligations and complications of social interaction, we fully experience both our own unique humanity and a deeper connection with others. There is no “us” and “them”.

7. We need to experience it live.

Keeping your inner work, mindful self compassion and meditation practice to online meetings and smartphone apps is to a mindful self compassion retreat as listening to recorded songs on your phone is to immersing yourself in a live concert. Need I say more?

8. We need to soak in it to get the full benefit.

I noticed that my husband was very moved by Pink Floyd songs although I could barely understand the words. Many of the images and the lights which were layered over the songs in concert had symbolism to him that completely escaped me, the Pink Floyd neophyte. I think the difference in our experience came from the hundreds of hours my husband had spent soaking in the music in his youth: when he heard the music he knew what it intended and what his own responses and associations were with the songs. Like music, mindful self compassion and any other meditation practice requires deep immersion and soaking to notice all the nuances and to fully comprehend their transformative potential.

9. We all belong.

There are people from every walk of life who love Pink Floyd. I saw fathers and daughters, oldsters and hipsters, people of every gender, race and class, singing their hearts out in tenderness and in resistance tonight. This is also what a meditation retreat provides: the connection we have with one another at a retreat is not with the identities we hold outside of the practice, it is with the process of what is being experienced, what is alive. Together in practice we share the experience of being alive, being human, held in the safety and kindness of the container of the retreat, and that is how we belong. There are so many dividing lines that separate us; music and meditation practice are experiences that bridge divides, experiences where everyone belongs.

10. It will come back to you when you need it.

When my clients ask me if I have any tricks or tips for staying motivated for daily practice, I simply tell them “deep immersions”. Just like my husband spent hundreds of hours listening to, connecting with, singing along to, imagining he was playing in the band with, Pink Floyd, retreat practice allows us to spend extended time receiving mindful self compassion teachings, connecting those teachings with our lived experience, resonating with them, experimenting and playing with how they might express themselves in our lives. After extended time soaking in the music of Pink Floyd, my husband, and the thousand other people alongside him, could sing every word of the Pink Floyd songs without a second thought; in the same way extended immersion in mindfulness and self compassion practice through retreats can allow mindful self compassion to become immediately accessible, the new first response, the song sung without hesitation or thought. To me, these ten reasons are among the many reasons that make every MSC retreat participant a rock star.

We hope that we will see you at one of our upcoming MSC retreats!

Please check the current retreat offerings here.

CMSC Seeking Volunteers to Support Our Work!

As MSC continues to make its way around the globe and more people learn about the power of self-compassion, the non-profit Center for Mindful Self-Compassion has done its best to keep up with the tremendous demand of over 20,000 “graduates,” 1500 people trained as teachers, and countless thousands of people interested in the topic and our work.

We have a variety of exciting projects in the works, interesting and intriguing inquiries from around the world, and a lot of infrastructure to build to keep up with this inspiring upswell of interest in the program and all of its various components. CMSC operates on a shoestring financially, in many ways, supporting ourselves from a few events every year and the kindness of the founders, Chris Germer and Kristin Neff, as well as the generosity of a number of you who have offered financial gifts to help us “keep the doors open.” In addition to financial resources, CMSC thrives from the kindness of our friends and colleagues who offer their expertise, training, passion and spare time to help bring our various projects and initiatives to fruition. Two shining examples are Kim Sogge who is our volunteer CMSC Retreat Coordinator and Cecilia Fernandez-Hall, who is our volunteer Circles of Practice Manager. Kim, Cecilia and many others are freely giving of their time and dedication to assure that these important parts of CMSC continue to grow and thrive.

If you have any expertise, talent, interest or training that you could offer to CMSC, we would be grateful to know of it. We invite you to take a moment to complete our Volunteer Application Form so we can know of your interest and your particular skill set, so that we can potentially call upon you in the future to help us out. We don’t always need help in every area, but it is helpful to know who is interested and what they can offer when opportunities arise. Please consider stepping up and helping out by joining the CMSC team!

Volunteer now!

“I love you Bro, you’re gonna get through this …” Lessons in Self-Compassion From a U.S. Prison


What could possibly be the role of self-compassion in a prison? And how could such a concept ever be of use to hardened lifers in one of the toughest prisons in the United States?
As a mindfulness and self-compassion teacher, I did not know the answer to these questions, but from my work in the field with other groups, I knew the value of teaching people to love themselves for who they are, without guilt, shame and self criticism.

