Chapter 1: An Introduction to Mindful Self-Compassion

The following is an excerpt from Teaching the Mindful Self-Compassion Program: A Guide for Professionals by Chris Germer and Kristin Neff. Translations of the Professional Guide are forthcoming throughout 2020 and 2021. See scheduled release dates here.

May this Professional Guide serve you and inform your teaching!

Note that CMSC makes a modest affiliate commission if you purchase the book through a link on this page.

Mindfulness and Self-Compassion

MSC is loosely modeled on the MBSR program, especially in its focus on experiential learning and inquiry-based teaching, as well as in its structure (eight weekly sessions of 2+ hours each, plus a retreat). Some key practices in MBSR have been adapted for MSC by highlighting the quality of awareness—warmth, kindness—in those practices. Most MSC practices have been specifically designed to cultivate compassion and self-compassion. 

MSC can be accurately described as mindfulness-based self-compassion training. It is a hybrid of mindfulness and compassion, with an emphasis on self-compassion. Mindfulness is the foundation of self-compassion since we need to be mindfully aware that we’re suffering while we’re suffering (no small feat!) in order to have a compassionate response. Although mindfulness is already part of self-compassion, we named this program Mindful Self-Compassion to highlight the key role of mindfulness in self-compassion training. 

From our experience, seasoned MBSR and MBCT teachers can learn to teach MSC quite easily when they understand the principles and practices of MSC. Valuable skills that MBSR and MBCT teachers have usually acquired are an established personal meditation practice; sensing the difference between “fixing” and “being with” distress; understanding the centrality of kindness in both teaching and practice; and knowing how to engage a group in a spacious, nonjudgmental manner. 

We have found that our best compassion teachers are often steeped in mindfulness, just as some of the finest mindfulness teachers are full of compassion. Self-compassion training brings a new lens to mindfulness training, however. When a practitioner is struggling, a mindfulness teacher might ask, “Can you make some room for that experience?” or “Can you hold that experience in tender awareness?” A self-compassion teacher might add, “Can you bring some kindness to yourself in this moment?” or “What do you think you need right now?” Mindfulness focuses on moment-to-moment experience, whereas compassion focuses on the suffering person, or “self.” 

Mindfulness teachers may have questions or concerns about MSC that reflect differences between these two approaches. Some of these questions are now discussed. 

Isn’t warming up awareness with loving-kindness and compassion a subtle way of resisting moment-to-moment experience?

This is indeed an inherent danger in self-compassion practice. Beginning students try to throw compassion at suffering to make it go away, introducing a subtle element of striving and resistance to present-moment experience. Over time, however, students discover that self-compassion involves allowing the heart to melt in the heat of suffering by abandoning striving and resistance. While warming up awareness may be more intentional with self-compassion, it isn’t more effortful. Mindfulness and self-compassion are both skills that enable practitioners to release their instinctive resistance to discomfort. 

Why do we need compassion training at all? Aren’t compassion and self-compassion already in mindfulness training?

When mindfulness is fully present, it is suffused with kindness and compassion. However, it is very difficult to meet intense and disturbing emotions, such as shame, and remain fully mindful. When we experience shame, for example, our field of awareness tends to narrow in fear, and our attention turns away in disgust. Shame also makes us dissociate from our bodies and hollows out the observing self. That’s when we need to reconstitute the observing self with explicit compassion. When we feel safer within the embrace of compassion, we can be mindful again. 

If we comfort ourselves when we suffer, won’t we bypass important life lessons such as impermanence, suffering, and selflessness?

It’s true that self-compassion can be used to sugar-coat difficult experience and hamper learning. Any practice can be misused. That’s why we first need to open to suffering with mindful awareness before comforting ourselves with compassion. How much suffering we allow into our lives before engaging compassion depends, in part, on what we are trying to achieve as practitioners—wisdom or compassion. A wisdom practitioner may wish to linger longer with suffering in order to discover insights such as the impermanence of suffering, whereas a compassion practitioner may prefer to cultivate a tender, spontaneous heart that moves quickly and spontaneously toward alleviation of suffering. 

Self-compassion activates old relational wounds. Isn’t it dangerous to do that in an 8-week program?

The foundation of self-compassion training is a sense of safety (see Chapter 8). MSC students are advised, and shown throughout the program how to attend to their emotional safety. This may mean not engaging in a practice when a student feels too vulnerable, or practicing self-compassion behaviorally by drinking a cup of tea or taking a walk. We are all continually opening or closing to our experience throughout the day, and when students need to close, we encourage them to do that. Pushing ourselves to open when we should be closing may lead to emotional harm and isn’t self-compassionate. Therefore, learning to practice formal meditation for extended periods, which can be emotionally overwhelming for some participants, is less important in MSC than knowing when we’re suffering (mindfulness) and responding with kindness (self-compassion). 

Self-Compassion and Compassion for Others 

Some people feel uncomfortable that the focus of MSC is self-compassion rather than compassion for others. Here are some common questions about this. 

Doesn’t the focus on “self” in self-compassion generate more suffering than it alleviates?

We completely agree that a rigid, separate “self” is the source of most unnecessary emotional suffering in our lives, particularly the struggle to protect and promote our egos against ceaseless threats, real and imagined. Paradoxically, however, when we suffer and turn toward ourselves with compassion, our sense of separateness begins to dissolve. An example is what happens when we’re struggling, and then we place our hands on the heart to comfort and support ourselves. That act of kindness usually allows us to disengage from self-oriented, ruminative thinking and see the world with new eyes. 

Isn’t there a better word than “self-compassion”?

Our language tends to make ideas more solid than they are. An equivalent expression for self-compassion is “inner compassion.” We call it “self-compassion” because it makes sense to beginning practitioners who might be battling with themselves. When a practitioner discovers through meditative inquiry that there is no fixed “self,” then “inner compassion” becomes a more fitting expression. 

Isn’t self-compassion training emotionally activating?

Everyone has difficult memories that are likely to resurface during self-compassion training. MSC was designed to meet old wounds in a healthy new way—with mindfulness and compassion. Emotional activation is an essential and unavoidable part of the transformation process. A key reason why mindfulness is taught alongside self-compassion is to stabilize awareness in the midst of strong emotions. Group support is another important part of self-compassion training—holding suffering in a culture of kindness. 

Shouldn’t MSC focus on training both self-compassion and compassion for others?

MSC was never meant to be a complete compassion training program. In our opinion, for compassion to be complete, it should be both inner and outer. Unfortunately, there is a pervasive bias around the world toward valuing compassion for others over compassion for oneself. Hence, our special focus on self-compassion is intended to correct the imbalance. Our agenda is really quite humble—to include ourselves in the circle of compassion. MSC also teaches compassion for others, but links it to self-compassion, since that is our main focus. Research shows that MSC training develops compassion for others (Neff & Germer, 2013), but also that enhancing compassion for others helps us grow in self-compassion (Breines & Chen, 2013).

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