Electric Shock or Stillness? A Lesson in Self- Compassion
I was teaching a group of beginner meditation students and told them that we were going to do a 3-hour meditation. I was not serious, but they didn’t know that. I wanted to see their reaction. They looked at me like I was crazy.
I thought, “If I would have said we were going to go dig a ditch or something, they would have been happy to do that”. I asked them, “What exactly is the problem? Why don’t you want to sit with yourself? I’m not saying that you have to do anything. We are going to just sit. Just going to be. What is so scary about that?”
I said, “So if we sit here and I put a screen in front of you, you’re going to fine, right? We can watch a movie, no problem? But if you look inside, if you’re just with yourself for 3 hours, this is scary?”
The answer is yes, it can be. This breaks my heart. What has happened to us that we don’t want to sit with ourselves?
Electric Shock Anyone? It gets worse. In a study by Timothy Wilson, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia, they found that in 700 tested subjects 64% started to administer self-inflected electric shock while spending only 15 minutes alone with themselves.
They had people go into a room and just sit with themselves for about 15 minutes. They were allowed to bring in their phones but asked not to use them. Afterward, they were asked, “How was that?” They said, “I didn’t like that at all. That wasn’t good.” Some of them even cheated, admitting to checking their phone.
It wasn’t just young people. They did this with all age groups, and they all had a difficult time.
Next, with the participant’s consent, they gave them a small electrical shock and asked them how that felt. Of course, it did not feel good, and the participants said that they would even pay to not be shocked.
Afterward, the participants were put back in the room by themselves; alone. What do you think happened?
Yep, they shocked themselves.
It is sad, isn’t it? Rather than just being with themselves, they prefer to be distracted by something they don’t like. Can you relate to that? I know I can. How many times do we distract ourselves by doing things that hurt in the short or long term?
We turn to our vices. We may be home alone eating bad food and binge-watching TV shows on Netflix. These things distract us, but they don’t necessarily feel good.
Yet, the saints and sages ask us to “know thyself”. You’re it. You’re the most amazing thing in existence. In fact, nothing else can give you what you already are. Yet, we really can’t sit with what we are because we think we are these little fragments that we’re grabbing onto; a thought, a belief, a body–this is what we think we are. And sometimes we don’t like what we see. We don’t like the beliefs about ourselves; our self-identity and these things come up in the stillness of meditation.
On the surface, we have an agitated mind. When those surface-level things come up, we attach our self-identity to them and then judge ourselves just for that little piece that’s arising. We can never really know what’s beyond that. When we dive deep into the waters of self, what do we find there? When we abide in that state, how do we feel? Well, of course, we could feel really amazing then, but can we even get over just the surface-level stuff that’s coming up that’s arising?
How to Sit Still and Not Give Yourself Electric Shock
There is amazing research that has been done in recent times on self-compassion spearheaded by the University of Texas professor Kristen Neff. Self-compassion can be a key ingredient to loving ourselves again, to accepting who we are long enough to behold our own greatness.
Before we begin outlining some steps to self-compassion let’s first investigate how we show compassion for others. How do we show compassion for a loved one for example? First, we need to have awareness, to have mindfulness. Let’s say we see this person is not feeling well. We need to actually be awake and notice, “Oh, dear you don’t look well, are you ok?”
If you saw a loved one hurting, maybe sobbing, would you just walk on by? Of course not. Yet we tend to bypass our own hurt. If we sit still it may arise, but then we move into distraction, leaving ourselves to suffer and therefore exhibiting a behavior that we would not as likely do to others.
3 Steps to Self- Compassion
Acknowledge that you are suffering: As discussed above, often time we “walk right by” our own suffering. To work with it, we must first be willing to acknowledge and stay with it. From here you can simply note what is arising. “I’m hurting. This is difficult to bear. I’m having a hard time.”
