The Practice and Benefits of Mindful Self-Compassion

By Theresa Nygren, LCSW

How can mindful self-compassion transform your life?

Well, this is surely a great question, and we may all search for the answer in various ways. The self-help section in bookstores everywhere stocks a steady supply of the latest “how to” books.

Mindful self-compassion practice steers clear of the quick fixes and instead brings warm-hearted presence to each moment. So you may ask, how does one become mindfully self-compassionate? As in any lasting change, it takes practice. The turtle really had it right all along in the race for life. Slow and steady practice gets us to where we want to be in our lives. This concept bumps up against the bombardment of messages that push us, prod us and want us to hurry up.

Our reptilian brain wants to keep us in overdrive as well. As much as we have evolved since the caveman era, this oldest part of our brain is still scanning the environment for danger. Unfortunately, instead of being on the watch for the saber tooth tiger, our brain now attacks our self-concept at every chance it can get. The litany goes something like this, “why did I say such a stupid thing right now”, “what is wrong with me, I am so inept”, “I will never have friends, there must be something wrong with me.” You get the drill, right? It is such a brutal, painful enterprise and often occurs without our conscious awareness.

This is where a mindful self-compassion practice can make a tremendous difference. Let’s take another look at our brain and notice that we also have this mammalian caregiving system at the ready. Unlike other mammals, we come into the world less able to survive on our own. Being upright on two feet as opposed to on all fours has its downside! Not to worry, if all goes well, our primary caregiver provides us with the safety of the warm embrace, as their soothing touch and soft vocalizations provide the template for our little brains to prune themselves into greater functionality. Fast forward to being all grown up and realizing that we have had less than perfect childhoods. Perhaps our caregivers themselves were riddled with fear and uncertainty. Perhaps their reptilian brains were firing constantly and our little, helpless selves absorbed the energetic vibrations of mistrust in the world. But this moment here is a new moment to claim the practice of activating our mammalian caregiving system for our benefit. How wonderful is that?

Let me share a typical example from my experience. Being in the field of social work, it is no surprise that my empathic skills are highly tuned. That is a blessing and can be a curse. There are more times than I can count that my heart feels extremely heavy with the suffering around me. Perhaps it is a friend having a hard time or family member experiencing emotional pain.

So, when I find my heart full with pain, it is a wonderful time to take a break and practice mindful self-compassion. The self-compassion break is an easy one to apply. It goes like this:

  • First, we become aware (mindful) that we are having a hard time.
  • Second, we remind ourselves that this being human can be tough. We are not alone in our challenges.
  • Lastly, instead of the “inner critic” getting all over us, we bring a measure of kindness and compassion to ourselves for what is occurring for us right in this moment. I often offer a hand to my heart to benefit from the warmth and tender touch it provides.

The self-compassion break along with the other numerous informal and formal mindful self-compassion meditations helps activate our mammalian caregiving system. This is huge news since on a physiological level we are helping shift out of “alarm mode” into “tend and befriend” mode. This practice helps quiet and calm our entire system, making it easier for our prefrontal cortex (the highest functioning part of our brain) to remain engaged and ready to reason, and to make good decisions to create the life we want and need.

Mindful self-compassion can be life changing. It has been for me.

To explore the practice of mindful self-compassion and to learn more from Theresa Nygren, join her and her colleague, Angela Mazur at Copper Beech Institute for a half-day Mindful Self-Compassion Workshop, November 20, 2016, 1-5 p.m. For details and to register, CLICK HERE.

Copper Beech Institute is also hosting a Mindful Self-Compassion Intensive, June 5-10, 2016 with Beth Mulligan and David Spound. For more information and to register, CLICK HERE. 28 CECs are available.

Theresa Nygren is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker who has a private practice in Farmington. She has been trained as an MBSR instructor at UMass, Worcester and received training for MSC by co-founders, Kristin Neff and Chris Germer. She sustains a mindfulness practice and incorporates this into her private practice wherever possible. Learn more about her work with Angela Mazur by visiting www.mindfulselfcompassionateway.com.

Copper Beech Institute offers more than 40 retreats and programs to foster peace and resilience in daily life.

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Walking the Path Together

As my husband-to-be and I stood at the altar, I remember hearing the words, “For better or for worse, for richer or for poorer ….” We both easily recited our vows to one another. However, I was surprised by the explanation of these vows: “Marriage is two people uniting and taking an oath to be willing to stay with one another for better or for worse. But what if it is her better and his worse? Or the other way around? Can you support one another in these times as well?”

