Welcome to the Mindfulness for Resilience in Illness series. This is the final part of a series offering basic ways to cope with treatment for serious illness. This installment discusses how to practice mindful self-compassion, or self-kindness.
Read part one | Mindfulness for Resilience in Illness: Getting Grounded
Read part two | Dealing with Difficult Emotions
Read part three | Dealing with Difficult Thoughts
One of the really cool things about practicing mindfulness is that it helps you connect your head and your heart. Remember, mindfulness is paying attention to the present moment without judgment. It can help to think of mindfulness really as heartfulness. This is being curious about our sensations, emotions, and thoughts. This kindhearted attention allows us to see that we are human beings doing the best we can and trying to make our way in the world.
Carleigh shared what it was like when she was diagnosed with cancer at age 16:
“When I was dealing with cancer, I was really mad at my body for turning on me. It was frustrating that I had to take a break from doing sports, was in the hospital so frequently, and that I just didn’t have the energy to hang out with my friends. Those are the times when it helps to practice compassion and do things to lift your spirits.” – Carleigh
As we all know, life can be really hard. It helps to have compassion. Compassion is the feeling that comes up when seeing someone else in pain or suffering and wanting to do something to help, whether through doing something kind, listening, or being of service in some way. It’s also something we can do for ourselves, and that is called self-compassion.
In the big scheme of things, self-compassion is really no different than having compassion for others. When you see someone in pain or experiencing difficulty, you may find yourself noticing that this person or friend is suffering. And, in some way your heart responds to their pain. You may feel warmth, caring or have a desire to help. You feel for them.
Having compassion also means that you are willing to offer understanding and kindness towards others rather than judging them. It is not about feeling sorry for somebody; instead, it is about being mindful and having a deep awareness of what he or she might be going through in the very moment and wanting to ease the burden. Compassion also means understanding that all humans share similar experiences of suffering, failure, or imperfection.
Similarly, self-compassion means directing warm and tender feelings towards yourself. It means being kind to yourself when you might be beating yourself up in your mind or experiencing a lot of pain or feeling upset. It means being mindful in the present moment without judging what you are going through, and it also means knowing that you are not alone in how you are feeling. Alec, who was diagnosed with cancer at 19, explains how he arrived at practicing self-kindness:
“There were times where I would get really frustrated with my lack of any kind of control or independence. My parents would sleep in my hospital room with me, I couldn’t eat food regularly, the doctors even had me pee in a bucket. I found myself getting down on myself for always being alone or for being unproductive. I just hated feeling like I was wasting any of my time. Cancer shows you that life is short, and I hated that I had to spend any of that time doing nothing. Those are tough moments, but they are also openings to kickstart some self-kindness.”- Alec, diagnosed at 19
As Alec observed, sometimes it can be really hard to show yourself kindness. We all have to practice it! Self-compassion is treating yourself like you would treat someone you love or care about. Of course, we all have the natural instinct to be kind and caring, but sometimes we have to make extra effort to be kind to ourselves—even if it does not always come naturally.
One basic way to practice and strengthen those neural networks in your brain for compassion is to try a loving-kindness meditation. Here’s a version you can try:
- Sit quietly. Begin by sitting with a straight posture, and relax into it so that the posture evokes a sense of grace, strength, and dignity. Gently place your hands on your lap or, if you desire, over your heart. Tune in to your natural breathing for a few minutes.
- Focus attention on your heart space and body. Place your attention around your heart area, in the middle of your chest, perhaps repeating words such as “love,” “peace,” or “warmth.” As you say this, envision someone or something you feel caring toward. It could be a loved one, pet, or comforting object. This ignites feelings of affection and love. Let these feelings radiate through your whole body, holding you in a warm embrace.
- Focus on phrases that bring about gentleness for yourself. Feel the sense of caring, love, and healing wash over you. Softly say to yourself any of the following phrases, and explore how they resonate within you
May I be well.
May I be healthy.
May I be happy.
May I feel at peace.
May I feel safe.
May I be at ease.
May I feel loved and cared for.
4. Expand your tenderness to a loved one. Envision a loved one or someone who you care for or respect. Offer them feelings of warmth and caring, and wish them well with words like these:
May you be well.
May you be healthy.
May you be happy.
May you feel at peace.
May you feel safe.
May you be at ease.
May you feel loved and cared for.
- Wish a stranger well. Extend your warm feelings to someone you do not know, someone you feel neutral about, like a fellow person in the hallway, a person crossing the street, the cashier at the supermarket. Repeat the words offered in the previous list. May you be well…
- Extend wishes of well-being to the entire world. Broaden the warm wishes to include your larger community, whether a church group or a city, and then include the world at large.
- Return to your body, yourself, and your life. When you are ready to return, repeat the phrases that wish yourself well. Close the practice by gently letting the feelings of loving-kindness ease and then paying attention to your breathing. Slowly open your eyes.
Try to think about self-compassion as a way to build resilience, that is, as a way to bounce back from setbacks. Research shows that practicing positivity has a direct effect on your wellbeing. Every day your body and brain change a little bit with new experiences and new information. It is called positive neuro-plasticity. It’s a pretty cool way that we can grow healthy habits and offset the negativity bias, our natural inclination to be affected by unpleasant experiences. Remember that you can give your inner critic or inner worrier a time-out. Learning how to take in the good, and being kind to yourself and to others, is like strengthening your compassion muscle.