This Saturday I made a little investment in myself and brought a ticket to attend an all-day workshop in London on Mindful Self Compassion ran by my psychology hero Dr Kristin Neff. I’ve previously written about some of her ideas around the life changing power of self-compassion and seeing her talk in person was even more inspiring that I could have hoped.
One topic she touched on during the workshop that particularly resonated with me was the importance of using compassion with equanimity, i.e. sending some of the compassion back our way when we are offering compassion to others who are suffering to help us remain balanced, cared for and present. Having worked as a counsellor with complex clients for a few years now I have read many articles of self-care, been supported by some amazing supervisors and managers, developed a strong barrier between my work day and home life and invested time in looking after myself after an intense day of client work.
While these strategies are all vital ingredients of maintaining my wellbeing while working in a job where I am supporting and listening to the stories of some of the most vulnerable and distressed members of our society they all have one drawback, they are only available to me after the session has finished and not there in the moment when I may need them most. Being able to work as counsellor is a privilege and one of the most rewarding parts of my life but sometimes the process of being there for others can be very draining for the compassion giver, we may take on too much personal responsibility for changing the others situation, become exhausted and frustrated with the others reluctance to change or develop insight into their situations, or must listen to distressing stories of abuse or trauma. This doesn’t just apply to people working in a caring profession as we will all have moments in our lives when we are supporting friends or family members through difficult situations.
By practicing the below compassion with equanimity exercise Kristin Neff took the workshop attendees through, we can all learn some short strategies we can take into our next client session or conversation with a suffering loved one.
This exercise is intended for use in actual caregiving situations. It is a way of being compassionate with ourselves while maintaining connection to others. It combines the Giving and Receiving Compassion meditation with phrases that cultivate equanimity.
Equanimity is balanced awareness in the midst of pleasant or unpleasant emotions. Below I will describe the process.
- Firstly, find a comfortable position and take a few deep breaths to settle into your body and into the present moment. You might like to put your hand over your heart, or wherever it is comforting and soothing, as a reminder to bring affectionate awareness to your experience and to yourself.
- Next bring to mind someone you are caring for who is exhausting you or frustrating you—someone whom you care about who is suffering.
- Visualize the person and the caregiving situation clearly in your mind, and feel the struggle in your own body.
- Now repeat these words, letting them gently roll through your mind:
Everyone is on his or her own life journey.
I am not the cause of this person’s suffering,
nor is it entirely within my power to make it go away,
even though I wish I could
There are times when this relationship is difficult to bear,
yet I may still try to help if I can.
Be aware of the stress you are carrying in your body, inhaling fully and deeply, drawing compassion inside your body and filling every cell of your body with compassion. Letting yourself be soothed by inhaling deeply, and by giving yourself the compassion you need.
As you exhale, sending out compassion to the person who is associated with your discomfort, or to others in general. Continue breathing compassion in and out, allowing your body to gradually find a natural, breathing rhythm—letting your body breathe itself. “One for me, one for you.” “In for me, out for you.” Occasionally scanning your inner landscape for any distress and responding by inhaling compassion for yourself and exhaling compassion for others. Noticing how your body is caressed from the inside as you breathe. Letting yourself float on an ocean of compassion — a limitless ocean that embraces all suffering. Now letting go of the practice and allowing yourself to be exactly as you are in this moment. Gently open your eyes.
By maintaining this sense of balance and self-care our resource of compassion for others and ourselves can be endless.