As a new bride, I stood at the altar smiling, for it wouldn’t be for several years later that I would understand this concept. With a young family to support, we agreed my husband should jump on a major career opportunity that required a fair amount of travel. After several months of listening to the excitement in his voice when we talked on the phone, I realized that my husband was at his “better” in this new job. I also realized I was in my “worse” as I hadn’t been sharing that taking care of our children and the house by myself was starting to take its toll. By being honest with our own needs and taking time to put our relationship first, we were able to weather these rocky seas together.

Navigating a relationship with compassion and mutual respect are the type of topics that will be explored in the upcoming weekend retreat, “Walking the Path Together: Mindfulness Weekend for Couples” at Copper Beech Institute. Executive Director Dr. Brandon Nappi and his wife Susan will be sharing their experiences and ideas for all types of couples looking to deepen their connection with one another.

Here are some thoughts from both Brandon and Susan about how they met, their rocky start, and how they anchor their marriage while still exploring their own paths and after becoming parents.

How did you two meet?

Brandon: We met on a blind date after college. I graduated as a theology major with a concentration in medieval studies. I had spent some time in seminary studying to be a Catholic priest. After seminary I returned home to Connecticut. Susan’s name and number were given to me without her permission and she was not very enthused to go out on a blind date with a seminary dropout, but in those moments over dinner we found in each other an immediate connection.

Susan was the first person I had ever heard use the word “mindfulness” in its contemplative context. She had a mindfulness practice long before I did. In fact, on our first date, Susan shared that she was planning a month-long retreat with the famous Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh in Plum Village in France. I had no idea who that was at the time. The whole thing sounded weird to me. Wanting to cement our new relationship, I talked her out of the retreat and convinced her to go backpacking with me in Italy. In retrospect, I think she should have gone to Plum Village! 

Susan: Yes, I was not enthused. I made it very clear to my mother (yes, my mother was the culprit!) that we would only meet once. Thinking this was a one-shot deal, I was not worried about whether Brandon would like me or think I was “weird“ so I was able to have a very honest conversation. I was also prepared to pay for my dinner, although he insisted and said, “You wouldn’t be here at all if it wasn’t for me.”

What brought each of you to practice mindfulness/meditation? Did you each have separate pathways? Or was it a shared journey?

B: My first taste of practice was through Christian spirituality. When I was 18, I picked up a book by the famous 20th century monk Thomas Merton. Although I was completely baffled by his words and understood nearly nothing, something deep within me came alive as I read his teaching on silence and the contemplative life. I’m not sure I would be doing what I do today without his wisdom and influence.

It was not until after I was married that I began practicing mindfulness. The adjustment to married life was not a smooth one, and I needed support to navigate this new life with a partner. I began working with a gifted therapist who had studied with Jon Kabat-Zinn and had a dedicated meditation practice. It took me nearly five years before I really committed to mindfulness in a daily way. Even more than Merton or my therapist, Susan was the brightest light shining the way ahead in my journey to mindfulness. I had never encountered anyone with such clarity and insight about what to do with strong emotions. She was definitely my first teacher.

S: I was brought up Catholic but was not familiar with contemplative practice beyond the prayers I was taught in school. I started seeing a therapist when I was 18, a former Catholic nun, Patricia Plouffe St. Onge, who practiced mindfulness and meditation in the vein of Thich Nhat Hanh. She was co-founder of the Transfiguration Zendo in Southbury. She influenced me very deeply and introduced me to zazen, or sitting meditation. Given that she was also very Christian, it was very relatable to me. She never called what we were doing meditation, but simply invited me to breathe in her presence while moving through incredibly painful emotions. It was simple and it was profound.

I now have started practicing Ki Aikido, a martial art focused on teaching mind-body coordination. Having danced most of my life, I find Ki Aikido to be a very good way to learn the same principles of mindfulness through my body. Ki Aikido also helps me learn how to work with other people’s energy and blend with it rather than block or run away. We may be able to talk ourselves into and out of feelings but our body does not lie.

How did the benefits of practicing mindfulness begin to manifest in your life as a couple – and what were some of the struggles?

