Archives for May 2021

Self-compassion for young people, now more than ever

Life is hard. And for young adults taking flight into the world for the first time, the stressors can be especially impactful. As people in Generation Z step into the sphere of adulting, many face enormous burdens of work/school pressure, loneliness, and despair.

And with few tools to manage these challenges, young adults are struggling. According to the American Psychological Association, 91% of those age 18-21 report that they have experienced at least one physical or emotional symptom due to stress in the past month, compared to 74% of all adults.

These numbers can’t be ignored, and CMSC is dedicated to sharing with our community of young people any support that is available to them.

Co-created by Karen Bluth and Alayna Fender, EYL is a 6-week course that teaches young people how to cultivate the skill of self-compassion. Designed for those 18-30, EYL helps young people to identify and use resources that they ALREADY have within them to bring relief to their hectic daily lives. It also teaches how to identify the unreasonable expectations for accomplishment and perfection that many young adults have learned along the way and offers concrete ways of counterbalancing those unattainable standards with more sustainable, realistic aspirations for themselves. 

Compassion is what arises when we see suffering and have an authentic desire to help alleviate that suffering. It’s for this reason that Embracing Your Life (EYL) was created. 

Participants begin to shift their understanding of the pressure they may be experiencing so that when they fail to “measure up” to unrealistic expectations, they can meet that experience with clarity, kindness, and understanding, as opposed to relentless self-criticism and a drive to push themselves even harder. From this place of self-kindness, people find the intrinsic motivation to continue working toward what is in their own best interest. In EYL, participants also learn the skills they need to soak up the benefit of the good things that are happening around them as a way to find restoration in the midst of their daily lives.

EYL graduate, Ashleigh Montford, describes her experience this way:

Not only was this course life-altering, but it started the chain reaction of the dismantling of the social constructs that have completely engulfed my life – before this course. I am able to see a forever change in my perception of the world, in my recognition of how I was completely obliterating my self-esteem, and sensing what it is that my being needs. I do not say this lightly when I articulate the fact that this course started something inside of me. I realized that there was a change that needed to be sufficient enough to save my life, again. Before this self-compassion course was introduced into my realm, I was on this arduous merry-go-round of emotional distress from the lack of humanness I was neglecting to give myself. So when I say I am grateful, I am grateful. I am thankful for the time spent pouring selflessly into my spirit, the techniques taught and instilled in me, and the intention of wanting to see me heal. The memories of grace extended to me will reside within me and always jog reminders to give myself the same. A very special thank you to my peers, you all are phenomenal. Thank you for the non-judgmental environment. Thank you.”

We at CMSC would like to offer a heartfelt invitation and request that you share about this program with any young adults you know who could benefit from connecting with their own steadfast inner ally and coach. Because in a world as uncertain as ours, cultivating stability, self-compassion, and wisdom are not just nice qualities to have, they are essential life skills.

Learn more about Embracing Your Life

CMSC Welcomes Aly Waibel as Associate Executive Director for Professional Training and Operations

Aly Waibel was recently hired as CMSC’s Associate Executive Director for Professional Training and Operations. CMSC has grown quickly in recent years, and Aly’s work will ensure CMSC continues to grow with the internal supports it needs. In addition to overseeing the MSC Teacher Training Program and the Self-Compassion in Psychotherapy Certificate Program, Aly works closely with Steve Hickman, CMSC’s executive director, to identify priorities and manage infrastructure projects. Steve says, “We are thrilled to have Aly on board at CMSC. Her amazing work at the Compassion Institute prepared her well for her role here, and having a fresh perspective from outside the CMSC organization will be invaluable. I think people will find Aly to be approachable, knowledgeable, and efficient, and our team is happy to welcome her.”

Aly says she was drawn to MSC because she loves working with compassionate people who care about sharing compassion in the world.

“It’s my joy to share what I’ve learned (and continue to learn) about meditation, spirituality, and compassion.”

Aly is also a Certified Senior Teacher of the Stanford Compassion Cultivation Training (CCT) course. She owns Compassion Education, through which she offers CCT courses in Oregon and online, and she founded the nonprofit organization Compassion Education Alliance, a global collective that offers courses and support to compassion practitioners, educators, activists, and researchers.

Aly is a heart-centered teacher who authentically and lovingly holds space for each student to get a deep and tangible understanding of what it feels like to bring compassion to suffering. 

In addition to working at CMSC, Aly is Program Director for Online Education and CCT Teacher Training programs at the Compassion Institute, where she works with international groups of learners who aspire to teach compassion in their communities. She encourages students and teachers-in-training to incorporate their firsthand learning about compassion into their day-to-day experiences. For Aly, “it’s a joy to see others take off in their teaching practice.”

