A couple of weeks ago another cohort began the 8 week Mindful Self-Compassion (MSC) course with me. I get to share the ways to live in a way that’s more present, loving and connected. With each new group there are new learnings and my understanding and appreciation deepens. What a blessing!
The programme defines mindful self-compassion as composed of 3 elements: self-kindness, common humanity and mindfulness. The common humanity element may at first seem a bit trite or obvious – but in my experience the intentional cultivation of a sense of shared humanity, neatly captured in the phrase ‘just like me’, is hugely potent and profound, and can enrich all our relationships, including the all important one with ourselves! Without this empathic sense we have no humanity – which is why it leads to war, destruction and hatred, as we dehumanise the other. In the same way we ignore our own humanity, and are often at war with ourselves.
For most of us offering ourselves kindness when we’re feeling uncomfortable unpleasant emotions just doesn’t come naturally. We perceive an emotional problem to fix and we go to into battle, with self-criticism and self-blaming that further isolates us. This is stress reaction turned in on ourselves – fight, flight or freeze. However, recognising that all human beings experience similar feelings some of the time can open us to the possibility of caring, as we would for someone else feeling the way we do.
When I perceive myself as separate and everyone as other there is an underlying sense of not being safe, a ‘threatened self’. This gets helpfully described as ‘othering’ and ‘selfing’. We’re doing it all the time, and it takes a lot of energy. What prevails is a sense of competition, fear and a sense of lack. It activates the threat system in order to protect this little me, surrounded by stranger others – are they safe? Do they understand me? Do they love me, really? The perception of common humanity stops those threat wild-fires in their tracks. When we say to ourselves ‘just like me’ and are mindful of connection, the limbic system stops sounding the alarm, because another part of the neuro-system has reassured it there’s no need. Experiencing connection we are soothed, oxytocin instead of adrenaline pours through the body. We can feel ‘at home’ even when surrounded by beings we don’t know. We feel ease, and rest in a sense of safety.
On the MSC teacher training retreat I remember sitting alone at the end of lunch in the dining hall, feeling full of aversive emotions, caught up in ‘I don’t want this, I don’t like that etc’ triggered by some interaction I no longer recollect. Aware of my discomfort I placed my hands on my chest (a self-compassion gesture which can instantly transmit a sense of care and connection) and looked around at the staff clearing away, strangers and yet human beings just like me. I considered how they too experienced anger, irritation, jealousy. I recognised too that ‘just like me’ these beings, regardless of their different ages, genders, and his/herstories all wanted to be happy, didn’t want to suffer, and didn’t like feeling these uncomfortable emotions either. In seconds I felt my heart melt with warmth and care, with soft tears for us all, and I came out of my isolated contracted state – I smiled, silently thanked them all for a moment of insight, wished them all be well, happy and safe and went on my way with a heart brimming with love and spaciousness. I’m describing what happened over 2 minutes. It’s quick, powerful and shifts the mind-body state. It continues to inspire moments of practising ‘just like me’ in public places, on the tube, in the supermarket, in traffic…as well as with our dear ones who we can turn into threatening ‘other’ in the flash of a frown.
It’s astonishing actually how easily our sense of kinship can arise – a smile or laugh shared on the bus, knowing looks of incredulity between drivers in a jam, or watching a film. Without our extraordinary capacity to empathise and enter into another’s shoes movies would be a dull experience. Even participants in a psychological test who had clapped together for just 3 minutes showed far higher levels of compassion for others than those who hadn’t (hear more in this talk by the wonderful James Baraz)
And yet the chronic anxiety that so many of us feel is fuelled by a sense of separateness. We turn inward and isolate ourselves, reacting on survival auto-pilot. We might feel like running away or building walls in flight, freeze or fight but only connection can quell our fear. We are vulnerable without each other. Our primitive ancestors would not have survived the ferocious, clawed and faster predators without cooperation, community and resource sharing. The human organism needs connection – highly dependant from birth we cannot survive without the support of others. We may know it from our own experience that separation can feel physically painful – it hurts. It turns out that the same parts of the brain are activated during social pain as during physical pain, seen in fMRI brain scanning, as neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman explains:
“Our brains evolved to experience threats to our social connections in much the same way they experience physical pain. By activating the same neural circuitry that causes us to feel physical pain, our experience of social pain helps ensure the survival of our children by helping to keep them close to their parents. The neural link between social and physical pain also ensures that staying socially connected will be a lifelong need, like food and warmth…To the extent that we can characterize evolution as designing our modern brains, this is what our brains were wired for: reaching out to and interacting with others. These are design features, not flaws. These social adaptations are central to making us the most successful species on earth.”
There is plenty of striking strong evidence too that stronger social relationships dramatically increase health and survival (Julianne Holt-Lunstad 2010)
But realising inter-connectedness doesn’t necessarily have to do with how much time we actually spend with others, and solitude is of course something we need too. Some of us prefer to spend much of our time alone. It’s also not to suggest that we aren’t all incredibly unique. No one ever before or ever again will be you with all your particular combination of experiences, preferences, talents and tendencies. No one will ever be just like you, but like you certainly. It’s about how we perceive ourselves in relation to others. Albert Einstein famously described the human being as imprisoned in an ‘optical illusion of separateness’
“A human being…experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”
How much space does ‘me-ing’ and ‘mine-ing’ take up in your heart-mind? It’s interesting to consider how much ‘my’ possessions, ‘my’ relationships, ‘my’ emotions cultivates the sense of separation that is so toxic to ourselves as well as our institutions and planet. The reality is we’re all inter-connected, and the emerging science of mirror neurons and the occurrence of emotional, mental and physical ‘contagion’, the sharing of moods, traits and health conditions with up to 3 degrees of separation (Elisha Goldstein 2017) supports this. As Jon Kabat Zinn likes to say ‘we are so much more than the story we tell to ourselves about who we are’. (I’ll explore this more next blog, in To Self or Not To Self )
Mindfulness and compassion meditations are a wonderful anti-dote for this misconception of separateness that is the root of so much of our suffering. We can intentionally foster, nurture and build an internal sense of connection. One of the meditations to support this is the ‘goodwill’, ‘befriending’ or ‘loving kindness’ meditation. Originally ‘metta’ practice was taught by the Buddha as an antidote for fear, to embolden a community of monks who were setting off to live in the forest. Intentionally directing our well wishes for safety, peace and health to others and ourselves we also open our hearts to what connects us: our vulnerability and our wish to be well. In my experience it’s a great before sleep blessing to ourselves.
We can also simply practice saying ‘just like me’, in moments of stress and moments of joy. In a moment of misunderstanding or fear we can acknowledge that this being in front of me, and all beings unseen and unknown, want to be happy and free from suffering. When we feel blessed with good fortune and joy we might look around and wish this for others knowing that just like me they too wish for joy, peace and health. It’s a free gift to others, and a re-gifting to ourselves as we savour connection and being part of it all. Which we always are…We really are ‘all in this together’.
I wish for you that you see yourself in others, and that others see themselves in you. Remind yourself how good it feels to open your heart, letting everything that happens to you connect you with other people – because you are.
Great Matthew Lieberman TED talk on how we’re wired to connect, and how this is a ‘super power’ – yay!