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My Problem With “Self Compassion”

From BHL: Ornithological MiscellanyRecently I’ve had a problem with the term “self compassion”. Every time I heard it my toes curled. I tried to explain this to friends and colleagues but it always met with the polite nodding and smiling that showed I wasn’t getting through.

I would say that there is no “because” in compassion. You just develop compassion without a focus. You don’t feel compassionate to an injured animal because it is injured in preference for feeling compassion to another animal that isn’t injured. Why would you feel compassion to someone just because that someone happens to be you. Or, indeed, why would you deny that person compassion just because it was you.

I wondered if the compassion of psychology was the same as the thing that I was experiencing through my practice. It was all brought to a head by an interview in this week’s All In The Mind on BBC Radio 4 with Professor Paul Gilbert from University of Derby Mental Health Research Unit.  The interview had been designed to make my toes curl. A patient described her case very well. A carer who didn’t care for herself. And then the penny dropped. I was wrong. I had been getting my brahmavihāras in a twist.

Buddhism has the notion of four virtues or brahmavihāras. A brahmavihāra is an abode of Brahma. They are sometimes called the four immeasurables or sublime attitudes. Basically they are the recommended way to approach the world. The four brahmavihāras are:

  • Metta (Loving Kindness) – The translation of Metta is often debated. Sometimes it is called friendliness or benevolence. Of the four it is the one most likely to be used in its Pāli form. Perhaps it is something that just needs to be felt.
  • Karuṇā (Compassion) – The one I am having a problem with – or maybe not?
  • Mudita (Sympathetic Joy) – This is particularly hard hit in our competitive world where schadenfreude may be more common.
  • Upekkhā (Equanimity) – This is the key here I think.

What I was getting wrong was conflating compassion with meta (which is universal) and bemoaning the lack of equanimity in “self compassion”. Compassion is directed in the sense that Sympathetic Joy is. Perhaps it should be called Sympathetic Pain.

The way I see it is that brahmavihāras are different facets of a single construct – a recommended attitude to adopt for the good life. The thing itself, the thing they are facets of, is ineffable. Perhaps Metta is the thing the other three are supporting. Simply put, one should feel loving kindness to all as equals, whether they are rejoicing or suffering.

So does this help with my toes curling at the phrase “self compassion”? It does a little. Now all I am bothered about is that these therapies should really be called “Equanimity Therapy” because the overriding problem seems to be people who have loads of compassion for others but none for themselves – typically burnt out carers. The equally unhappy but possibly more destructive narcissists also need to balance their “self compassion” with greater equanimity.

I am of the naive belief that simply working on the balancing of emotion leads to the arising of greater Metta. You only have to look at the therapeutic benefit of having friends – equals. Behind this is our inner need to dissolve the self into the whole. We inter-are with everything else and it is hard work keeping up a pretense that we are not – such hard work that it makes us ill.

2 Comments

  1. Hi Roger. I saw your blog because I have Google Alerts set to search for postings on self-compassion. I thought I’d respond.

    I make the very point about the 4 brahmaviharas in my book Self-Compassion. It is only equanimity that is objectless, the other three have sentient beings as their focus. Chris Germer also points out that mindfulness is directed at the contents of experience, which can be non-judgmentally neutral. Self-compassion is directed at the experiencer of suffering, and the response of the heart is not neutral. It appears as though your understanding of what researchers like myself mean by self-compassion is limited (almost every research paper ever written on the topic is available on my website – http://www.self-compassion.org – if you want to learn more.) You should know that my model of self-compassion is based on the Insight Meditation tradition of Buddhism, which may not be yours. Also, the work is designed to capture the experience of everyday non-Buddhists who have never meditated a day in their life (think housewife or business executive). They’re much more interested in easing their suffering than in abstract concepts like no self. And your point about self-compassion equalling equanimity is misguided. Equanimity does not activate the self-soothing system, releasing oxytocin and opiates which help one feel safe, the way self-compassion does. This is an extremely important point. Self-compassion is active and directed toward suffering. Equanimity accepts what is without direction. You should know that introducing the notion of self-compassion into the common culture has helped changed the lives of thousands of people for the better, bringing them a sense of comfort and self-acceptance not found in problemmatic notions like self-esteem (I get e-mails to this effect everyday). Maybe that can also help your toes uncurl.

    Best wishes,

    Kristin

  2. Thanks for your feedback Kristin.

    You appear to be very passionate about promoting self-compassion.

    I don’t think I said at any point that equanimity was the same as self-compassion did I?

    My understanding of self-compassion is pretty much as you describe it on your website.

    http://www.self-compassion.org/what-is-self-compassion/definition-of-self-compassion.html

    What you say there fits well with my blog post. People can understand what compassion is because they feel it for others but they don’t feel it for themselves. They need to feel the same for themselves i.e. be more evenhanded or, in other words, have greater equanimity. I take it you don’t want them to stop feeling compassion for others or to feel more compassion for themselves than others you just want them to balance it up.

    True, I haven’t read the research papers but I don’t think I have a fundamental misunderstanding I simply have a different spin on the subject.

    I disagree on “only equanimity is objectless”. The last stage of the metta bhavana is to broaden feelings of metta as widely as possible and people will often sit with generalized feeling of metta at the end of a session. Perhaps it is towards everything which is pretty much the same as no-particular-thing in my book.

    I disagree on the focus of these things only being on sentient beings. I quiet often feel compassion for inanimate objects. Coming across a cuddly toy on the street I might pick it up, say a few kind words, and sit it on a wall. Many people would do this. Although it is ‘just’ a cuddly toy my feelings of compassion are still real. We can feel compassion for the environment without having to get into debates about whether the global biome is sentient or not.

    It is funny that many people keep saying anatta (not-self rather not no-self) is an abstract concept when it is the most concrete truth of all. Look deeply, either spiritually or intellectually, and you will not find a thing that can be labelled as ‘self’. This applies to all objects of consciousness no just people. It is fundamental to all schools of Buddhism as one of the three marks of existence.

    Good luck with the book. I am sure it will be very helpful to many people and if I get a chance I’ll read it some day.

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