Try this: imagine biting into a slice of lemon. Feel the tang burst against your tongue, the sourness invading taste buds with a sharp tingling insistence. Really experience it.
Is it possible not to alter your facial expression?
Another potent example that demonstrates the power of the mind to produce changes in the body, by thought alone, is sexual fantasy. Yet it’s not the only thing that can get a rise out of us.
The Power of the Mind
Blood pressure can be raised by dwelling on a stressful event. Adrenalin levels can rise just through the expectation of a hefty parking fine. When negative or disturbing thoughts run riot, harmful chemicals and stress hormones pour into the bloodstream and jeopardize well being.
And the converse for a positive thought. Gratitude, for example, is guaranteed to lift mood. Savoring happy memories elicits the original feel-good vibes and body chemistry.
Add to the list the deliberate practice of self-compassion, long known to the contemplative traditions. Also known as self-kindness or self-empathy, the practice counterbalances the damaging and unconscious tendency to be too hard on oneself.
Professor Paul Gilbert
I recently had the good fortune of attending a workshop in Lismore with the lively and entertaining Paul Gilbert. Gilbert is Professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of Derby, UK, and the founder of Compassion-focused Therapy (CFT).
His message: Attention is powerful and we can move it on purpose. (That’s a good definition of mindfulness!) And one particular form of attention, self-compassion, can come to our rescue in times of distress.
Fluffy or Courageous?
Prof. Gilbert warns that compassion is often misconstrued as something fluffy, mushy and touchy-feely but that is not the case. In fact the opposite is true: compassion takes strength, courage tolerance and skill.
In fact, a self-compassionate attitude has the power to help us reach our goals, by steering us back on course. It can overcome stress and promote well-being.
It’s helpful when we fail or make mistakes. It’s helpful for transforming our harsh inner critic. It can even transform debilitating feelings of shame. Self-compassion provides a stable sense of worth, no matter what the circumstance.
Driven By Threat
Paul Gilbert outlines three major systems that drive our mind and our life: (1)The Threat system (for self-protection); (2) The Drive system (doing and achieving ); (3) The Soothing system (contentment and feeling safe).
We are good at the threat and drive systems: they are built into our DNA through the mechanisms of the nervous system. Fight and Flight are the messengers of Threat and Drive.
But what about self-soothing? Self-soothing activates the opposite of fight and flight, the rest-and-digest state, essential for well being.
The problem is, evolution has done a shoddy job. Fight and flight are triggered automatically on feeling threatened, but rest-and-digest requires our conscious participation. We have to learn it.
We can learn it through Mindfulness and its many tools. Self-compassion is one such tool of self-soothing. It brings us back to rest-and-digest, the peaceful centred state from where we can act effectively in our lives.
Dr Kristen Neff
Dr Kristen Neff is a compassion researcher and associate professor of educational psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. Gilbert and Neff both outline similar approaches to self-compassion:
It’s about being kind and understanding to ourselves when we struggle or fail.
It’s about acknowledging our shared humanity. After all, everyone is the hapless victim of fight or flight!
It about being non-judgmental of negative thoughts and feelings, and bringing the awareness that notices if we are exaggerating or catastrophizing.
The Voice of Compassion
In a nutshell, it’s treating yourself with the same kindness and respect as you would others. Prof Gilbert even suggests we cultivate using a friendly voice towards ourselves. Whenever we go off course we call ourselves back with the friendly voice.
Both Gilbert and Neff provide free self-compassion audios on their websites. The titles alone paint a picture of the approach involved.
Gilbert’s focus on ‘Soothing Rhythm Breathing’ and ‘Compassionate Self Imagery’.
Neff has eight audio files on offer including ‘Soften, soothe, allow: Working with emotions in the body’; ‘Compassionate Body Scan’; and a seven minute ‘Self-Compassion Break’.
A Word of Warning
Take care to not confuse self-compassion with self-cherishing. In Buddhism, self-cherishing is when we are so focused on ourselves and our own needs that we ignore everyone else. We get stuck in our own narrow universe where everything revolves around us.
Although, of course, when we recognize this tendency in ourselves we have the option of bringing self-compassion to our self-absorption!
A kind and empathetic attitude towards ourselves will help us emerge, like a butterfly out of a cocoon.
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