When it comes to the parts of life that delight Aly most, she says, “My partner James and our dog bring me a ton of joy.” She lives in Bend, Oregon, where she enjoys hiking, skiing, reading, live music, and spending time with friends. She’s also a craniosacral therapist, massage and aquatic therapist, fitness enthusiast, and yoga teacher who enjoys exploring movement practices as a way to refine awareness. Aly also works closely with her partner, James Wood, author of Ten Paths to Freedom: Awakening Made Simple.

Aly holds a Ph.D. in teaching, learning, and sociocultural studies from the University of Arizona, College of Education in Tucson. Her dissertation, Living What the Heart Knows: Learners’ Perceptions of Compassion Cultivation Training, was the first purely qualitative study of CCT. Previously, she was the Executive Director of Opportunity Knocks, a nonprofit that serves entrepreneurs, business owners, and community leaders in central Oregon. You can learn more about Aly at her website,

Fierce self-compassion and protection from harm

The following essay is adapted from Fierce Self-Compassion: How Women Can Harness Kindness to Speak Up, Claim Their Power, and Thrive. Pre-orders are now available through your favorite bookstore.

Self-compassion is aimed at alleviating suffering, and to do so sometimes we need to protect ourselves — to speak up, say no, draw boundaries, or to stand up to injustice. Self-compassion has three core components—self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness. Kindness involves treating ourselves with the same care and support we’d show to a good friend. Common humanity involves feeling connected to others in the experience of suffering, remembering that we are all imperfect and lead imperfect lives. And mindfulness allows us to be aware of our suffering with balance and equanimity. Each element has an important role to play in self-protection. When we’re fighting to keep ourselves safe, the three elements manifest as brave, empowered clarity.

Kindness, when it’s aimed at preventing harm, is not gentle, it’s powerful and courageous. Facing danger requires audacity and determination — like when we climb out a window to escape a burning building or undergo chemotherapy to combat cancer.

Bravery is also required when we need to stand up to someone who disrespects us or invades our privacy. It gives us the boost of energy we need to say no or draw boundaries. Kindness also compels us to demand fair treatment when we’re being treated unjustly and to fight against oppression. This may take the form of speaking up, marching in protest, writing opinion pieces, going on strike, or going to the authorities. Active and engaged kindness spurs us to take whatever steps are needed to protect ourselves and our fellow humans from harm.

The sense of common humanity inherent to self-compassion is an important source of collective empowerment. The truth is that whenever we protect ourselves, we’re also protecting everyone else. We stand together with our fellow humans knowing that we’re not alone. There’s strength in numbers. When we forget this and feel isolated by fear or shame, we think we’re helpless. We may believe we can’t change anything because the problem is so much bigger than us as individuals. It’s hard to protect ourselves when we feel alone. From an evolutionary standpoint, we could never survive as individuals. We evolved to live side by side in social groups, and a core feature of humanity is our ability to work together. Remembering this fact — and acting on it — gives us power.

Understanding common humanity helps us stay strong when someone crosses our boundaries, tries to discriminate against us, or disrespects us. If someone insults me and I take it personally, I might feel weakened or afraid. When I forget that my identity is part of a larger whole, and feel cut off from others when threatened, the danger will feel that much more overwhelming. But if I can remember that I have the same right to respect that all human beings do, I will be more able to defend our common rights as a matter of principle.

Mindfulness in the service of protection helps us to see clearly without turning away from the truth. Sometimes we don’t want to acknowledge when harm is being done to us. When it’s our spouse or our boss who crosses the line, it can be easier to laugh it off than call it out. Part of us knows it wasn’t okay, but we may fool ourselves into thinking it’s not a big deal so that we don’t have to confront the knowledge that it’s not. It also means we don’t have to deal with possible repercussions. This tendency to avoid facing problems because it’s easier not to is pervasive. For years sexual harassment was swept under the rug – “Oh that’s just the way men are” – because women felt they didn’t have the power to change the situation. We continue to avoid the truth of global warming and carry on as if our lifestyle doesn’t have to change, because it’s so upsetting to realize the catastrophe our planet is heading toward. 

Mindfulness aimed at protection doesn’t provide peace of mind, just the opposite. Mindfulness shines a light on what’s causing harm and exposes what needs to change. It compels us to acknowledge the truth and speak up even when the truth is uncomfortable, without sticking our heads in the sand. It does so with balance and perspective, however, with the understanding that we may be mistaken in our views. It allows us to consider all the relevant information before acting. It doesn’t resist unpleasant facts by ignoring them, neither does it melodramatically exaggerate them. It sees things as they are. Whether it’s speaking out or simply keeping a dignified silence, we can use fierce self-compassion to protect ourselves from harm while still coming from a place of openness. 

