The Compassion Project: Building a Bigger Heart

When I consider potential titles for an autobiography, ‘Crying in Savasana’ is definitely in my top five. It seems like so many watershed life experiences have landed during a yoga practice or in the reflective/integrative period afterward.

In 2011, one such moment landed like a ton of bricks.  I was at a retreat and the morning yoga practice focused around compassion. One of our facilitators taught us the mudra for compassion.  I asked him if practicing the mudra would help draw more compassion into your life.  He said yes, (and I’m paraphrasing here), but that compassion would have to begin with me.  You can’t have real compassion for others without compassion for yourself.

We all know that, of course.  We hear it and read it all the time.  But for whatever reason, that simple and profound piece of wisdom managed to land that morning.  This is from a journal entry right after that experience:

“As we lay in savasana, I began to cry.  I have very little compassion for myself.  I expect things from me that I would never demand from someone else.  And when I cannot deliver, I find ways to tear me down.  Where is my compassion for me?  Why do I do this?  Why am I trying to destroy myself?”

That moment led me back into therapy.  It completely shifted my spiritual practice.  I developed tools and techniques around self-compassion, around managing perfectionism, around the anxiety disorder I was diagnosed with during that round of therapy. I’m not cured – that’s not a thing, really.  We can smooth the edges of a stone, but the stone remains.  However, I am miles away from where I was.

This past week, a friend expressed a similar realization and asked if anyone had good tools for developing more self-compassion.  Y’all, I have an entire shelf in my tool shed dedicated to this.  I’ve used these tools so frequently for so long that I just flat out forgot to write about them.

These techniques don’t work overnight. As far as I can tell, nothing does.  Think of them like growing a garden.  You prepare the soil, you plant your seeds, you tend and water and then eventually there’s a good harvest (and sometimes good harvests take a long time).  What I can tell you is that they do work.  But you have to be in it for the long haul.

Let’s start with the one that takes less infrastructure.

Affirmations.  Affirmations catch a lot of shit because they frequently get caught up with the dangerous New Age tendency toward Spiritual Bypassing.

Positive vibes only, dude.

When applied correctly, however, affirmations are profoundly helpful.  Your self-talk, the narrative you feed your own brain, is not set in stone.  We can successfully change the way we think about a known subject through repetition and conscious reconditioning. We call this changeability neuroplasticity.  Most of us can call to mind a notable instance of neuroplasticity – unlearning a bias or prejudice, for example.    Neuroplasticity can be accessed on a smaller scale, too.  We can change the story we tell ourselves about ourselves and affirmations are a way to do that.

In this context, an affirmation is a repeated sentence or phrase designed to have a specific psychospiritual effect. Affirmations are phrased using positive language: ‘I am’ statements rather than ‘I am not.’  For example, ‘I am calm and centered’ is an effective affirmation.  ‘I am not anxious’ is less effective. I rotate affirmations depending on what I’m working on, but a few of the ones I’ve used that are specifically oriented toward self-compassion are:

I am offering myself grace and patience in this moment.

I accept and love myself as I am.

I am rooting deep, breathing, and embodying compassion.

 My own method for integrating a new affirmation is to write it on a sticky note and then stick it to my bathroom mirror.  I also change the background on my phone and sometimes my PC to a photo with those words prominently displayed.  I recite my affirmations as I brush my teeth, when I open my phone, and when I sit down to work. I also recite them when I feel my anxiety start to rise, or when I catch a thought pattern that I want to change.

Huh?

You read that correctly.  Start to notice your internal monologue.  When you ‘hear’ yourself trash you, stop and reframe.  If your mental chatter says, ‘I suck at this,’ notice and counter: ‘I am learning a new skill.  I am offering myself grace and patience in this moment.’

Change out your affirmations as needed.  Some of mine stick around for years, some are for a specific season, some I only need for one lunar cycle. I change mine out at the dark moon.

Mala prayer.  I use a mala, a beaded necklace of 108 beads, for repetitive prayer.  For each bead, a word or short phrase is spoken (mentally or aloud). I have a litany that I use for compassion in general – toward myself and others:

I am love
I am healing
I am patience
I am grace
I am soft
I am gentle
I am accepting
I am warm
I am home
Compassion
Compassion
Compassion

This litany is 12 phrases, which means that if I use it in conjunction with a mala, I recite the litany 9 times.  When I was at the beginning of my compassion journey, I worked this mala prayer every day.  Feel free to write your own litany or simply repeat the word ‘compassion’ for each bead.  I use a mala, but prayer beads in almost any form will serve you well here.

Labyrinth Work.  The single best tool in my toolbox for developing more compassion has been a specific form of labyrinth walking.  A labyrinth is a single path with no dead ends or turns that follows a winding pattern to the center, then back out again.  It is not a maze, not a puzzle to be solved. It is simply a path to follow.  Everything that happens on a labyrinth is an allegory – the pattern is symbolic of our journey to our own center.

To find a walkable labyrinth near you, visit the Worldwide Labyrinth Locator.  If you do not have one near you, or do not wish to walk a labyrinth, you can also use finger labyrinths for this practice.

There is no wrong way to walk a labyrinth and there are many different approaches to doing so. The one that has worked well for me in terms of compassion work includes a specific pattern: Releasing, Renewing and Receiving. When you walk a labyrinth, there are places on the path where you change direction:

Each of these change points is an opportunity to turn more than our physical bodies – it’s a chance to change how we think or how we are in the world. You are literally turning to face a new direction. So, on the way in, I release perfection, judgment, expectations, self-sabotage, and all the things that come between me and self-compassion.  It’s okay to release the same thing more than once.  Sometimes I’ll spend an entire walk just working on my perfectionism.

At the center is a space for prayer and sacred connection, so I use that space to either talk to the gods or to try to integrate more fully with my higher self. This is a space for mystical experiences, so don’t be surprised if you end up having one.

Then, on the way back out, at those same turning points, it’s an opportunity to Receive the energy you are trying to nurture.  So, I receive love, compassion, patience, humor, connection, and so forth.

This has been the pattern I have used at monthly Labyrinth walks for the last decade and it really has helped.  If nothing else, this particular form reminds me of the kind of mindset I am seeking to cultivate.  On a mystical level, it slowly reprograms how my spirit interacts with the world.

 

Is self-compassion an area where you’ve done some work?  What helped?  Hit me up in the comments.  You never know when your words will be exactly what someone else needs to see.

 

 

 

 

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