CMSC Blog

August 9, 2019

An Interview with Chris Germer and Kristin Neff on Their New Book: Teaching the Mindful Self-Compassion Program

By Katherine Dittmann

—✦—

Giving oneself compassion is a challenging process for just about everyone. That’s why the Mindful Self-Compassion (MSC) program was created by Drs. Chris Germer and Kristin Neff in 2010 and, since then, has been carefully refined with the help of hundreds of teachers around the world. But how do we teach teachers of self-compassion? What do professionals need to know in order to bring self-compassion into their professional activities and the workplace? What do teachers of the MSC program need to remember in order to offer MSC in the best possible way? A brand-new resource book from the developers of MSC brilliantly addresses these questions.

Drs. Germer and Neff have spent the past several years writing a comprehensive volume on self-compassion for professionals — therapists, healthcare workers, mindfulness and compassion teachers, coaches, educators, business people, academics, researchers — anyone who wants to bring more compassion into the world, starting with themselves. The authors joined me for an interview to discuss the book and their hopes for the future of self-compassion training.

Now Available:


CONTENTS:
I. Self-Compassion: Theory, Research, and Training
II. On Teaching Mindful Self-Compassion
III. MSC Session by Session
IV. Integrating Self-Compassion into Psychotherapy
Plus: Ethical Guidelines, Companion Reading, Resources

▸ View Full Table of Contents and Sample Chapter

Writing this book, Chris says, was mostly a process of “harvesting the wisdom gleaned from MSC teacher trainers, teachers, and MSC participants around the world.” In particular, since 2014 when the MSC Teacher Training program was started, the authors found themselves in a “crash course” on how to teach teachers in the best possible way. Kristin and Chris especially credit Michelle Becker and Steve Hickman at the Center for Mindfulness at the University of California, San Diego, for taking a leap of faith and initiating the teacher training pathway.

Lessons learned gave rise to a model for effective teacher training

Kristin and Chris discovered early on that professionals who wish to teach self-compassion in any form should, first and foremost, have their own practice of self-compassion. They need to experience, in their bones, the inner freedom that self-compassion can bring to our lives. Furthermore, teaching has power when it arises from authentic, lived experience.

The hope is that professionals who read the book will take the MSC training course for their own benefit before bringing it into their work environment, be that research, healthcare, education, or pastoring.

After practicing self-compassion, if a person wants to teach the MSC program itself, they need to take a formal MSC Teacher Training. This is because how self-compassion is taught is as important as what is taught. The model for teaching self-compassion in the MSC program is based on the domains of competence outlined by the Welsh mindfulness teacher, Rebecca Crane (e.g., understanding the curriculum, relating compassionately to others, facilitating group process, engaging in inquiry), which were further adapted by Chris and Kristin and their colleagues for self-compassion training. “The book was written for professionals in general, but also as a resource for people who are trained MSC teachers,” says Chris.

The first part of the book is a comprehensive review of the theory and research on self-compassion. It is written with remarkable clarity by Kristin who has been immersed in this material since 2003 when she first operationally defined the term “self-compassion” and created the Self-Compassion Scale that is used in most research. After that, Part II unpacks the domains of competence needed to teach MSC, and self-compassion in general. Part III is a detailed, step-by-step description of the entire MSC program along with sample classroom conversations designed to help professionals anticipate and overcome common obstacles.

While they were writing this book, Chris and Kristin occasionally worried that they were “giving away the MSC store,” but their wish to disseminate self-compassion training widely in the safest and most effective manner is the reason for so much helpful detail found in this book. They wanted to err on the side of providing too much information rather than too little, giving professionals an understanding of self-compassion training at a granular level and affording professionals the chance to pick and choose what they need. This book will also serve as an important resource for trained MSC teachers, currently numbering over 2000 around the globe, for years to come.