Fierce self-compassion must always be balanced with tender compassion, however, so that it doesn’t itself become harmful and destructive.

Compassion is rooted in connection, but when we forget this and recast those posing a threat as the “other,” it creates a destructive us-against-them mentality. Sadly, this is what’s happening with the incredible political polarization in the United States, making it almost impossible for our government to function. For our fierceness to be compassionate, we must recognize that while we need to protect ourselves from harm, those causing harm are still human. Compassion is aimed at the alleviation of suffering, so hate or aggression has no place in the compassionate heart. As Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, “Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.”

The Zen meditation teacher Joan Halifax refers to this fierce stance as having a “strong back and soft front.” When we hold our backs strong and tall without being hostile, when we embody brave, empowered clarity, we can take action to protect ourselves from harm in a way that’s most effective. 

Read more in Fierce Self-Compassion: How Women Can Harness Kindness to Speak Up, Claim Their Power, and Thrive. Pre-orders are now available through your favorite bookstore, or you can purchase a signed copy here.


Loving kindness even in times of difficulty: A guided practice

Today I’m sharing a practice to support you in practicing loving kindness toward yourself and others even in times of difficulty. Couldn’t we all use that right now?

It’s natural for us to get caught in our threat/defense system during difficult times; whenever we perceive a threat, we humans are physiologically wired to fight, flee, or freeze. We are wired for survival, not for working skillfully with disagreement and difficulty. That can often get in the way of happiness, especially when it comes to our relationships.

Don’t get me wrong, there is great value in being wired for survival, especially when our lives are at risk. Our threat/defense system is important when used in the right context. Like if we were being chased by a hungry lion, for example. Unfortunately this threat/defense system also tends to get activated when we experience emotional difficulties, such as threats to our identity or sense of self, or threats to our sense of being safely connected in our relationships. 

When our partner complains about something we’ve done, for example, we may feel their unhappiness and sense a threat to the relationship. We can even find ourselves wondering why it seems our partner is “always” unhappy with us. We might begin to wonder what is wrong with us and why we aren’t as loved and accepted as we think we should be. We may find ourselves blaming our loved one as a way of protesting the threat to our sense of self as lovable (fighting), leaving the room, the conversation, or the relationship (fleeing), or placating them by agreeing in an effort to show we are not a threat (freezing).

Each of these strategies, while common, are harmful to our loved one and to the relationship. No one wants to be blamed, abandoned or placated.

And, we’re likely to activate our loved one’s threat/defense system or to “kick it up a notch” if it is already activated. Then we’ll often find ourselves on the receiving end of our loved one’s threat/defense strategies. 

Yikes! That’s a painful dynamic. I call it the downward spiral. But there is hope…

Rather than closing the heart and launching attacks when we feel emotional threats, what we truly need is a way to hold the difficulty in the context of the care we have for that person.

When we can hold it that way, it puts the person and the difficulty in perspective. Rather than activating our threat/defense system with its off-putting defensive strategies, it activates the care system. When we feel safely connected to others we begin to feel content, safe and connected. In the care system we are resourced rather than reactive.

Why do we need to practice shifting out of our threat/defense system and into our care system to have healthy, well-connected relationships? The thing is, what we practice grows stronger. As we continue to default to the threat/defense system, our defensive strategies grow stronger and our capacity to be caring and connect, to feel safe and soothed, is further neglected.

It takes only a quick look at the people around us, or a quick look inside at our own habits to see that the care system has been underdeveloped and underutilized. We have fallen into a kind of negativity bias. As Rick Hanson notes, “we are Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive experiences.” That negativity bias reinforces the threat/defense habit.

John Gottman, renowned couples researcher, notes that we need a ratio of at least five positive interactions for every one negative interaction. So how do we move from the negativity bias to the 5:1 ratio? From the threat/defense system to the care system? 

We stack the deck in favor of the care system and its positive outcomes by intentionally cultivating kindness, even in times of difficulty. 

In traditional loving-kindness practice, this is done by picturing a sequence of people (benefactor, self, loved-one, neutral person and difficult person) and offering each person wishes designed to increase their happiness and decrease their suffering. In the Compassion for Couples program we use this basic framework to increase our capacity to be in the care system and show up with kindness whether we are happy with our partner in this moment or unhappy in this moment.

