Develop Self-Compassion to Be a Skillful, Effective, and Persistent Activist

November 13, 2018 Group Meditation Part 2 of 2

This talk happened November 13, 2018 at the Boundless Love Project’s Group Meditation. This talk is the fifth talk in the series, Being Medicine: How to Heal Yourself and the World. Before listening to the talk, we suggest you listen to this self-compassion meditation, which preceded the talk.

Develop Self-Compassion to Be a Skillful, Effective, and Persistent Activist.

As we work to create the beloved community and address systemic injustices, we will encounter the suffering of others, as well as our own suffering. Compassion allows us to meet suffering with an open and connected heart and a balanced mind. Self-compassion allows us to offer to ourselves the empathy, understanding, and kindness we desperately need. The more we respond to suffering with compassion, the more skillful, effective, and sustainable our activism becomes.

Defining Compassion

We can look at compassion from various angles, which allows us to define it in various ways. Since they are all accurate, I share them all with you. Use whichever definition calls to you, inspires you, or wonderfully jars you to see compassion in a new and different way. Here they are:

· Compassion is a willingness to be intimate with unpleasant sensations, whether mental, emotional, or physical.

· Compassion is having no aversion towards unpleasant sensations.

· Compassion embraces unpleasant experiences with a fully open heart, a balanced mind, and a relaxed body.

· Compassion is the ability to meet unpleasant sensations with nonjudgmental awareness and clear seeing.

· Compassion is sense-based, rather than story-based. Compassion feels the experience of unpleasant sensations directly and fully with the senses, and is unaffected by the conceptual and often deluded story in the mind about the unpleasant sensations.

· Compassion is a wonderful mixture of both pleasant and unpleasant sensations, but overall feels peaceful, clam, and beautiful.

· Compassion motivates and inspires us to act in ways that reduce suffering, whether it be or own, or that of other people, beings, or life forms.

True compassion is a rare state in most people. Doing loving-compassion meditations is a great way to learn, on a felt and experiential level, what compassion is and what it is not. In addition, loving-compassion meditations will help you practice entering the state of true compassion so that you can enter it, when appropriate, in your daily life. The Boundless Love Project freely offers many loving-compassion meditations on our guided meditation page to help you cultivate and train in compassion.

Why Be Intimate With Unpleasantness?

A key aspect of compassion is a willingness to feel unpleasantness. This begs the question, why would we want to be intimate with unpleasant experiences in this way?

The answer sounds paradoxical, but it turns out that the unpleasantness we feel, when met with kindness and curiosity instead of aversion, actually feels peaceful, profound, and sometimes even joyful. In fact, the defining characteristic of compassion is actually a sweet mixture of pleasant and unpleasant sensations, with the overall tone of the experience being pleasant. Needless to say, many of us are so lost in delusion that we feel true compassion rarely, if at all.

How can feeling unpleasant sensations be pleasant? When we feel unpleasant sensations, the true root of our suffering (We define suffering as the unnecessary psychological unpleasantness caused by our delusions) is the delusion of aversion. The thought or idea, whether conscious or unconscious, goes something like: “I hate this feeling. I don’t like this feeling. I can’t feel this now.” When we are aversive to anything, even our own unpleasant sensations, it is that aversion which is the true source of our suffering.

When Not Intimate with Unpleasantness, We Attract Suffering Spirals

Like a heavy snowball rolling down a snowy hill that accumulates more and more snow with each rotation, aversion towards unpleasant sensations causes our suffering to grow in a reinforcing feedback loop called a suffering spiral. First we experience an unpleasant sensation, whether physical, mental, or emotional. This triggers a story in the mind: “Oh no! That feeling is back! I don’t want to feel that ever again!” This aversion intensifies the unpleasant sensations we experience. These more intense unpleasant sensations trigger even more aversion, which further intensifies the unpleasant sensations.

Suffering spirals like this cause panic attacks, worsen post-traumatic stress symptoms, and spur us to do unskillful activities such as attacking others or ourselves physically or verbally, or indulging in sensual pleasures in a fruitless effort to sooth our runaway emotional storm.

Compassion Prevents Suffering Spirals

In contrast compassion lovingly hugs the heavy snowball in its tender and warm embrace. The icy cold is uncomfortable, but with no aversion to the cold, and offering curiosity and kindness to the experience, the cold is also peaceful. This stops the snowball from rolling down the hill, and growing out of control. More importantly, this hug allows the snowball to transform. The warmth of compassion’s embrace slowly melts it. The cold changes from the previously-feared snow into life-giving water.

This is how compassion short-circuits suffering spirals. Egoic delusion judges the feelings and sensations we experience as “good” or “bad” and thus relates to them with the delusion of greed and aversion; whereas compassion welcomes and appreciates all feelings and sensations.