The authors have collected some golden nuggets of teaching wisdom that they generously share throughout the book. One of their favorites comes from family therapist and teacher trainer, Michelle Becker, who suggests to teachers, “Find your own voice, not your own curriculum,” alluding to the meticulous work that has gone into refining the content and delivery of the course materials. Psychologist Steve Hickman, the Executive Director of the Center for Mindful Self-Compassion, offers the sage counsel to “take a half-step back” when teaching, so as to allow participants the chance to have their own experience and to combat the striving that new teachers often exhibit in their excitement to share the material. 

A vigorous emphasis on teaching safely

“Over the years,” explains Chris, “we have learned that there are many different levels of effectiveness, and what we tried to put in this book is what we have discovered to be the most effective way.”

One of the clearest lessons learned over the years was the need to maintain emotional safety in the classroom. Both Kristin and Chris recall that they originally had no idea how emotionally activating self-compassion could be for many people. Therefore, maintaining a safe space in the classroom (and also a brave space) is a theme that is woven throughout this book. For example, the concept of “backdraft” is described – the experience of distress that may arise when we open ourselves to love and compassion. Chris explains that self-compassion drops us into the relational matrix of our lives, especially those times when we may have loved someone so much and they could not love us back. The healing power of self-compassion is experienced when we meet old wounds in a new way—unconditionally, with mindfulness and compassion. 

If a person is not properly trained to teach self-compassion, there is a risk of its being ineffective and, worse, harmful. It is important for professionals to understand how self-compassion works in order to safely and effectively integrate it into various professional contexts.

“For many of us,” Kristin says, “the way we have learned to feel safe is by criticizing ourselves, abandoning ourselves, or by pushing ourselves to exhaustion. This means that fear can arise when people consider motivating themselves with kindness. Part of self-compassion training is holding the student’s hand, so to speak, until the student finds another way to feel safe.”

Integrating psychotherapy and self-compassion

Part IV of this book provides a framework for bringing self-compassion into psychotherapy. There are three levels: (1) how therapists relate to themselves, (2) how therapists relate to their clients, and (3) how clients relate to themselves. In their enthusiasm for teaching self-compassion, some therapists want to go straight to level 3—teaching practices to their clients—but their clients are unwilling to practice or they don’t know how to practice effectively. Therefore, as an inner discipline, the authors recommend that clinicians find a way to teach mindfulness and self-compassion in therapy without ever mentioning the words “mindfulness” or “self-compassion”. Part IV may be the most interesting part of the book for psychotherapists who want to bring self-compassion into their work. It also includes sections on working compassionately with wounded parts of ourselves, self-compassion as a process of re-parenting ourselves, how to safely address trauma with self-compassion, and self-compassion as an antidote to shame in psychotherapy. Many of the ideas in Part IV were developed in collaboration with Christine Brähler in Germany.

Diversity, identity, and privilege in teaching MSC

As MSC training has been taken to different communities, it has become increasingly evident that diversity, equity, and inclusion need to be addressed in a significant way. “There is a need to understand the intricacies of identity and privilege and to recognize that people experience significant pain through the narratives of the dominant culture,” Chris notes. “Teachers have to be aware of the cultural context and how our participants may have been impacted by cultural oppression of all sorts, such as bias, discrimination or even physical harm. To do that, teachers need to adopt an attitude of cultural humility.” Kristin adds, “It can be very helpful for self-compassion teachers to explore how their own identities have been shaped by culture and to let this inquiry open the door to curiosity about the experience of others. We also need diverse teachers to reach diverse communities. Our goal is to empower MSC teachers everywhere to bring self-compassion training to their communities in a natural, authentic manner.” 

The next stage: MSC adaptations 

The program described in this book is designed for the general population, but work is underway to adapt it for specific populations such as couples, for the workplace, for healthcare, for various clinical disorders, utilizing programs of varying length and intensity. Although the Center for Mindful Self-Compassion (CMSC) only approves MSC programs adapted by Certified MSC Teachers, the highest level of teacher qualification, professionals are welcome—strongly encouraged!—to find ways to integrate the material found in this book into their ongoing professional activities. This book was primarily written for this purpose. 