When we are happy with our partner we often don’t see that they also have qualities that are difficult for us. When we are unhappy with them, we often don’t remember that they have qualities that we really love. And sometimes, in the busyness of our lives, we forget to notice them and wish them well entirely. 

To help us remember, accept and love them as they truly are — keeping our hearts open rather than closing them down and activating our defensive strategies — I’ve created a practice. You can use it to strengthen the care habit. 

(While I designed the practice to be used when considering your partner, you can use this practice with any loved one.)

It is helpful to start with some kind phrases ready. In the Compassion for Couples program, we spend some time creating customized loving-kindness phrases. If you have those, please feel free to use them. If not, you can work with standard phrases such as:

  • May you be happy
  • May you be peaceful
  • May you be healthy
  • May you live with ease

Take a moment to decide on which phrases you would like to use. (It’s wise to limit them to a few simple phrases). 

Here are the steps to the practice:

  • Please find a comfortable position, sitting or lying down. Letting your eyes close, fully or partially. Taking a few deep breaths to settle into your body and into the present moment.
  • Putting your hand over your heart, or wherever it is comforting and soothing, as a reminder to bring not only awareness, but loving awareness, to your experience and to yourself.
  • After a while, feeling your breath where you notice it most easily. Feeling your body breathe in and out, and when your attention wanders, noticing the gentle movement of your breath once again.
  • Then gently releasing your focus on the breath and finding yourself here in the room. You might visualize yourself sitting here, or just call up a felt sense. 
  • When you’re ready, begin offering yourself the phrases that are most meaningful to you. Opening your heart to these words, whispering them gently into your own ear, again and again.
  • Allowing the words in, allowing them to fill your being, allowing them to be true, at least for this one moment.
  • Now releasing the image of yourself, and in your mind’s eye, focusing your attention on your partner. Recalling what you love about them. Recalling a time when you felt tenderness toward your partner. (pause)
  • Offering your kind and compassionate wishes for them. Offering them to your partner like little love notes, as if you were whispering them gently into their ear… Letting yourself know how much you wish them to be true.
  • Now letting go of that image of your partner and recalling a time when you felt fairly neutral toward them. Maybe you hardly noticed them as they stood at the kitchen sink washing the dishes, or as they headed outside to work in the yard. Notice them now. Wishing your kind wishes for this person. The one you sometimes fail to notice.
  • Whenever you notice that your mind has wandered, refreshing your aim by feeling the sensations in your body. Coming home to your own body. And then feeling the importance of your words. Coming home to kindness.
  • Now calling to mind a time when you were not happy with your partner. Start small, not the most horrible time, but a time of mild to moderate distress. Maybe they left their socks on the floor again. Maybe they were late coming home again…and wishing your kind wishes for this person, the one that sometimes disappoints you or irritates you. Even then, to the best of your ability, wishing for them, may you…
  • Going slowly and taking your time with this. Returning to the sensation of the breath or to wishing your wishes for yourself whenever you need. Perhaps bringing a soothing hand to your heart as you care for both yourself and the partner who sometimes upsets you.
  • Now picturing or calling up a felt sense of each incarnation of your partner. The times when love flows easily, the times you fail to notice them, and the times you are irritated with them. They are all aspects of this person you love. 
  • See if you can extend your kind wishes to each aspect. Perhaps imagining them in a circle that includes you, and then offering your wishes to this circle, wrapping each aspect of your partner and yourself in the warmth of your good intention… May we….
  • Finally, releasing the phrases and resting quietly in your own body.
  • Gently opening your eyes.

When we practice offering kindness to our loved ones it strengthens our intention to treat them well, and it strengthens our capacity to show up with kindness rather than defensive strategies. With enough practice, responding with kindness becomes the new habit. 

Notice how it feels when you’re in a state of kindness rather than a threat/defense state. What a difference it could make in our own lives to spend more time in kindness and less time in threat/defense! And, of course, our loved ones and our relationships benefit too. 

Compassion for Couples: Building the Skills of Loving Kindness Begins May 20

If you and your partner would like to explore more ways to create a satisfying and loving relationship by learning the skills that support compassion rather than distress, the Compassion for Couples program is a wonderful opportunity to do just that.

Join Compassion for Couples: Building the Skills of Loving Kindness. Utilizing the skills of mindfulness and compassion, this program teaches couples how to build a strong and healthy foundation for your relationship, and provides couples the skills to help navigate the difficulties that arise within us and between us.

It starts Thursday, May 20th.

“I trusted this class would be great, but I had no idea how much of an instant change I would feel in my marriage. The nature of my relationship feels vastly different already. There is a renewed sense of warmth, friendship, gratitude and safety that I continue to appreciate daily.”

Enroll or Learn More