B: I realized that I am not my thoughts and judgments. This was an incredible relief! In turn, I became much more compassionate with myself — and by extension with Susan. I learned to become friendly and curious with emotions that I had fled or ignored before. Through our practice we have become much more accepting of each other. Susan and I are incredibly different people and yet we have grown in our ability to honor and learn from these differences. In the beginning this was not so easy. I saw difference as a problem to be solved which usually meant trying to convince her that my way was best. Needless to say, this was not a very helpful approach.

S: As Brandon mentioned, our transition to married life was not a smooth one. We each brought to the table our preconceived notion of what married life should be as well as our family histories. We both had very separate journeys that benefited our marriage. Our individual practices and insights are very different and I think that gives us something to discuss. Mindfulness (and also non-violent communication) gives us a common language to explore ourselves and in our relationship.

I am able to express myself very freely emotionally and that was very difficult for Brandon in the beginning. I had to learn back off and give him space when he needed it. Mindfulness helps support that; I realize I don’t have to fix him (or myself for that matter) so there is an ease that comes with that. I can rest in the knowledge that I am not there to change Brandon and he is not there to change me. That was very important to me to know after we got married. I felt at times like I would be swallowed up by this new identity of “wife.” I am a very independent person and Brandon honors that. I am learning to ask for help when I need it and it is incredibly liberating.

How has your practice grown with time, especially in becoming parents and raising your daughters?

B: The act of parenting is an act of surrender. With each passing day as our girls grow, I realize how little control I have. I also realize how little happiness has to do with controlling outcomes. Also, as I’ve grown up with my daughters, I am much more relaxed than I was at the beginning of this mindfulness journey. Sometimes there can be an energy of seriousness and gravity in the mindfulness world that never quite felt authentic for me personally. It’s understandable as we’re exploring in mindfulness some of the most intense feelings that human beings can experience. As I’ve learned to be more curious about life and control outcomes less, I think I’ve become more flexible and less serious. Silliness is an often-missed dimension of mindfulness. I love being silly. There’s lots of laughter in our house.

S: Our girls are our greatest teachers. As Brandon shared, they add levity and humor to the mix and help us not take ourselves so seriously. People think that if you teach mindfulness your kids will be sitting on cushions quietly meditating. While you certainly can access calm and peace amid chaos, mindfulness also allows you to access your truth, and that often appears messy. Brandon mentioned the laughter in our house, but there is also a fair amount of screaming and emoting. They are hopefully learning that all emotions belong and are worthy of expression; it’s how they are expressed that requires guidance and exploration.

Having children also keeps me honest about myself and whether I am truly being present. When I am getting extremely irritated at something minor, the girls have said to me, “Mom, you are angry about something else right now.” Maybe in another household this would be seen as disrespectful, but if we are practicing what we preach we are going to hear things from them that we may not like. I am able to apologize to them when I lose it which helps us create a forgiving environment together. I tell the girls that I am still learning, too.

In Ki Aikido, there is something we say at the beginning of our practice: “Onegashimasu,” which loosely translates to “teach me.” Our sensei (teacher) says it to us and we say it back. The sentiment here is that all beings have something to teach us if we are open. We may have more life experience than our girls but they are able to access things that we have forgotten. If we approach our children as though we always know better, we cut ourselves off from true connection with them and an opportunity to learn.

Are there mindfulness tools that you have come to use as a couple?

B: One of the most important tools is simply the universal permission to feel whatever we are feeling. Feelings are neither right nor wrong. Susan has always embodied this wisdom in a courageous way. This was an essential lesson I struggled with early on in my practice. I thought that life was about maximizing happy feelings and minimizing difficult emotions. I would scold myself or Susan when feeling arose that I thought were unhelpful or unnecessary. In mindfulness practice everything belongs. Also, we’re both introverts so one of the gifts that we give to each other is the gift of space. We both need lots of quiet time apart so that we can come together. One of the most important bits of wisdom for us has been the encouragement from Kahlil Gibran: “Let there be space in your togetherness.”

S: Like everyone else, we are extremely busy so “date night” is not always an option. We do enjoy Netflix on occasion and have found some shows we like to watch at the end of the day. I would say that because I feel connected to Brandon most of the time, I can access that during even the smallest moments together. We do eat dinner together every night when we are both home. We have worked on our communication skills by focusing on “need” language (learned through Marshall Rosenberg’s non-violent communication) rather than using blame. I don’t expect Brandon to instinctively know what it is I need; I try to take responsibility to figure that out and communicate that to him. Over time, I have learned that vulnerability is truly necessary to deep connection.