“To be clear,” concludes Chris, “this is a professional book. It’s for teaching self-compassion. “Anyone who wants to learn self-compassion for themselves—and that is indeed the first step—is encouraged to take a MSC course or to pick up the Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook which was released a year earlier. But for those who want to teach self-compassion to others, this book is the most comprehensive and authoritative text to date. “Kristin and I are very proud of it, and we hope it will be of benefit to many people around the world.“

Katherine Dittmann, MS, RD is a certified Mindful Self-Compassion teacher and nutrition therapist in San Francisco. She is the founder of TheCompassionateBodyCenter.com, an online resource for people in recovery from food and body image issues using self-compassion, and embodiment. Visit her website to learn more, or enjoy her collection of MSC meditations, Embodied Mindful Self-Compassion, Vol 1.

August 9, 2019

Medicine for Difficult Times

By Ravi Chandra

“Violence strips naked the body of a society, the better to place the stethoscope and hear the life beneath the skin.”

Leslie Manigat, former president of Haiti

—✦—

There has been tremendous change in America and the world over the last several decades: economically, demographically, technologically and politically. Change heightens uncertainty and allows latent vulnerabilities to rise. We are all vulnerable as human beings. This is part of our common humanity. But we don’t always know what to do with our vulnerability, uncertainty and insecurity. Our survival brains hijack our better angels. We freeze: we might become numb, shut down and withdraw. We flee: we might narrow our concerns, and avoid, push away, and wall off what we feel we can’t deal with emotionally, cognitively and relationally. Or we fight.

Despair is anger and hostility turned inwards. Anger and hostility are sorrow and frustration turned outwards.

For some – the small fringe group of White Nationalists around the globe, for example – existential fears have become fears of annihilation. Underneath their rage and fear are unmet needs: for safety and belonging at best, perhaps, but also, pathologically, a need for power and dominance. Instead of recognizing common humanity in their own vulnerability, and seeing people of different ethnicities as essentially similar to them, they have chosen a dark path of tribalism, separateness, isolation, and toxic, sociopathic “power.”

I imagine these individuals have had a deeply frustrated relational world to begin with. If they were more connected and related to real people in the real world, they might be able to generate self-compassion and compassion for others.

Instead, they have become further removed from relatedness by cultivating hateful, narcissistic and nihilistic ideologies in dark corners of the internet, where they “gamify” the idea of killing others. Tragically, this small fringe is now amplified by seemingly uncaring political leaders and philosophers who stoke their fears. They represent the most toxic ideas that civilizations have carried for millennia. That might makes right, and that it’s better to be feared than loved. That society evolves through reward and punishment, rather than nurturance and caregiving. That love, kindness and compassion are soft and weak emotions, unable to deal with the hard realities of life.

What life do we hear now beneath the skin of our society, and what medicines can we offer for what ails us?

Facing isolation and despair with mindfulness, yin and yang compassion, and relationship

As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “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.”

Society, through abuse of power and lack of compassion for its citizens, has left many feeling downtrodden and in despair. Those who may have felt powerful in the past are now faced with the challenge of change.

There is a vast network of trauma under the surface of society. This network of trauma is perpetuated by the avoidance, reactivity and blame that keeps us apart and is retraumatizing.

Sadly, all too many of us are not skilled in the remedies for constructively coping with change, trauma and difficult emotions.

Mindfulness, compassion, and connection are those remedies.

Mindful Self-Compassion workshops teach that there are gentle and fierce components of compassion, the yin and yang of compassion for self and other. With mindful self-compassion, we can learn to understand and not judge our emotions. Social Psychologist Dacher Keltner writes, in his essential book Born to be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life, “emotions are signs of our commitment to others; emotions are encoded into our bodies and brains; emotions are our moral gut, the source of our most important moral intuitions.” We can see how anger is an attempt to protect ourselves and those we love, and also an attempt to defend our deeply held principles. MSC helps us deepen awareness beyond reactivity to the active responses of fierce compassion, and also helps us avoid burnout and hostility. We can learn to nurture ourselves and others with gentle compassion, even as we work together on the issues facing us. In doing so, we can cultivate jen, the subtle Confucian feeling of kindness, reverence and humanity that transpires between people, and improve what Keltner calls the jen ratio, and with it, our personal and societal well-being.