Part of the reason the ego judges emotions, is that it has a deluded view of emotions. We can break this view down like this:

Egoic View of Emotions and Sensations

• My emotions are caused by external situations.

• My emotions and sensations are solid, tangible, lasting, important, vital, and fixed. (This is more about degrees than absolutes. The ego always thinks emotions are more long lasting and more important than they really are.)

• My emotions are very personal and they define who I am.

• Some emotions and sensations are good and others are bad.

• Because my emotions and sensations are mine, I can control them.

Now compare the egoic view of emotions and sensations, with the wise view of emotions and sensations. Because this view is less widely held, I unpack it a little more than the first one.

Wise View of Emotions and Sensations

• My emotions are caused by the thoughts and beliefs I have about a situation. When I see a situation through a deluded story, afflictive emotions arise.

• All emotions and sensations are impermanent. It is their nature to arise and pass away on their own. Emotions and sensations are temporary visitors to body, who will leave on their own when left alone. Thus there is no need to act them out or react to them with fear or aversion, or greed or clinging.

• All emotions and sensations are impersonal. Because they are temporary, and because they arise due to conditioning we had no control over, and because we cannot dictate how they arise or when they will leave, there is no need to take them personally, or react to them with fear, hatred, judgment, or other kinds of aversion. It is simply nature lawfully unfolding and not who I am in my essence.

• All emotions and sensations can be embraced and welcomed with kindness as visiting friends. Some wisdom traditions use the slogan, “guests are God,” to remind us to treat our guests with the utmost kindness and respect. Compassion lovingly accept these emotional guests as they are, without needing them to be different in any way.

• Because emotions and sensations are lawfully unfolding, impersonal nature, we cannot control them. Thus, why add to our misery by resisting them or clinging to them? If you accidentally spill a glass of juice, complaining and self-blame (both acts of aversion) will not change the situation, and will cause you to suffer more. Wouldn’t it be better and more pleasant to calmly and lovingly clean up the mess with thankfulness in your heart that you have the good fortune to afford juice to drink? In the same way, when unpleasant emotions or sensations arise, would it not be better and cause less suffering to kindly respond to them with skillfulness and appreciation for your capacity to compassionately hold these experiences?

If these wise views make no sense to you, keep meditating. All forms of concentration and mindfulness meditation help us to see, experience, and know first-hand the truth and skillfulness of these wise views of emotions and sensations.

Allowing and Soothing Emotions and Sensations

This wise view helps us treat our emotions and sensations with compassion. Like a loving mother, caring for her sick children, compassion accepts, welcomes, and soothes these unpleasant sensations. Compassion does not unconsciously react to these “sick children” with disgust, grief, judgment, blame, or other kinds of aversion. Instead, compassion tenderly embraces them, and kindly responds skillfully to the situation in a way that helps alleviate suffering.

If there is nothing that can be done to alleviate the suffering, or make our unpleasant sensations go away, then compassion kindly stays with, caresses, and holds the hands of these “suffering children” in their time of need so they are not alone.

When we hold our own unpleasant sensations with love and kindness, free of all aversion, then these sensations are free to move, flow, and transform. In this way, self-compassion can help free ourselves of trapped emotional energies from our past that drive a lot of our egoic, unskillful behavior in the present.

Compassion Safely Contains Detonating Emotional Land Mines

Not only does compassion prevent suffering spirals, compassion also helps reduce our suffering by allowing us to skillfully relate to triggered emotional land mines.

Like all life forms, emotions have a life cycle. A healthy life cycle consists of the emotion arising, moving through us, and departing, leaving no trace. Aversion stops this healthy life cycle of an emotion.

When we relate to emotions with aversion, the heart closes, the mind narrows, the body tightens, and these emotional energies cannot move and flow through and out of the body as intended. Because they can’t move, they become lodged in our bodies.

If emotions are a hot coal in our hand, aversion is like feeling the burn, becoming angry, and wanting to fight this hot coal by making a fist with the hand holding the coal in a vain effort to punch it. By making a fist, we have actually trapped that hot coal in our hand where it cannot escape and will continue to burn us.

Trapped energies can be either active or dormant. Continually active trapped energies can be felt in the background of our awareness as a low-level anxiety, fear, or uneasiness. Trapped energies while dormant cannot be felt, but act as emotional land mines. When dormant energies are triggered by believing a similar delusional thought that originally created them, the emotions will resurface with a huge force way out of proportion to the situation. You will know a trapped emotion has been triggered because it generates a complete over-reaction to the situation.