Acknowledge that everyone suffers: Often our hurt is connected to a sense of loneliness, isolation, or a feeling of separation. We can remedy this by remembering what Kristen Neff calls the “Common Humanity of Suffering”. Indeed, we all suffer. This is a natural part of life, regardless of where you live or how much money you make we all suffer in some way.Coming in contact with our suffering we’re more aware and can be more compassionate that this is something we all share. It’s not only me. Actually remembering the common humanity of suffering we could say, “Wow, I’m not the only one suffering. Everyone suffers in some way.”
Be kind to Yourself We have to be mindful of what we’re saying and doing to ourselves. Within we may find we have a quite active inner critic. That little know-it-all is really quick to point out all of our negative traits and may be very slow to point out the positive ones. So we need to notice, “Did I just say that to myself?” Sometimes we say things to ourselves that we would never say openly to another person.
Mindful self-compassion is the ability to expand all that we are. It’s learning how to hold it, accept it, and eventually, come to care for it in a loving way.
Sometimes we even judge ourselves for suffering. We may tell ourselves, “Get over it. What the hell am I doing, still suffering like this?” Very harsh.
While putting your hands on your heart, or on a place that feels good to you, repeat kind phrases to yourself:
May I be kind to myself
May I love myself just the way I am
May I have patience
May I forgive myself
May I feel comforted in this difficult time
These are just suggestions, you can find the ones that you resonate with you the most and use those.
Obstacles You May Encounter
The great Vietnamese Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh says, “When you have pain within you, the first thing to do is to bring the energy of mindfulness to embrace the pain. I know that you are there, little anger, my old friend. I’m taking care of you now.”
Now, this might be a radical shift in how we have been conditioned to treat things that arise, like anger, within us. The difference is the non-self-identification. We usually move into, “Wow, I have so much anger in me”. Then we tend to self-identify with that anger. We can even say, “I am an angry person”. Instead of the prior example where Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us that anger is something that is arising within us but is not us.
So, in that moment, we have to opportunity to transform what is there. We use mindfulness, love, and compassion. Whatever we look at disappears. Whatever we love melts away. Until we love something, it cannot leave. Until we can truly love something, it cannot go away. We cannot push it away. We can’t will it away. We cannot anger it away. Whatever we push away, we feed. Whatever we love, can be allowed to go on in its own accord.
One of the obstacles to this self-compassion is that we think that being easy on ourselves, means that we will not improve. We think that we have to be hard on ourselves–go, go, go. The harder that we are on ourselves, the better that we’re going to do, the more that we’re going to achieve, and we all know achievement equals happiness, right? So we’re all going to be happier if we just push ourselves, and don’t let ourselves get away with anything. That’s really going to make the difference.
In actuality, however, it is highly motivating for us to nurture and forgive ourselves, and to say things like, “Yes, you know what, you might’ve made a mistake, but that’s okay. I knew you were doing the best you can. I really believe in you to do better the next time.”
Kristen Neff uses the example of a child coming home with bad grades. If the parent says, “Oh my gosh, I cannot believe you are that bad at math. This is just horrible. There’s no reason for that,” they might get such a complex about math and just say, “Oh, I must be horrible at math. I don’t even want to try.” But, of course, if the parent says, “I didn’t know you were struggling that badly. What can we do to help? Can we get you a tutor? I know you must be good at math if you apply yourself. Let’s give it another try,” this positive reinforcement has so much more power. We just need to turn this power into ourselves.
There is no sustainable happiness found outside of ourselves. You cannot purchase a suitcase of happiness and unfortunately, this world provides no guarantees. So even if things are going well, they are always subject to change, and this uncertainty allows for fear to arise.
The well of happiness that we find inside is the only thing that is sustainable. It is a place of refuge, the eye in the tornado of life. We can find a solace within that far surpasses the transitory sensory pleasures we find outside of ourselves.
The key is to love ourselves enough to want that kind of peace. Do we love ourselves enough to do the work? To show up consciously when we are hurting so we can move beyond the hurt to a state of peace?
The answer at first may be no, and that’s ok, it’s honest. Start where you are, take just one event, one sorrow, one disappointment and stay with that. Send yourself compassion.
This is the first step towards peace.