Fierce compassion takes an active stance towards suffering and injustice. It might lie in supporting policies to minimize mass shootings, homicide and suicide in society, and supporting leaders and organizations who have sensible plans. This is also the path of relatedness and civic engagement. There is widespread support for sensible gun regulation. For example, 80% of both Democrats and Republicans support universal background checks. And while Congress has, for political reasons, limited scientific investigation into gun issues, there is significant research correlating lower suicide and homicide rates with stricter gun regulations, and other research supporting common-sense public health measures. (See my long-form essay for details on these and what I call the “gun identity” in America, as well as historian Roxane Dunbar Ortiz’s excellent book Loaded: A Disarming History of the Second Amendment.)

Fierce compassion might also lie in cultivating verbal, emotional and cognitive responses in the face of the coarse dialogue and injustice we often encounter in our communities.

Gaining wisdom through reading, reflection and relatedness is vital in combating ideologically based opinion wars that neglect or dismiss the human cost of those ideologies.

Gentle self-compassion begins with being able to name the emotions one feels in difficult situations, such as the hard emotions of anger, rage or hatred, or underneath them, the soft feelings of anxiety, inadequacy, or fear. These often relate to relational experiences such as being devalued, dismissed, subjugated or oppressed. The Soften-Soothe-Allow practice (available on Christopher Germer’s website) is enormously helpful at cultivating the space of mindfulness around a difficult emotion, and also warmth to help us find ease in the midst of distress.

After naming and soothing our difficult emotions, we can go deeper, and look for the unmet need that is pressing our buttons. Is it to be seen or heard? Is it to be validated? Be more safe, secure or connected? Or is it our deepest need, as social beings: to be loved and cared about?

Once we understand our inner lives, we can turn towards ourselves with self-compassion, instead of self-criticism, shame, judgment, and hate. We can turn towards others with compassion and kindness, instead of defensiveness, frustration, blame and scapegoating.

Being related, mindful and compassionate is not an easy path, especially at first. Frequently, as we touch our wounds, they erupt in pain. But when we increase our caring capacity, we find ourselves in tune with our best selves, and indeed, in tune with the patience, acceptance, and life-giving sustenance of Mother Earth herself.

These are deeply disturbing times, especially for Americans.

There has been more than one mass shooting per day in the United States so far in 2019. But almost 40,000 people in the U.S. died from gun violence in 2017, 1,000 more than 2016. While the murder rate has fallen overall, the percentage of homicides by gun has increased. 60% of gun deaths in 2017 were victims of suicide. Suicide has increased 30% since 1999, and an increasingly larger percentage of suicides are committed by guns; in 2017, almost half. 70% of suicide victims are white men, and the highest rate of suicide occurs in middle aged white men. Men commit suicide at over 3.5 times the rate of women, because more of them attempt suicide with lethal means, such as guns.

American society is suffering deeply. Many more people are feeling desperate and wounded. The life expectancy of middle aged white Americans without a college degree has fallen, even as life expectancy of whites in other developed countries has risen. Economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton called these “deaths of despair: suicide, overdoses from alcohol and drugs, and alcohol-related liver disease.” America has become increasingly individualistic and narcissistic over the last 50 years. Individualism has a proud history in America, but a dark downside when out of balance with relatedness. Civic engagement has fallen overall (though this trend may be shifting). We have smaller discussion networks than in past decades. Some researchers say loneliness is an epidemic, and loneliness and social isolation have clear health impacts.

You may also be interested in:

  1. Svoboda E. (August 7, 2019) How to Renew Your Compassion in the Face of Suffering. Greater Good Science Center.
  2. Chandra R. (August 4, 2019) The El Paso Massacre: Nihilism, Narcissism and White Nationalism. The Pacific Heart Blog, Psychology Today.
  3. Chandra R. (July 30, 2019) Narcissism, Needs for Certainty and Closure, and Relatedness. The Pacific Heart Blog, Psychology Today.

