By Chris Germer, PhD and Kristin Neff, PhD
Center for Mindful Self-Compassion Co-Founders
The world is in shock as Ukraine is mercilessly bombarded by its neighbor and thousands of innocent people are being senselessly killed or injured. No one knows how or when this crisis will end. The war is taking a toll on everyone, especially following in the wake of the global pandemic. Fortunately, nations are also pulling together to help Ukraine protect itself and individual citizens are opening their homes to refugees pouring out of Ukraine.
Most of the world’s population is witnessing these tragic events through the news media, physically distant from the war. Questions naturally arise: “What can I do?” and “How can I take care of my heart and mind as this horrific humanitarian crisis unfolds before my eyes?”
Below are 10 self-compassion practices from the Mindful Self-Compassion program that can help you bear this terrible tragedy, along with brief explanations. Most of the practices can be found in The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook and for those practices marked with an asterisk (*), free guided recordings are available on the CMSC website page, “Guided Meditations and Exercises.”
- Giving and Receiving Compassion* – When we are exposed to disturbing news from Ukraine, we experience real, personal pain. That’s because the human brain is designed to feel what others are feeling. Of course, the people in harm’s way suffer much more than those who witness it. How do we access the resource of compassion in a way that excludes no one, including ourselves? The practice of breathing compassion in for ourselves and out for others can help us remain open to suffering on all sides, and emotionally connected despite the intense and disturbing emotions that may arise. Please remember to breathe in for yourself as often as you need before breathing out for others. Also, if an impulse arises to follow your exhalation into some form of action on behalf of others, go ahead and do so.
- Self-Compassion Break* – This practice helps us to validate our pain (including vicarious pain), connect with common humanity, and bring kindness to ourselves—comprising all three aspects of self-compassion. First, we need to be able to say, “This is a moment of suffering” and to allow the experience to be as it is, at least for a moment. Then we remember, “I am not alone” and that everyone suffers, although not in the same way and to the same extent. After that, kindness is the most natural thing in the world.
- Fierce Self-Compassion* – When there is injustice in the world, there can be no lasting inner or outer peace. Therefore, sometimes the most compassionate thing we can do is to take a stand against oppression. That’s fierce self-compassion—protecting against the occurrence of suffering as best we can. The three components of self-compassion – mindfulness, common humanity and kindness – manifest as “brave, empowered clarity” when aimed at protection. When thinking about the injustice happening in Ukraine, we can use mindfulness to see clearly and be present with what’s occurring. Common humanity allows us to become empowered as we stand together as nations in the free world. And kindness manifests as bravery and courage, as exemplified by Ukrainians defending their homeland but also by those outside of the conflict being willing to make sacrifices to help those in need of protection. You can practice a Fierce Self-Compassion Break to cultivate this energy, if you like.
- Compassionate U-Turn – To bring compassion to yourself, ask yourself, “How would I treat a friend or loved one right now who was feeling like I am?” and then do the same for yourself. You can also offer yourself kindness in the form of soothing touch—gently touching or massaging the part of your body that is holding the most stress. Or you can offer yourself encouraging words—asking yourself the question, “What do I need to hear right now?” and then repeating those same words, over and over, for yourself.
- Soles of the Feet – When we feel emotionally overwhelmed, we need to anchor ourselves in the present moment. We suffer unnecessarily when we ruminate over the past or fret about the future. To come into the present moment, you can take a walk, feeling the changing sensations in the soles of your feet, and if you like, imagine that you are leaving a compassionate footprint on the earth with each step. You can also anchor yourself in the present moment with any of your senses—sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch.
- Affectionate Breathing* – Another way of staying present, and also receiving comfort when we need it the most, is by feeling the rhythm of our own breathing. Affectionate Breathing is less about developing concentration and more about allowing ourselves to be internally rocked and caressed by the rhythm of the breath. If you notice yourself observing your breath, at a slight remove from the breath, see if you can just feel the physical sensation of the body rhythmically breathing in and out. This practice helps create a sense of inner safety and trust in the midst of an emotional storm.
- Loving-Kindness Meditation* – Loving-kindness meditation taps into the power of language, but also connection and caring. When you feel the suffering of the Ukrainian people, take a moment and see if you can find words that capture your deepest wishes. For example, “May you be safe and free from harm” “May you be free from suffering.” Then, whenever you experience empathic distress, quietly repeat your phrases. To sustain your compassion, please don’t forget to include yourself in the circle of your compassion. And if you feel inspired to take action on behalf of the Ukrainian people, that will also benefit yourself. When compassion is in full bloom, it is omnidirectional.
- Being with Difficult Emotions* – If you find that your compassion is becoming overshadowed by difficult emotions related to the war, such as anxiety or despair, or if you start demonizing a whole group of people because of the behavior of their leaders, you might try working with the emotion directly to prevent unnecessary suffering. Toward that end, try labeling the emotion in a kind and validating way, “Oh, I’m anxious!” Then see if you can bring your attention into your body and find where the emotion resides in your body. Finally, “soften—soothe—allow.” Let the affected part of your body soften and relax, and then offer that part of your body soothing touch or kind appreciation: “There is so much pain here. Thank you for holding it for me.” You can also bring kindness to yourself, perhaps with a hand over your heart or supportive words (“You are feeling a lot of pain right now. Have courage.”). Then see if you can allow the experience to be just as it is and allow yourself to be just as you are.
- Core Values – No matter how disturbing events may be on the world stage, we do not have to abandon our core values. For example, if compassion is a core value for you, you can continue to see compassion all around, even during a war, such as in acts of kindness by Ukraine’s neighbors toward the refugees. You can also help others to see what you see, sharing stories of compassion. Finally, you can do small acts of compassion in your daily life to keep the flame of compassion alive. In other words, no matter what’s happening in the external world, you can remain true to your innermost promptings.
- Savoring and Gratitude – When it is obvious that the suffering of others is much greater than your own, we must still give ourselves permission to enjoy our lives. Practicing joy is essential for anyone who wants to be of service to others. We have to charge our own batteries. We can savor simple things like a piece of fruit, stretching our legs on a walk, talking with a friend, or petting the dog. Gratitude is another way of enjoying our lives—noticing and giving thanks for the little things that enrich our lives that we tend to overlook, such as running water, morning sunlight, or chopping vegetables. The list is endless.
Any of these practices can help you to bear the emotional distress of a world in turmoil. They work by shifting our attitude and physiology from a state of threat to a state of care and connection. The most important thing is to remember to practice. When the distress of the Ukraine crisis reaches a point where you’re aware of how much you’re suffering, that’s the time to practice self-compassion. Self-compassion practice will also help you take the most useful course of action, if such is called for, based on the conditions of your life.
Thank you for embodying the healing power of compassion during these difficult times.
Chris and Kristin
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If you would like to attend an online or in-person event with Chris and Kristin, the next available program where they are teaching together is the Mindful Self-Compassion Core Skills Workshop starting Wednesday, April 13, 2022. Learn more or register here.