Well-Being//

Why We Need to Be Compassionate to Ourselves As Well As Others

Compassion has a profound impact on our happiness — it’s time to make it a top priority.

Prostock-studio/Shutterstock
Prostock-studio/Shutterstock

Being kind and compassionate to our friends and family is something that comes naturally — most of the time. Turning that quality inwards and being kind to ourselves is another matter entirely, because it’s so easy to be self-critical and judgmental.

In her latest book, Radical Compassion, meditation teacher, and psychologist Tara Brach, Ph.D., details how meditation and compassion can help us to be  kind to others, and help us experience self-acceptance and contentment.

Here, Brach shares her keys to lowering stress at work, resolving conflicts in relationships, and living in the moment. 

Thrive Global: What do you mean by radical compassion?

Tara Brach: It means real caring — not just wishing that others are going to feel good, but being actively engaged in your compassion so you can really help others. It is a full expression of compassion that is grounded in a presence you can actually feel in your body. It’s all inclusive: You can’t open your heart to others if you’re turned against yourself. And If you’re opening your heart to the world, you’ll naturally start becoming tender to yourself. Radical compassion is not restricted to your favorite person or your pet, but embraces everyone, including yourself, with an open heart.

TG: Sometimes that is the hardest thing to do, because we can be so self-critical, listening to what Thrive founder and CEO Arianna Huffington calls “the obnoxious roommate living in our head.” 

TB: Yes, self-judgment is pervasive, and often toxic. We have a background voice in our head that regularly tells us we are falling short, and often we are not aware of how the deep feeling of being unworthy or deficient can run through everything we do — as parents, how we are at work, and the way we feel about our bodies. That’s why purposefully learning to practice self-kindness and compassion is so essential. 

TG: How do you do that?

TB: It is about learning to truly nurture our inner life. Most of us didn’t feel we were understood or loved in the way that we really needed to be as young children. So we need what I call spiritual re-parenting. This is what happens with meditation, when we bring a kind, mindful presence to the life that’s inside us.

TG: How is meditation most effective?

TB: Meditation — there are many different kinds — can help us to have an intimate connection to our inner life. Most types of meditation help us to see and be aware of when we’re lost in our thoughts, so we can keep coming back to the present moment with gentleness and clarity. 

TG: For people who don’t meditate regularly, how do you recommend they start?

TB: I recommend experimenting with free guided meditations that emphasize mindfulness — find one that resonates and do it daily. Even five minutes a day will help you to establish the habit. 

TG: Your book focuses on your own meditation technique, RAIN. What does it entail, and how does it help if you are feeling out of balance?

TB: RAIN weaves mindfulness and self-compassion, and it’s applied to difficult emotions. Let’s say you’re feeling fear. You start with R, which means “Recognize what is going on inside you — notice that there’s fear.” The A of RAIN means “Allow whatever you are experiencing to be there without trying to change it.” Don’t fight it, or try to fix or judge it. The I is for “Investigate,” and it’s not a cognitive investigation, it’s about discovering what is going on and what it feels like in your body — do you feel a knot in the stomach, or the clench of fear in your heart, for example? You can ask: What does this feeling of vulnerability need right now? Usually, when we’re feeling fear, we need to feel loved or safe. The N is for “Nurture,” and it mean you can respond to what’s needed with caring. That might entail simply saying to yourself: “It’s OK, sweetheart,” or “I love you,” or “I’m not leaving.” It can help to place your hand on your heart, and offer nurturing from the wise part of yourself. Or you can imagine another trusted being sending you love. There’s a final part, which I call “After the RAIN,” when you sense the shift from feeling trapped to a more compassionate, peaceful quality and state of mind.

TG: How and when do you meditate?

TB: I meditate every morning, either outside on a rock by the river or in my bedroom. I primarily sit quietly, being mindful of my breath, body, sounds, feelings, and whatever arises. I also do lovingkindness reflections. In general, meditation helps me become more present and intimate with my life — I listen more deeply to others, and also to my own heart. I’m able to extricate myself from obsessive worry and enjoy the moment.

TG: How can you use RAIN at work if you’re stressed or anxious? 

TB: If you don’t have the opportunity to take a real “time out,” find a way to take a mini-pause. Relax any tension in your body and take three slow, long, deep breaths. Then send a message of kindness to yourself before re-engaging in your work. One woman I worked with was intimidated by the CEO of her company. Every time there was a weekly staff meeting, she’d go into a kind of brain freeze. She used RAIN to work with the anxiety that was kicked up. She began to investigate, and found that her mouth was dry and her chest was tight. She also found that what the anxiety “needed” was to know it was OK for it to be there! I suggested she place her hand gently on her abdomen and breathe into that area, accepting the anxiety, not to make it wrong. She became more relaxed and rested. 

TG: What happened in future encounters with her CEO?

TB: She said she still had some anxiety, but it didn’t feel like such a big deal in the meetings. That gave her a lot more freedom to express herself in a creative, empowered way. RAIN helps with creativity because when we’re trapped in fear, we’re actually being dominated by the limbic system (the part of the brain dealing with emotions) and that keeps us from being creative and clear. But when you do RAIN, there’s a shift, and you activate the prefrontal cortex, which means you have much more access to your intuition and full intelligence.

TG: How can the technique help with friction in relationships?   

TB: When we get into conflicts with others, we often lock into blame. RAIN helps in making a healing U-turn: So instead of aiming your blame at the other person, which only triggers their defensiveness or anger, you turn your attention to what’s underneath the blame. I call it “RAIN on Blame.” We begin to get in touch with what’s going on inside us. For instance, if my husband and I are in an argument and I do RAIN, I might recognize that I’m feeling angry at him. After allowing the angry feelings to be there, I’ll investigate and find underneath my anger and judgment, I’m feeling hurt. Once I’ve nurtured with self-compassion, I can recognize that maybe he was feeling threatened or uncomfortable with something I was doing. That allows me to relate to him with more kindness and understanding. 

TG: You talk about being compassionate to everyone. Do you literally mean everyone, even people we may not like or even know personally?

TB: To heal the great divides in our world, and to release the armor around our own hearts, we need to see the truth about others. If we look past people’s  behaviors, everyone is living with vulnerability and fear. And when they’re not caught in their fears, everyone has the capacity to love, and longs to feel belonging. So can we see the basic goodness and beauty in them? That is what opens our heart to all beings.

TG: You often advise people to live in the present. How do you advise doing that?

TB: I encourage people to ask themselves two questions: What is happening inside me right now? And, can I say yes to the moment? If we can get in the habit of asking those questions, they will bring us back to the aliveness and mystery and creativity of what’s right here, now. 

Tara Brach’s bestselling books also include Radical Acceptance

You can hear her weekly podcast and meditations here.

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