About Ravi Chandra, M.D., D.F.A.P.A.

Ravi Chandra is a psychiatrist and author in San Francisco, and a Mindful Self-Compassion teacher. Find out more about his work at www.ravichandramd.com, where you can sign up for an occasional newsletter.

August 8, 2019

My first Experience as a Person of Color in MSC — "Is it Really Me?"

By Sydney Spears

I can remember my very first MSC training experience from several years ago like it was yesterday. There was definitely a surge of internal experiences that I observed as I launched into this new journey of both questioning and enlightenment. I can clearly recall scanning all the participants who had gathered and were nestled together awaiting the start of the program. There was a broad spectrum of about 100 strangers who generally did not seem to reflect my own sense of a “cultural and racial self.” Yet, in the past I had experienced a plethora of social-educational scenes such as this all throughout my life. Therefore, why was I thinking this environment would be any different? Why was I still silently scanning for some other type of internal cultural-racial connection with my perceived sense of tribe after all of these years? What was I really searching for and questioning in this particular environment that seemed so familiar and repetitive, but yet so foreign?

As a woman of color I remember searching the landscape of this room to hopefully catch a glimpse of at least a few others who might visually mirror “my cultural self.” I wondered how in the world would this enormous group of people be able to connect and build trust. How will I be able to connect and build trust as well?

Initially, I did not feel as though I belonged with this group of people. How could self-compassion help me navigate my experiences of racism, sexism, discrimination, lifelong micro-aggressions, and social injustices?

All the MSC teachers seemed to be visually expressing the exact same reflection of the majority of the participants. I realized that I should be totally accustomed to this type of social reality, but seeking out diverse strangers who looked like me in various contexts has been my social reality. I have lived in a social world in which the majority of people in my day-to-day professional and educational spaces have been members of the dominant culture. Some of my underrepresented cultural identities are totally invisible to the social world and others are very visible and carry a socially constructed “single story” about who I am. Consequently, being a member of various underrepresented cultural groups has sustained an ongoing flavor of bittersweetness. There are times when these realities fuel certain identity conflicts and other times in which they tend to cultivate strength.

As I began to find my spot during the MSC training, I finally noticed two participants who appeared to be people of color. From the sheer sight of these two strangers, I began to experience a slight sense of silent connection to the space. Perhaps this was not just a “white thing” that was created by white people, for white people and delivered in a way that would focus exclusively on the white, upper-middle class, straight, cisgendered, able-bodied, colorblind experience of being in the world. There was a glimmer of some human technicolor in the space. Maybe there would be a possibility that this “compassion” experience might openly embrace all the dimensions of human suffering, including cultural experiences.

One MSC teacher privately inquired about my experience of the training. This teacher’s curiosity was meaningful to me because it expressed recognition that my perceptions mattered. Simple acknowledgements such as this can be useful ways of advancing a sense of cultural inclusivity, belonging and trust.

For many diverse people their multiple cultural identities are very powerful parts of their worldview and sense of self. Acknowledging the fact that there are multiple cultural identities in the space not only adds more richness and depth to the cultivation of mindfulness and self-compassion, but it can also foster validation of diversity, inclusivity and belonging within MSC teaching.

Currently, as a MSC trained teacher, I always acknowledge and honor participants’ visible and invisible intersections of diverse identities and my own diverse identities of marginalization and privilege. All participants want to feel a sense of connection, belonging and trust. Yet, there are certain underrepresented participants who need to understand that their cultural identities are recognized and included aspects of suffering and self-compassion. Ultimately, I feel it is imperative to create a space that holds and supports the full reality of our human suffering which includes both our cultural differences and commonalities.

Sydney will be joining MSC Co-Founder Chris Germer to co-lead a Mindful Self-Compassion 5-Day Intensive program at the Esalen Institute on the Central California Coast on December 8-13, 2019. Register today to reserve your spot.