So three of us (Gilda Sheppard, Blair Carleton and myself) drove the five hours from Seattle to Clallam Bay high-security male prison, to facilitate a two-day workshop on Mindful Self-Compassion to a group of lifers, most of whom had no hope of parole.

We’d been invited by Andre Parker and Kimonte Carter, leaders of the Black Prisoners’ Caucus, (BPC,) a prisoner-initiated, forty-year organization in five Washington State prisons. The BPC understands the value and importance of educational and learning opportunities for inmates to improve their lives. Given what we were proposing to teach at this high-security prison, it was questionable how we would be received by a general population of men who, we guessed, had been hardened through serving life in prison, trauma from childhood, and tough experiences steeped in violence.

These men had long been on the receiving end of high levels of real criticism, with large doses of guilt and shame. How would we reach this group? What would they make of us and what we had to offer in terms of an unorthodox (for prisons) mode of teaching?

We were aided in our efforts by our colleague Gilda Sheppard, who is making a documentary, Since I Been Down, about the triumph of the human spirit in the toughest place possible: prison. It was through Gilda’s influence that we were able to get the prison’s permission to run the workshop.

We were restricted by number to 20 participants who in fact became an incredibly engaged group of students, but we could have filled more classes; apparently, many more of the guys from the prison were curious about joining in, too.

There was a real sense of anticipation in the room when the students arrived prepared with their notebooks. We were reminded of our physical and procedural restraints as we observed them distributing small, sharpened pencils amongst themselves, to be collected at the end of the class. We started by asking why each person chose to attend the workshop.

Reasons for taking the class were varied. Some were simply intrigued by concepts of mindfulness and compassion, since they have heard these terms now commonly accepted as part of current language such as “Be mindful of this or that.” and therefore wanted to better understand what “being mindful” really means.

Other participants shared that they were here to support their friend Andre who had requested the class, while another admitted that he is soon up for clemency and that taking this class would look good on his appeal papers. A couple of others said they liked the colorful flier advertising the class and were curious.

A few others said they wanted to take the class so that they can be better fathers.

When questioned about having an ongoing meditation or mindfulness practice, most said that this was not something they had as part of their lives, although two of the inmates were Buddhists using prayers as a form of meditation.

The prison staff divided our time for the workshop into three sections of roughly 2.5 hours each. Our first session right after lunch introduced the concepts of mindfulness and self-compassion experientially, through an exploration of the question: “How do you treat a friend?”

We then looked at the science behind compassion, had an exciting discussion about the brain, the causes of stress (the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems with their associated modes of operation), and ideas with which these students were very familiar: the fight or flight response. They were less familiar with “tend and befriend” concepts, and we challenged them further by working with difficult emotions by asking the key question, “Why do we criticize ourselves?” In the final session, we introduced the idea of “embracing life” via a mindful eating exercise, as well as an exploration of gratitude and self-appreciation.

The prison environment is different than any other group environments in which we teach, and we couldn’t help but notice that each time the students entered or left the classroom, they went through a routine pat-down body search. And of course, behind the window to the class, you could see the faces of the officers watching us. It was therefore obvious that the creation of a confidential and safe place in such a short time span in this strongly monitored environment was a challenge. I believe we were able to accomplish this simply through the embodiment of our mindfulness and compassion practices more than the explicit teaching of these practices.

We were curious to notice the various reactions to the hand gesture exercise of self-compassion, which we call the “holding tight fists” exercise (which often represents holding on to stress). The inquiry process following this exercise brought to light many different associations such as:



“I am ready!”

This exciting inquiry, while evoking thought-provoking discussions, validated their experience through empathy, by eliciting how tiring it must feel to be always “holding tight.”

An ensuing discussion on our common humanity was humbling too. The men demonstrated the depth of their interest in each others’ experiences.

This was extraordinary since many of these men, on the outside, belonged to different rival gangs, and for them this was the very first time that they were working together, getting to know and respect each other.

They showed a marked curiosity for their fellows’ family history through the generations and what that meant for their own individual family legacy. They were then able to acknowledge our common basic human needs for love, belonging, being seen, and being understood. One of the men came to the insight thoughtfully: “I guess that’s why I joined a gang.”

One of the many misgivings that came up repeatedly was that mindfulness and self-compassion are often seen as stereotypically “feminine.” So we also explored the delicate balance between taking care of one’s own needs and responding to a friend’s needs, with the guys raising important questions about the differences between self-compassion and being selfish, and since many of us were raised to always put others first, the idea of being compassionate to yourself can seem alien.