Do you have a story of an experience together that demonstrates your mindfulness practice in real life – a way you dealt with a difficult emotion or circumstance; a way you supported the other as s/he needed?

B: Mindfulness is about doing what’s called for or what’s needed in the moment. Sometimes what Susan needs is not always clear to me so I ask her. This has shifted the energy in our relationship from my guessing and assuming (which often was unhelpful) to my simply asking how I can be most supportive. When she is sharing strong emotions with me, I will sometimes ask, “Would you like me to listen or talk right now?” Both mindful speech and compassionate listening are both powerful expressions of mindfulness.

S: Every couple experiences difficulty – such is life – but the general theme is the same: when Brandon shares something that is troubling to me, I have to stop myself from jumping in and blaming him. I sometimes say to myself, “Do I want to be right or do I want to stay connected?”

What wisdom can you share in lessons you’ve learned from incorporating mindfulness into your married life all these years? Can you provide some do’s and don’ts?

B: Marriage is about recognizing the unique brilliance in yourself and supporting the unique brilliance of your partner. Each of us has a gift that only we can give—it’s the simple gift of our authentic selves. My work is being as fully myself as I can be and to help Susan be as fully herself as she can be. I’m always humbled by how Susan has done this for me for so many years. Since we each have blind spots, our partners help us to see the shadows that we cast that may elude our awareness. I’ve always understood the great adventure of life to be the curious, wonderful and painful process of becoming who you are. This journey of authenticity is the journey of life itself.

S: I would say that truly exploring and understanding your personal journey and what defenses you have adopted because of your history is extremely helpful information. If we lack insight and compassion for ourselves, the depth of our relationship will stay surface. Mindfulness can offer an opportunity for deep and true acceptance of things that can be difficult to accept. As I shared earlier, it starts with you and then and only then can it branch out to others. When I am taking care of myself and loving myself deeply, I can access a deep connection in our marriage. I realize this can sound like psychobabble, but I have found it to be the only way.

Any initial steps or key tips for those eager to begin to bring mindfulness into their relationship?

B: Have compassion for yourself first. Our ability to connect and have compassion with another begins with our own ability to have compassion for ourselves. This may not be intuitive for us at first. We seek to aim our mindfulness at others. Often when I am leading a workshop or a retreat, someone will come up to me and say, “My partner really needs mindfulness or my boss really should start meditating.” There is a wonderful temptation, especially at the beginning of practice, to recognize the ways in which everyone around us could benefit from mindfulness. The true gift of all the people that surround us in life is that they hold up a mirror to show us what needs attention in our own lives. The first step in bringing mindfulness to your relationship is to bring it to yourself first.

S: I echo the sentiment that deep compassion for yourself, your journey, and your uniqueness is the key ingredient for connection with your partner. Whenever a friend of mine wants to talk about his or her partner and express frustration or anger, I ask them what they think the feeling is telling them and turn the conversation to an invitation for self-compassion. Most issues are not about the other person. I would also share that when you start to really and truly wake up to your life, things can seem worse and there is a temptation to want to change and fix everything. That is precisely the moment to hold back and let the dust settle.

In addition to your retreat, do you have any resources you recommend on mindfulness for couples?

S: I really like Karen Maezen Miller’s books (she has several) which read like poetry but have very simple and profound insights about being present. Also, I recommend watching some comedy that you enjoy together. We have all really learned to take spirituality so seriously. Kyle Cease has some great videos out there that are really funny and poke fun at the seriousness and rigidity that can often accompany a spiritual practice.

To learn more from Brandon and Susan on how to bring mindfulness into your relationship, we invite you to join them at their mindfulness weekend retreat for couples, Walking the Path Together, May 6-7, 2016. All couples are welcome. For details and to register, CLICK HERE.

Kimberlea Chabot is a passionate proponent of living “all in!” while learning to find her own slice of sanity. She writes and mentors on how to connect with what matters most at her blog, www.luckypennyfound.com . Kimberlea considers her husband and their three children to be both her greatest blessings – and her greatest challenge to living mindfully. She is a regular contributor to the Copper Beech Institute blog, Awaken Everyday. Copper Beech Institute offers more than 40 retreats and programs to foster peace and resilience in everyday life.

Learn more about Copper Beech Institute I Follow our Awaken Everyday blog

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