Let’s hypothesize that there’s a substance that’s been irritating you and causing problems in all areas of your life: it causes you to be unhappy, to be stressed, to procrastinate, to be distracted, to be angry with people, to be dissatisfied with your life, to be overweight and unhealthy, to not exercise or eat healthy, and much more.
Horrible substance, right? Now imagine there was a salve that could ease the bad effects of this substance, and make all those other areas better.
The substance is real: it’s your suffering. We all suffer, in small and large ways, every day. And it causes all the other problems I mentioned.
The salve is also real: it’s self-compassion. Which sounds too fluffy for most people, but it’s a concrete practice that will have concrete benefits, in all areas of your life.
Let’s take a minute to explore suffering, and what would happen if you applied the salve of self-compassion.
The All-Pervasive Effects of Suffering:
We don’t always think of ourselves as suffering if we’re leading normal lives. But in fact, we’re suffering more often than we usually realise, just not necessarily suffering greatly. We suffer in small ways, and that affects our happiness, the happiness of those around us, and our actions and habits throughout the day.
Stress: Throughout the day, things come up to stress you out, from a new thing to add to your workload to someone criticising you to the housework not being done. This is suffering, even if it’s usually at a low level (though sometimes it can get to high levels). The salve of self-compassion would reduce this suffering, and allow you to deal with these events/situations more calmly, increasing your happiness levels throughout the day.
Frustrations: Little frustrations happen all the time, from people not doing things right to traffic being congested to not being able to figure out why software isn’t working right. This is also suffering. Self-compassion can help you calm down from the frustrations, and handle the situations appropriately. You’d be less angry when you responded, which is likely to result in better outcomes.
Anger with others: Someone has pissed you off — your kid just won’t listen, your spouse has said something critical, your boss is being a total dillweed. You’re suffering, obviously. This can result not only in unhappiness but in actions that hurt your relationship with others, your career, your marriage. Instead, apply self-compassion, and you can calm down, respond appropriately, even with compassion for the other person, who is also suffering.
Feeling bad about yourself: There are a million reasons we feel bad about ourselves, from failure to body fat to hopelessness in bad situations. This too is suffering, and it causes us to take harmful actions, like comforting ourselves with food and shopping and alcohol, not taking action, not believing in ourselves. Self-compassion eases this pain and leads not only to more helpful actions but happiness.
Feeling rushed: There’s often a feeling throughout our days that we need to rush to the next thing. Walking, we go quickly. Working, we switch constantly to the next communication, next tab, next super-urgent-can’t-wait-do-it-now task. This feeling of constant urgency is itself a source of stress. Self-compassion can ease this as well, and allow us to slow down, enjoy the moment, be happier in each moment.
Distraction: We live super-distracted lives, wasting huge parts of our day. Distraction is a symptom of suffering — we go to distraction because of fear (we’re afraid of harder tasks, of missing out, of failing) and we think distraction is comforting. In turn, distraction tends to increase suffering — we feel bad about ourselves, we procrastinate on important things and make our jobs and lives worse, etc. Self-compassion helps us see this suffering, ease it, and reduce the tendency to distraction.
Procrastination: We all procrastinate, on work, on writing our great novel, on learning a musical instrument, on exercise. Procrastination, like a distraction, is a symptom of suffering, of fear and thinking we can’t do something. Self-compassion can help with that suffering and reduce procrastination, increasing our creative output, helping us to take care of finances and work tasks and decluttering and all the things we know we really want to do but aren’t doing.
Not exercising: This is a specific form of procrastination, and so is a symptom of suffering. It also shows how procrastination can cause more suffering, as a lack of exercise leads to worse health, which leads to the stress and pain of disease. Self-compassion can help us start exercising mindfully and joyfully.
Unhealthy eating: We tend to eat unhealthy things because we are afraid of vegetables and not eating junk, and because we need to comfort ourselves from other suffering, and because we think we need the crutch of temporary pleasures. We don’t. Self-compassion eases this suffering and helps us to be OK with not eating crisps and doughnuts, with making our bodies feel better.
Lack of gratitude: Much of our lives are spent in silent complaint, or sometimes not so silent. We are so unhappy with little things in our lives, which is a form of suffering. These complaints mean we’re missing out on what’s great about our lives. Self-compassion helps us to deal with the pain of these complaints, and instead turn to the amazing things we can be grateful for, which increases our happiness with life all around us.
Lack of mindfulness: Most of our lives are spent in distraction, unmindful of the present moment. This is a form of suffering because if we weren’t suffering we could stay in the present much of the time, fully appreciate the moment as it happens. Instead, we’re thinking about the future because we’re worried about it, we’re obsessed with the past mistakes we’ve made. Self-compassion can ease these worries and obsessions, and instead practice mindfulness with each moment more often.
I could go on forever because suffering takes many forms. But you can see the pattern: self-compassion eases the pain of the suffering, reducing the bad effects and allowing us to choose more helpful ways of living.
Let’s turn to a method of self-compassion.
A Self-Compassion Method:
This is a method you can practice through a daily habit, to help with suffering in all forms:
Notice your suffering, in one of its many forms.
Turn towards the suffering, see it as it is, feel it fully, experience it mindfully and in the moment.
Accept the suffering, instead of trying to ignore it, avoid it, push it away, kill it. Accept that it’s a part of life, a part of you, but temporary.
Wish yourself happiness, wish for an end to your suffering. Give yourself a mental hug, comfort yourself.
Let go of what’s causing the suffering. Just release it, or put it aside. The cause is likely something you wish were different. Instead, appreciate things as they are. Be present with reality.
Be grateful for the reality that’s happening right now.
This is not always easy to practice, and so I recommend a daily session where you turn inward for a couple minutes and practice without the distractions of daily life. You’ll get better at the self-compassion habit with practice.
But it’s worth the practice. The salve of self-compassion can change your entire life.