Resources for Further Exploration of Diversity and Inclusion

▸ Deep Diversity: Overcoming the Us Versus Them
Book by Shakil Choudhury

▸ “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” by Peggy McIntosh – Essay first appeared in Peace and Freedom Magazine

▸ White Fragility
Book by Robin DiAngelo

▸ I Am Not Your Negro
Film co-written and directed by Raoul Peck

Sydney Spears, PhD, LCSW, LSCSW, TCTSY-F, MSC Trained Teacher is a licensed clinical social worker, adaptive yoga facilitator, mindfulness instructor and professor who resides in the Kansas City area. In the past she has worked as a presenter, psychotherapist, community mental health social worker, elementary teacher, and academic administrator. Her areas of interest, teaching and research have included trauma-sensitive responsive care, somatic approaches to trauma, mind-body therapeutic movement, mindfulness-based practices, diversity, equity and inclusion, and grief and loss. She has taught academic courses in cultural diversity, social justice and clinical social work practice for 15 years. You may contact Sydney at DeepInsight4RealTransformation@gmail.com 

Upcoming Courses: MSC (8 weeks): September 29th, 2019-November in Kansas City and MSC 5-Day Intensive program at the Esalen Institute with Chris Germer on December 8-13, 2019

July 26, 2019

Teaching the Mindful Self-Compassion Program: A Guide for Professionals

By Center For Mindful Self-Compassion

“Wise and heartfelt, visionary and thorough, this guide is a rich and practical treasure. The work of Germer and Neff is an invaluable gift for our times.”

– Jack Kornfield, author of A Path with Heart

Six years in the making, a comprehensive textbook describing the MSC program will finally be released in August.

This is the authoritative guide to conducting the MSC, which provides powerful tools for coping with life challenges and enhancing emotional well-being. MSC codevelopers Christopher Germer and Kristin Neff review relevant theory and research and describe the program’s unique pedagogy. Readers are taken step by step through facilitating each of the eight sessions and the accompanying full-day retreat. Detailed vignettes illustrate not only how to teach the course’s didactic and experiential content, but also how to engage with participants, manage group processes, and overcome common obstacles. The final section of the book describes how to integrate self-compassion into psychotherapy. Purchasers get access to a companion website with downloadable audio recordings of the guided meditations.

Note: This book is not intended to replace formal training for teaching the MSC program.

Curious to learn more? Read the complete interview with Kristin and Chris about the co-creation of this authoritative guide for teaching MSC.

Table of Contents

PART I
Self-Compassion:
Theory, Research and Training

  1. An Introduction to Mindful Self-Compassion
  2. What is Self-Compassion?
  3. The Science of Self-Compassion
  4. Teaching Self-Compassion

PART II
On Teaching
Mindful Self-Compassion

  1. Understanding the Curriculum
  2. Teaching Topics and Guiding Practices
  3. Being a Compassionate Teacher
  4. Facilitating Group Process
  5. Engaging in Inquiry

PART III
Session-by-Session

  1. Session 1 – Discovering Mindful Self-Compassion
  2. Session 2 – Practicing Mindfulness
  3. Session 3 – Practicing Loving-Kindness
  4. Session 4 – Discovering Your Compassionate Voice
  5. Session 5 – Living Deeply
  6. Retreat
  7. Session 6 – Meeting Difficult Emotions
  8. Session 7 – Exploring Challenging Relationships
  9. Session 8 – Embracing Your Life

PART IV
Integrating Self-Compassion into Psychotherapy

  1. MSC and Psychotherapy
  2. Special Issues in Therapy

Appendices

  1. Ethical Guidelines
  2. Companion Reading
  3. Resources

References

Index

Endorsements

“This outstanding, inspiring book comprehensively draws together the impressive body of work on the MSC program. The book is deeply personal–the authors share their motivations and process as they embarked on this work–and also offers a big vision for the potential of the practice of self-compassion across cultures, ages, and contexts. The authors ground the writing in a clear overview of the current research evidence. At the heart of the book is crystal-clear guidance on the content and process of MSC. It is an invaluable guide and companion for MSC teachers as well as other professionals who are integrating self-compassion practices in their work.”