Only our compassion can skillfully feel the full force of that explosion and contain it so that it doesn’t harm ourselves and others. Compassion allow that emotional explosion to move through and out of us so it does not become trapped again. The agape arsenal technique known as the FEEL Technique helps us relate with compassion to these emotional land-mines when they are triggered.

In this way, compassion helps us safely detonate and remove these trapped emotional energies. The more these trapped emotions are released, the more healthy, light, buoyant, and capable the body feels, and the more courageous we become.

Three Aspects of Self-Compassion

Dr Kristin Neff, an associate professor in human development at the University of Texas in Austin established the entire field of study around self-compassion and has been researching it for over a decade.

Her and her colleagues research has found that people who have experienced intense or repeated physical, psychological, or sexual abuse when young, or from their family members, often have a hard time knowing what compassion is or feels like. Such cruel conditioning creates lots of delusional thoughts in the mind. Since delusion sees good as bad, wrong as right, and up as down, there is a lot of confusion on what compassion is and is not.

Thankfully, Dr. Kristin Neff, has identified three crucial aspects of self-compassion. These aspects are:

1. Mindfulness. You need to know you are suffering in order to have compassion for yourself. The ego in us will define suffering in very extreme terms such as “getting your hand cut off.” However, in this case suffering is any unpleasant physical, emotional, or psychological sensation. It can be as subtle as feeling impatience, boredom, or the isolation and disconnection that arises from apathy or arrogance. Only when you are mindful can you notice that this is a moment of suffering.

2. Connection. When we suffer, our delusion will view it as a highly personal experience that isolates us from others. Compassion views suffering as a shared part of the human experience. Although our specific conditions may be unique, the fear, anger, frustration, confusion, depression, grief, arrogance, and other emotions we feel are not. These feelings actually connect us with the shared human experience.

3. Self-Kindness. Self-kindness involves treating yourself with gentleness, kindness, and love in all circumstance and at all times. Kindness recognizes your inherent worth and value. Kindness recognizes that you want to feel safe and happy, and treats you with the empathy, understanding, and tenderness that allows you to truly thrive.

Self-Compassion Example

Let’s give an example of how these three components of compassion may work in real life. Let’s say I worked for months to elect a candidate who embodied the love, kindness, and peace that humanity so desperately needs. But on election day, the votes were cast, and my candidate lost.

I feel grief and sadness in that loss, despair in the plight of our world, confusion as to why people voted for the other person and so on.

Then the mindfulness kicks in, “O wow, this is a moment of suffering. I feel disappointment, frustration, sadness, anger, and so on. This is really unpleasant and challenging to feel.”

Then the connection kicks in. “This suffering I’m experiencing is part of the shared human condition. At some time or another, we all suffer from disappointment, frustration, sadness, and anger. All of us who worked on this campaign are feeling these things.”

Then the self-kindness comes in. Giving my body a soothing, gentle hug with my arms, I talk in a calm and kind voice silently to myself, “Sweetie, remember that your worth and value does not depend on whether you achieve your goals. You are inherently valuable just because creation has blessed you with existence.

“In addition, the love you put into the world during this campaign, continues to reverberate in the world. The liberating conversations and meaningful connections you made with others still happened, and helped create a more loving world. And the lessons you have learned and will continue to learn from this campaign are not lost. We may have lost this round, but our love marches on.

“Love, you worked hard, you over-extended yourself, now rest up, take a week break and renew yourself, so you can meaningfully and effectively engage again.”

This is how we can offer ourselves the compassion we so desperately need. We often spend our whole lives looking for compassion from others. Sadly, those people, like us, are also lost in delusion and out of touch with their own compassion, leaving them none to give. Thankfully, the compassion we needed, has always been inside of us.

Moreover, as we get good at giving ourselves compassion, we start to realize the infinite nature of our compassion. Our compassion is like a never-ending fountain of life-giving water. We have more than enough for ourselves, and more than enough to share with all beings and all life.

What Delusions Block Self-Kindness?

As it happens, many people find treating themselves with kindness quite challenging. Self-Judgmental thoughts are the main culprit that prevents us from treating ourselves with kindness. These delusional thoughts must be challenged so you can see or experience the lie in them and stop believing them.

Common delusions that block self compassion include:

• “I’m too mean, selfish, or unsuccessful to deserve kindness. I deserve to be punished for my crimes.” (The delusion of Judgment) Delusion defines you by your faults, while ignoring all of your skillfulness. Delusion also says you only deserve kindness when you have earned it. In truth, the source of life loved you into existence and continues to love you unconditionally. Love wants you to love yourself whole-heartedly and unconditionally as well.

• “Being kind to myself will make me soft, weak, and apathetic. I need to be hard on myself so I am motivated to improve myself and succeed.” (The delusions of Cruelty and Greed) Delusion thinks punishment motivates change, but love is a much stronger, more sustainable, and more pleasant motivation for our actions.

