Relational Self-Compassion

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.

June 10, 2019

6 Ways Dogs Teach Us Self-Compassion

By Marissa Knox

—✦—

New research suggests that being a dog owner may be a way to access and cultivate the warmth and comfort provided by self-compassion through connecting with the loving presence of a canine friend.

To rest and trust in our own loving, connected presence is the essence of practicing self-compassion. It is the experience of tapping into our inner resources of wisdom and kindness and giving ourselves what we need to the best of our current capacity. Self-compassion is available to us at any moment by pausing and remembering all that is within us. Yet, there are many times when the demands of life get in the way of remembering this truth. Our busy, rushed schedules can lead us to go about our days feeling distracted and disconnected, and self-compassion can feel more like a distant idea than an intimate reality.

Buddy, a beloved teacher of savoring the joys and beauty of nature.

New research suggests that being a dog owner may be a way to access and cultivate the warmth and comfort provided by self-compassion through connecting with the loving presence of a canine friend. A recent study examined the effects of dog ownership on veterans with symptoms of post-traumatic stress (1). Veterans in the study participated in a program that gives veterans the opportunity to care for and train a dog that they ultimately adopt. The program focuses primarily on the healing experience of human-animal interaction. Results from the study demonstrated notable benefits for the veterans who engaged in the dog training program compared to veterans who were on a wait-list. In fact, veterans reported significantly fewer post-traumatic stress symptoms and significantly greater self-compassion compared to the wait-list group. Additionally, dog ownership did not increase veterans’ perceived stress levels. It seems that the benefits of companionship outweigh the responsibilities and potential challenges of caring for an animal.

The results from this study may not surprise many of us who have had the honor and pleasure of owning a dog. Dogs are master teachers of self-compassion in the way they invite us to be present and savor the delights of this moment. Dogs’ unconditional acceptance of us just as we are can reflect back to us our inherent worthiness, no matter how we feel or what we’re going through. Whether we have a dog or not, we can learn from the wisdom offered by dogs and integrate small, ordinary shifts in our lifestyle to slow down, pause, meet ourselves fresh in each moment, and remember our interconnectedness with life around us.

Ways Dogs Teach Us Self-Compassion

Dogs remind us to pause.

Maybe they’re sniffing a pile of gunk in the sewer, or maybe they’re relieving themselves. Either way, dogs invite us to pause frequently as we move about our day and notice the fullness of what is here, now. Dogs keep us mindful and present as we respond to their needs in the moment.

Dogs connect us with nature.

Whether we take our dogs on walks, to the park, or just let them out into our own backyard, dogs bring us closer to nature. With our dogs, we might find ourselves standing under the sky, basking in the sunshine (or becoming drenched in the rain), watching the trees and flowers, and feeling the breeze. These simple moments of touching the elements of nature can remind us of our interconnection with the earth and allow us see beauty that we might otherwise overlook.

Dogs show us what unconditional love looks like.

When we get home from a rough day, there’s nothing quite like the warm welcome of a dog greeting us at the front door. No matter how many hours it’s been or what happened last time we were home, our dogs meet us with fresh eyes, full hearts, and unconditional joy and love.

Dogs remind us we are not alone and we are okay just as we are.

Isolation can be a major barrier to remembering self-compassion. Even if no one else is around, being in the nonjudgmental presence of our dog can open us up to a bigger perspective and remind us we are not alone in times of difficulty. Without saying anything, dogs show us the healing power of radically accepting ourselves just as we are.

Dogs help us release oxytocin.

One of the ways we can practice self-compassion is to find a soothing gesture of placing our hands on our heart or anywhere on our bodies that is comforting to our nervous system. Stroking the soft fur of a pet is another way we can regulate our nervous system and activate the release of oxytocin, a hormone that gives us a feeling of connection and love (2).

Dogs show us our own generosity.

Caring for dogs is not always about playing fetch and snuggling. Dog ownership means picking up after them, whether it’s lint-rolling dog hair off our clothes or picking up their poo off the grass. It often means rearranging our schedules so we make sure they are fed and walked. Sometimes we face expensive vet bills or have to deal with fleas. And of course there is the heartbreaking reality of someday saying goodbye to our beloved dogs at the end of their lives. All difficulties aside, the path of owning a dog shows us the depth of our generosity and the expanse of our hearts. Loving a dog can reveal to us how big our hearts truly are and how much love we have to offer. Dogs give us the gift of knowing our own limitless capacity to give and receive love.