–Rebecca Crane, PhD
Director, Centre for Mindfulness Research and Practice, Bangor University, United Kingdom

“Our world is crying out for compassion. But compassionate action presupposes self-compassion–an attitude we urgently need to learn, an attitude that can indeed be taught. In this pioneering work, Germer and Neff describe how to teach self-compassion step by step. Professionals who want to introduce self-compassion to their clients to enhance their psychological resilience and emotional well-being will find this book a rich resource.”

–Brother David Steindl-Rast
Cofounder, www.gratefulness.org

“Over the past decade, Germer and Neff have spearheaded a revolution that has spread rapidly around the globe. MSC teaches us to extend compassion to ourselves–instead of simply mindfully witnessing–which can create parallel ripples in how we treat one another. This book describes the tools and techniques that Germer and Neff have developed to teach MSC. I urge you to learn about this approach and join Germer and Neff in helping people change how they relate to themselves.”

–Richard C. Schwartz, PhD
Department of Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School/Cambridge Health Alliance

“The innovative approach to self-compassion training pioneered by Neff and Germer is internationally recognized for helping people learn to be kinder to themselves. MSC has set countless people free from the tyranny of hostile self-criticism; consequently, there has been a growing need to understand how to teach the program. Based on years of experience and research, this clearly written, step-by-step book outlines the central features and focus of MSC. It is full of insightful and practical guidance, and will be a source of wisdom for all interested in how to help people bring more compassion to themselves and others.”

–Paul Gilbert, PhD, FBPsS, OBE
Centre for Compassion Research and Training, University of Derby, United Kingdom

“Years of refinement have gone into making MSC the preeminent self-compassion training program, and now its creators have given us a great gift–a text that helps the professional develop an MSC program from the ground up. The book brings us up to speed on the theory and science of self-compassion, guides us through the nuances of teaching it, and presents a detailed session-by-session outline. This well-written resource is essential reading for any helping professional interested in teaching self-compassion.”

–Russell L. Kolts, PhD Department of Psychology, Eastern Washington University

July 15, 2019

“How is Your Heart Today?”
Compassion at Angola Prison

By Dr. Chris Germer
CMSC Co-Founder

Lara Naughton and I arrived at the Louisiana State Penitentiary (known as “Angola Prison”) around 8:15 a.m. anticipating a lengthy security check to enter. Fortunately, Lara’s colleague at Angola had arranged for a visitor pass and we sailed right through.

I understand the need for prisons, but I don’t like them. Three nights before we arrived, I had a nightmare of being stuck in Angola for life. Driving through the gates, however, the white wooden fences along the fields reminded me of horse farms in Massachusetts. I started to relax a bit.

Angola is a complicated place. It is one of the largest maximum-security prisons in the United States, covering more ground than Manhattan. The prison holds more than 5,000 incarcerated men, some of whom are on death row. It is named after a plantation that existed before the Civil War, and Angola is a country in Africa from which many of the slaves had come.

Angola still carries a fearsome reputation for violence, despair, and human suffering, although conditions have improved markedly over the past decades.

Still, it is a prison in which approximately 75% of the inmates are African-American and 70% are serving life sentences.

Lara and I waited about an hour for the 150 men who were scheduled to show up for my talk on self-compassion. Only 75 men eventually came due to transportation difficulties from the various “camps” that are scattered throughout the property. As we waited, I noticed clusters of men chatting amiably with one another, or just sitting quietly. No cell phones. Groups of men talking together seemed like a fond and distant memory to me and I felt strangely comforted by it. Lara went off to talk with some others in the room—all of the men in the room were graduates of the Compassion Cultivation Training (CCT) program she has taught at Angola over the past 3 years.

While I was sitting there taking it all in, one man came up to me and said, “I see you sitting here and don’t want you to feel all alone.” His kind gesture touched me, almost uncomfortably so, as my defenses relaxed still further.

