Last updated on 2011/08/16
Recently 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.