References

  1. Bergen-Cico, D., Smith, Y., Wolford, K., Gooley, C., Hannon, K., Woodruff, R., … & Gump, B. (2018). Dog ownership and training reduces post-traumatic stress symptoms and increases self-compassion among veterans: results of a longitudinal control study. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine24(12), 1166-1175.
  2. Goetz, J. L., Keltner, D., & Simon-Thomas, E. (2010). Compassion: An evolutionary analysis and empirical review. Psychological Bulletin, 136, 351-374.

Marissa C. Knox is a PhD candidate in Educational Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin studying with Dr. Kristin Neff. Her research is focused on the role of self-compassion in healthy body image and stress management. Marissa is also a trained Mindful Self-Compassion™ teacher, a certified Embody Love Movement facilitator, and a Level 1 iRest® Yoga Nidra teacher. Learn more about Marissa at marissa-knox.com.

December 21, 2018

Gifts of Service They Won't Forget

By Aimee Eckhardt

In the Mindful Self-Compassion program, we learn that love reveals anything unlike itself. During the holidays, this can be especially apparent for those whose dominant experience of the season includes anxiety, loneliness, emptiness, or a heightened sense of “not enough.”

One way to work with these difficult feelings is to offer acts of embodied service to those on our gift list. As we turn our attention toward others’ needs, space can naturally emerge between us and our own difficulties. We aren’t quite as swept up in them. And from this place, we create opportunities for connection and joy, within ourselves and with others. We are reminded of our part in the interconnected web of life.

Pope Francis invites us to “live the revolution of tenderness” through compassion and service. What would that look like in your life during the holiday season?

Give this short exercise a try:

  • Come to stillness. Greet yourself with a warm “hello” and settle in.
  • Call to mind a person for whom you’d like to provide a gift of service. Imagine their face as clearly as you can. Enjoy their company for a moment. Noticing, perhaps, a warmth of attention that arises.
  • From that place of connected presence, silently ask:

How can I make your life a little more ease-ful right now?

What do you need help with that I have the capacity to offer?

What have I heard you ask for, whether in words or action?

  • Notice any answers that arise. Give them time and patience to show themselves. Let your ideas be silly. Boring. Outrageous. Practical. Jot them down as you go. Gather them like jewels. All have value because they have arisen from loving, connected presence.
  • If a particularly enticing idea arises, do a reality check: Is this gift of your time/attention something that might create connection, ease, joy, delight? Does it arise from your really seeing this person?
  • Do this until just the right gift of service reveals itself. And if it doesn’t, let go of the exercise for now, knowing that ideas can be shy and often need to simmer in the background of your daily life to come to full fruition. Keep playing with it. Trust yourself and your good heart to land on just the right gift.

Ideas for gifts of service or loving attention: 

  • Cook a meal for someone who is over-busy with caring for others and deliver it to their home.
  • Organization: Clean a closet. Haul away recycling. Take old clothes to the thrift store.
  • Administration: Does someone you love need help filing their taxes? Organizing hospital bills? Researching a business venture? Offer a few hours of support.
  • Teach a skill: knitting, crocheting, bookbinding, basic carpentry.
  • Offer an hour of your time to fix someone’s computer.
  • Invite someone over for a meal who may not have frequent outings.
  • Have a book-reading date with a beloved, taking turns reading to one another and enjoying a selection of delicious tea or snacks.
  • For a young child you live with, how about a hot chocolate and story night?
  • Organize and host a game night.
  • For seniors or those with physical disabilities, offer a couple of hours of your time to change lightbulbs, clean out neglected gutters, put fresh batteries in fire detectors, or make other small home repairs.
  • If you know someone who would appreciate company as they pursue a stalled goal, (train for an athletic event, finish writing a book, lose weight, etc.), organize a system of shared support and positive accountability.
  • Simply offer time. Build something together. Compose music together. Perhaps bring over adult coloring books and markers and color together! For children, take them on a museum outing, to the beach, to a sports event, or ice skating.
  • For busy parents who need a night on their own, offer an evening of babysitting.
  • Gift an IOU for pet- or house-sitting for pet-owners on your list who like to travel.
  • For someone you live with, offer to do one of their least-favorite chores for a week (for instance, laundry or emptying the trash).

November 1, 2018

When the Dopamine Blinders Come Off, Self-Compassion is There

By Michelle Becker

Many of us can probably remember a time when we fell madly in love, convinced that our beloved was our life’s crucial missing piece. Fiery for this new person, we believed that we must be with them in order to be happy!Of course part of the human condition is the deep desire to be seen and loved.

When we are marinating in the hormone cocktail of serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine which fuel the early infatuation stage of relationship, we are experiencing the very real effects of the “most addictive substance on earth.