When we finally started our program, an hour late, Lara read a beautiful poem that spoke about common humanity and then invited everyone to pair up and ask one another, “How is your heart today?” She and several of the men developed this practice, and they use it at the beginning of every gathering. My plan was to visit Angola, deliver a talk on self-compassion, chat with some people, and then get back to the French Quarter in New Orleans in time for dinner.

Yet here I was, sitting opposite an incarcerated man with a ton of compassion in his eyes, answering his question, “How is your heart today?” I explained about my nightmare and he softly said, “I’m so sorry.”

It wasn’t the best talk of my life. Lara had told me that these men had already been introduced to some of the research on self-compassion, and have begun to develop both a learned and practiced sense of what self-compassion is and isn’t. Many of them had been practicing compassion for themselves and others for a couple years after taking the CCT course, and some were even CCT teaching assistants. Others had attended the Angola Bible College and were pastors and had their own congregations consisting of other incarcerated men. A few of the men just had their dreams of parole eligibility dashed by a court ruling that week; another had just been granted parole that morning and would be leaving Angola after being convicted as a juvenile more than 25 years ago—he had never been out of Angola his entire adult life. What could I possibly say to these guys as a married, upper middle class, white, PhD psychologist and author?

The men were genuinely interested, polite, and generously volunteered answers to my questions, such as “Is there a difference between how you treat yourself and how you treat others?” They definitely perked up when I mentioned the word “shame” and how self-compassion is an antidote to shame.

Shame is a deep river that runs through their lives. There is the shame of committing a grievous crime, the shame that comes with systemic oppression of people of color, the shame of not being able to care for one’s family, the shame of being incarcerated—the list is long and deep.

The CCT teaching assistants had lunch with Lara and me after the talk. Lara paid for it from her grant sponsored by the Compassion Institute and it was catered by men in the Re-entry Club—a group associated with Angola’s Re-entry program, which is run by mentors with life sentences who help other incarcerated men prepare for life outside Angola. Lara always orders a couple extra meals so she can invite additional people to join, or so men can take an extra back to their dorms and share it with their friends. At lunch and through the afternoon, the guys asked very personal questions, such as whether I think the mother of the person he killed could ever forgive him, or what to do about trauma flashbacks. I was blown away by the urgency of their questions, and their candor. A group of guys asked later on, “Do you ever swear?” I explained that I was from New Jersey and that we love to drop the F-bomb in every sentence, but I was controlling myself in public. We also had a lot of laughs together.

Lara said that she needs the 2 ½ hour drive home to New Orleans to digest what happens during the day at Angola. I realized what she meant when my new friends at Angola could not pass through the gates when we left, and maybe never in this lifetime. Lara has never gotten used to that. Lara also predicted that I would probably get more out of the day at Angola than I could give, which is also Lara’s experience even after 3 years.

That was a comfort because I was blown away by the immense suffering I experienced, but even more so by the depth of caring and authentic brotherhood that I was invited to share in. Those interactions seemed strangely healthier than most interactions I have outside the gates.

Still, I felt a little nauseous over the subsequent days when I reflected on the pain those men experienced in their lives, including the pain they caused to others and are likely to relive every day. It could hear Helen Keller’s words in my head, “Although the world is full of suffering, it is full also of the alleviation of it.”

Where do we go from here?

The work that Lara and her assistants are doing at Angola is deeply inspiring and I’m drawn to support it. This fits well with the commitment by the CCT and MSC organizations to collaborate on projects to can bring more compassion into the world, especially to underserved populations. The self-compassion component seems to be particularly helpful for those living in a prison environment.

What originally brought me to Angola was a dear friend, Jenny Phillips, who was making a documentary on the compassion work at Angola. She is the same person who directed the amazing film on teaching mindfulness meditation at an Alabama prison, The Dhamma Brothers. Her passion was criminal justice reform and, sadly, she passed away last year in a swimming accident. I had the privilege of meeting several of the remarkable men who are featured in Jenny’s film. Her colleagues are determined to complete the film, so please stay tuned for that.