Insightful questions were also raised about the difference between compassion and empathy, and whether these are the same, which led to some interesting dialogue about the nature of attachment and whether this is the same as the Buddhist concept of “no attachment” as the basis for no suffering.

One idea that attracted a great deal of enthusiasm was that of neuroplasticity. We described how through lifelong repetition of unhelpful behaviors patterns, we create “grooves” in the brain, which are difficult, but not impossible to change, to which one student responded: “Those aren’t grooves, those are deep trenches!”

However, it wasn’t until we started to explore the idea of how we treat a friend versus how we treat ourselves that many in the group had quite a radical experience, discovering how vastly differently they would treat a friend in need in contrast to how they treat themselves when in need. The students realized the importance of gaining a better understanding of the critical voice inside their head, including what possible purpose this voice might have as well as how it can be hurtful. Furthermore, these tough men were brave enough to experiment with finding a kinder, more encouraging voice. When we explored this exercise, one of the guys shared with the group that his compassionate voice told him loud and clear, “I love you, Bro, and you’re gonna get through this!”

This was obviously a moving experience for all of us in the room and testament to the safety and common humanity that had been created. However, it wasn’t all just a feel-good factor. A few others within the group raised concerns.

One man in particular stated that his critical voice is what saved his life, since this was the voice that scanned the horizon for danger and had protected him since he was six years old.

This is, in fact, an evolutionary blueprint from our ancient animal heritage and of crucial importance to our survival as a species. This man remembered that he was often regarded as a “troubled child” and therefore punished for his behavior cruelly and insensitively. The only voice he could trust was his own critical voice, which saved him back then. Our subsequent group inquiry further examined and acknowledged the value of his critical voice, noticing how important they were once in protecting us, but how sometimes later this harsh voice can also attack us. We then discussed and explored the importance of tone of voice, gentle touch, warmth, and the use of a soft gaze in relation to ourselves and others.

The mindful eating exercise had the group fully engaged, eliciting curiosity and a full inquiry afterward. A few from the group shared how sad they felt for the seasonal fruit workers, and how compassionate they realized they felt when they reflected on the raisin’s long journey from farm to table. We were also able to tease out the paradoxes of how compassion can make us feel sad, since most in the group had thought that compassion was usually a happy sentiment. We were then able to explore the role of compassion in alleviating suffering and in supporting well-being amongst us all.

The sharing among the group was humbling and freeing, especially when someone mentioned how well they had slept overnight after the first sessions, like “a baby sucking his thumb.” And another shared how he heard a voice whispering kind, encouraging words into his ear.

In a demonstration of the application of self-compassion skills, one student reported how just taking a pause helped him when he got into an argument with a friend. “Usually,” he said “just sitting there stewing in my anger, the table in front of me shakes, but I was able this time to just breathe into it.”

Given that all of these men are in prison, some for life without parole, you could be forgiven for thinking that they would have little to be grateful for. However, one of the most moving experiences was hearing about their gratitude and what they appreciate about themselves. However, it was clear that small things counted very much, and participants didn’t hesitate to count their blessings.

One man was grateful for “the birds outside my window because they remind me of when I was free.”

“…that I didn’t get killed on the street”

“My willingness to change.”

“I am a problem-solver.”

“I am good and loyal friend.”

“ I find a way out of no way.”

“… my adaptability”

“Being positive, my smile.”

“Good teacher and good student.”

“Caring about being a better human being.”

We, in our turn, felt very a much a part of this group, despite our obvious background differences. After they took turns in sharing their gratitude list, Kimonti looked directly into our eyes and in his graceful but strong voice asked us to join them: “We would like to hear from you what you are grateful for.”

We gladly shared.

We expressed that in spite of the fact that there was an important Seattle Seahawks (American football) game that night, we were grateful that all of them showed up to the class, acknowledging their “suffering in missing the game,” but acknowledging the self-compassionate choice to nurture their own well-being by attending class.

As a footnote, one of the most gratifying things to come out of this adventure of teaching self-compassion and mindfulness in this unique environment is that when we left after just two days, these men were asking if we could come again and offer the full, eight-week MSC course.

We are very touched and grateful to Andre and Kimonte and to the rest of this courageous group to have been part of this process. As Van Jones said in the recent documentary, The 13th: “The opposite of criminology is humanity”