1” We are easily swept away on the resulting effects of joy and well being. Meanwhile, our new partner’s less-than-pleasant qualities go blissfully undetected.

What’s really going on?

In looking at this a bit more closely, we see that our partner is actually attracted to their own projection of us. They aren’t seeing us any more clearly than we’re seeing them.

The cocktail doesn’t last forever, and when eventually it wears off, we begin to see our partner more clearly. We notice now the parts that we are not so fond of.

In fact, we can begin to feel we may have made a mistake. Our person is no longer making us happy. And on top of it all, they actually have qualities we dislike!

… That awful way they scrape their teeth with their fork when they eat.

… Their chronic lateness.

… Their frustrating habit of leaving their breakfast dishes in the sink.

Yikes!

This can lead to a certain disillusionment in relationships. The negativity bias kicks in and our field of vision narrows to what we don’t like in our partner. Sometimes we even launch a campaign to change them. Their good qualities are still there, but we no longer see them in the midst of our disappointment.

When self-compassion kicks in

In the best case scenario, our self-compassion practice kicks in when we notice aspects of our partner we don’t like. We begin to comfort and soothe ourselves and we realize we can actually meet our own needs.

Then from this place of feeling comforted and soothed, a certain equanimity can arise. We can now, perhaps for the first time, see our partner more clearly.

The parts of them we love, the parts we dislike, and we can begin to become curious about the parts we fail to notice. Who is this person anyway? What is deeply meaningful to them? They begin to exist for us, separate from our own liking and disliking. No longer an extension of me, we can see who they are. And beyond seeing who they are, we can accept and love them just as they are. Being loved for who we are — warts and all — is very different than being loved for our partner’s projection of our good qualities. We don’t have to be good to be loved. An excerpt from Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese” comes to mind here:

“You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves. …”

Letting relational core values guide us

One way we can see our partner as they truly are is to become curious about their core values. What is it that is deeply meaningful to them? And we can also share our own core values. Then we can create a set of core relational values that really function like the rudder in a ship. The shared values keep us on course, or help us find our way back to what we are about when we discover we have drifted off course. In the Compassion for Couples program (a couples’ adaptation of MSC I created), we do such an exercise, and I love seeing the benefits that arise in couples. They report feeling connected, supported, and a sense of belonging to each other. Often there is a renewed sense of meaning and purpose.

Free audio meditation:
Lovingkindness in Times of Difficulty
from the Compassion for Couples program
(Please choose standard or customized lovingkindness phrases before beginning.)
🎧 Listen now. (16 min.)

Connecting through joy

One of the benefits is that when we know and support our partner’s core values, we can share their joy in anything that happens that is in alignment with their values. It is an opportunity to celebrate. Their joy becomes our joy. Maybe they value freedom and they get a chance to go skydiving and they feel truly free. We can celebrate that they had the experience of freedom and take joy in knowing that our loved one is truly happy. And our partner doesn’t have to choose between being connected and being free. To be celebrated even when pursuing the value of freedom, for example, is beautiful.

At the same time, if the other partner values connection, then the celebration together of the joy of skydiving becomes an opportunity for connection. And the gratitude the skydiving partner feels and expresses toward their partner for supporting them also feeds the connection that the other partner desires.

When we can truly see each other and support what is deeply meaningful to each other, each partner, and the relationship itself, is strengthened. The natural result is joy.

And who wouldn’t like more of that?

1Fisher, Helen. (July 15, 2008). The Brain in Love [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OYfoGTIG7pY#t=67.

What is Compassion for Couples?

In the Compassion for Couples program, we explore what comforts and soothes us, and we explore what comforts and soothes our partner. The two often are not the same, and we need to understand who needs which medicine when. We also look at our relational habits (rather than our partner’s) and how those habits impact the relationship. Exploring our affect regulation systems and understanding our partner’s behavior as part of being in the threat defense system helps us to unhook from feeling personally injured when they get caught up in unskillful behavior.

We intentionally warm up our attention to our partner by cultivating formal and informal lovingkindness practices. Rooting in our shared relational values helps us live from a place of what is deeply meaningful for us.

We discuss the role, importance of, and blocks to forgiveness and look at how to cultivate the conditions for forgiveness to arise. We also explore how to tend to each other in times of difficulty, especially how to communicate compassionately.

Finally, we explore the importance of gratitude, through partner appreciation and also the role of shared play and joy. Please feel free to visit CompassionforCouples.com for more information about the upcoming programs and resources for couples. Meditations will be posted there soon.

The program is for all couples who are in a committed relationship.

Learn more or register for an upcoming CfC course.