• “Of course I treat others with compassion, but I am so weak and lazy, I need to be hard on myself so I don’t give in to my inner demons. Besides I thrive on self-abuse.” (The delusions of Judgment and Cruelty) Is that true? Have you tested this theory? Try being compassionate to yourself for six months, and see if you are not more joyful, loving, and productive. Most of us have never tried the self-compassionate route and don’t know what we are missing.

Many other kinds of judgmental, cruel, and delusional thoughts will arise to prevent you from being compassionate to yourself. When they do, mindfully see them as impersonal, conditioned, temporary, and delusional. Then remember: “If it’s not kind, it’s not true.” The source of all life, which is the source of all unconditional love and wisdom, certainly does not believe such delusional thoughts, so why should you?

Contemplating Kindness

Finally, let’s share some ideas on how to be kind to yourself. First, take a second to reflect on your own, what qualities embody kindness? Do that before you continue reading.

If you are like me, you though kindness is gentle, soft, calm, tender, loving, supportive, aware, nonjudgmental, peaceful, relaxed, flexible, open, warm, and forgiving. Maybe you came up with other qualities too.

Work with treating yourself with these wonderful qualities of kindness and mindfully pay attention to how it feels, and how these sensations inspire you to act. This mindfulness will help you notice the difference between being kind to yourself and being cruel.

Ways to Be Kind to Yourself

Still, because many of us habitually treat ourselves with cruelty, let me offer some suggestions on how to treat yourself with kindness.

1. Call yourself a kind, term of endearment. Try: Sweetie, Honey, Dear, Love, Babe, Darling, and so forth. It is much more challenging to speak harshly to yourself when you remember to call yourself by a term of endearment.

2. Practice touching yourself kindly and lovingly. Cats lick their body. Birds preen and groom themselves every day. These behaviors not only allows them to look nice and improve their health, but also helps them feel good.

Here are some ways that you can touch yourself kindly as a way to boost your mood and feel good:

• Tenderly rest your hands on or caress the skin by your heart.

• Gently stroke your face, neck, arms, or legs.

• Lovingly hug yourself. If you are in public, you can cross your arms and give yourself a squeeze if you don’t want others to know what you are doing.

• Massage a part of you that is sore, or just for the joy of it.

3. Talk to yourself kindly using a kind, gentle, supportive tone and kind, gentle, supportive words. For example, “Love, this is a really challenging situation, but I love you, keep going. Remember, love, this is temporary. This, too, shall pass.”

4. Implement other activities or mindfulness techniques that soothe you or allow you to respond skillfully to the situation. This can include all of the agape arsenal techniques such as: a mindful pause, the FEEL technique, gratuitous gratitude, be the knower, and so on. These help you refocus the mind, become more mindful, add spaciousness and perspective, sooth body and mind, and relate to your situation with more skill.


Compassion allows us to welcome with an open heart, a balanced mind, and a relaxed body, any unpleasant sensations or emotions that arise in our experience. Compassion allows us to mindfully feel these sensations with curiosity and kindness, and it inspires us to act skillfully in a way that reduces suffering in ourselves and others.

Loving-compassion meditations help you both learn what true compassion is and practice it so you can live in this state of being more and more in your life. Concentration and mindfulness meditations help you see the truth that your physical and emotional sensations are impermanent, impersonal, and conditioned, which helps you be more willing to feel them fully without aversion, and become more curious and interested in them. This allows you to connect with your inner compassion.

Being intimate with unpleasant sensations in this way helps us prevent suffering spirals and allows us to safely contain emotional land minds as they are detonated.

The three aspects of compassion include mindfulness that suffering is happening, connection with life by recognizing suffering as a shared human experience, and self-kindness where we treat ourselves gently, lovingly, and tenderly.

Any thought that prevents you from treating yourself kindly is some kind of delusion. Mindfully notice such thoughts and then challenge them. Look for the delusion in them. Notice all of the ways that such thoughts are not true. See or experience how they are a lie so that you can stop believing them. As you do this, your ability to treat yourself with kindness will grow.

Then, work to treat yourself kindly. Call yourself a term of endearment; learn how to touch yourself in ways that soothe and comfort you; speak to yourself using a inner voice that is warm, tender, and gentle; and use words that are equally friendly, wise, peaceful, and soothing.

By having a clear, embodied understanding of what compassion is and is not, we will be able to relate to our suffering and the suffering of others with more compassion. As our compassion grows, we also grow our capacity to courageously confront systemic injustices, help those who are suffering, and help ourselves when we are suffering. The more we confront suffering with compassion, the more skillful, effective, and sustainable our activism, and our lives, become.