How to Practice Self-Compassion

By Sharon Salzberg

When doing research for my latest book Real Love, I had the opportunity to talk to hundreds of my students around the world about what love meant to them—self-love, love for friends and family, romantic love, parental love, love in all contexts. In many of these conversations, the topic of “letting go” came up. In all facets of life, we face the necessary but difficult experience of having to accept things as they are. This is true in love, as much as anywhere else. When we invest our hearts in ourselves and others, we have to practice acceptance, and recognize the need to relinquish control over our emotions, those we love, and our relationships with them.

At one point, I was back in New York spending time with a close friend of mine who had been struggling for quite some time with mental health challenges. This particular week, my friend was in the hospital, and was facing particularly acute psychological distress. I wanted so badly to help him, but felt powerless. Other friends would stop by to bring flowers, gifts, and words of wisdom—and I desperately wanted to do the same, to be able to do something to change how he was feeling and fix his suffering.

As my impulse to fix my friend’s situation intensified, I turned to one of my Tibetan teachers in search of my own words of wisdom. “How do I help him?!” I plead. My teacher’s advice was simple: “Stop trying.” I listened to his advice, and took a breath.

My teacher didn’t mean to suggest that I should stop caring about my friend or his pain. He meant that I should stop fixating on my desire to control something entirely outside of my control. “Stop trying” was a radically simplified way of encouraging me to practice a compassion with no strings attached. Such acceptance would be an act of generosity—for both my friend, who I could just learn to be with, and for myself. Recognizing the situation, and my response to it, could be an act of love in and of itself, the energetic opposite of the cold, restrictive desire to control.

For many years, I’ve been leading meditation retreats for caregivers, and I continue to find the work fascinating and challenging. Doctors, nurses, chaplains, teachers, healers, hospice workers—these professions are just a selection of caregiving roles that effectively require “letting go” as part of the job description. In order to make the work sustainable and balanced, caregivers can’t forget to care about themselves in the process of looking after others. The foundation of this balance is acceptance and self-compassion. We don’t become indifferent to suffering—in others or in ourselves. But we recognize the need to loosen our grip, and accept the situations those we care for are in, without feeling the need to control or fix them. This itself is a contemplative practice, and enables us to move even closer to the suffering of others, without clenching our muscles to change it and setting ourselves up for burnout. In response to the care we give, we are given joy in return—energy that sustains us even in the most difficult of moments.

Psychologist Kristin Neff has focused her recent clinical research on self-compassion, and developed a three-part way of thinking about self-compassion, all of which are essential for caregivers. First is self-kindness, which includes self-forgiveness—giving ourselves a break when we when we fall short of what we envisioned for ourselves. The second element is awareness—especially recognizing that whatever mistakes we’ve made, or work we didn’t do, is all inevitably part of being human. The last is mindfulness, recognizing challenges as they come, and practicing acceptance again and again, building resilience as we cultivate compassion.

At the next caregivers’ retreat at the Garrison Institute on March 9-11, 2018, I will be teaching with brothers Ali and Atman Smith, and Andres (“Andy”) Gonzalez, all leaders of the Baltimore-based non-profit the Holistic Life Foundation, which brings yoga, meditation, and other healing modalities to underserved communities. Ali, Atman, and Andy jokingly refer to themselves as “love zombies,” aiming to spread the power of love in inner-cities, schools, juvenile detention centers, prisons, and beyond.

The work of the Holistic Life Foundation is not easy, but the organization and its activism are fueled by love, even if anger is part of the picture. As Ali once told me, “Anger can be the spark for the fire. But… instead of a forest fire that will bring down the whole forest, you have to imagine a controlled fire burning up the invasive species and weeds, and letting everything else flourish.” In plain terms, he summarized, “You need to say, ‘OK, I’m angry.’ And then adjust your focus to come from a place of love, empathy, and compassion.”

The Buddha taught that all instances of pleasure, gain, praise, and fame are all met with corresponding experiences of pain, loss, blame, and disrepute. These states ebb and flow like the sea, or float back and forth like winds. Reminding ourselves us this can help teach the wisdom of equanimity. When we’re able to see to both the joys and challenges of caring for others, we can see something bigger than ourselves. We are a part of a larger ecosystem, and can see our own needs as part of its functioning. We can give from a place of inner-fullness, rather than depletion. With equanimity, we can experience what pure generosity feels like—giving without needing to receive from others, because we have built the foundation of taking care of ourselves.

Sharon Salzberg is a central figure in the field of meditation, a world-renowned teacher and New York Times Times bestselling author. She has played a crucial role in bringing meditation and mindfulness practices to the West and into mainstream culture since 1974, when she first began teaching. She is the co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, MA and the author of nine books including New York Times bestseller, Real Happiness, her seminal work, Lovingkindness, and most recently, Real Love.

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