Working with shame and difficult emotions
For the past four and a half days, I have been co-teaching (with Kristy Arbon), an intensive Mindful Self Compassion (MSC) course, http://www.centerformsc.org/, a transformative mindfulness-based intervention (MBI), developed by Christopher Germer, Ph.D. http://www.mindfulselfcompassion.org/, and Kristin Neff, Ph.D. http://www.self-compassion.org/. Building on the evidence-based research of mindfulness-based interventions such as Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy, (MBCT), MSC incorporates exciting new research and practice on the power of loving-kindness, compassion, and self-compassion to help people work with the inevitable suffering of daily life and how they react to it. Participants are taught to respond to difficulties not by berating themselves, but by giving themselves the same kindness and understanding that they would extend to a close friend. Suffering is part of the human condition; it is something that can unite rather than separate us. There is no need to hide or isolate when times are difficult.
One of my favorite practice from the course, which can be used either as a formal or informal meditation during difficult times, is Soften, Soothe, and Allow (free downloads available from the CMSC website listed above). It incorporates physical compassion (softening), emotional compassion (soothing), and mental compassion (allowing), a powerful trifecta.
The following is an adaptation:
- Find a comfortable position, either sitting or lying down, and take a few relaxing breaths.
- Notice any tension or tightness in your body. Soften into that location, inviting the muscles to soften rather than requiring that they do so, like applying heat to sore muscles. You may like to repeat softening…softening…softening.
- Then, soothe yourself because you are struggling, perhaps by putting a hand over your heart, feeling the warm and tender touch, and letting kindness stream through your hand into your body You may want to add some encouraging words, such as, “This is hard to feel. May I be kind to myself.”
- Finally, allow the discomfort to be there, making room for it rather than wishing it would go away. You may want to repeat, allowing…allowing…allowing.
- If you like, perhaps repeating the words,softening…soothing…allowing, softening…soothing…allowing.
- Try to stay with your experience, continuing to use the technique whenever you need to manage a difficult emotion or life circumstance.
This practice is taught as a way to work with difficult emotions, especially shame. I’ve been using this with patients struggling with cancer and other illnesses, and profound loss or heartache such as death or divorce, and have found it to be enormously helpful. Self-compassion is uniquely helpful in managing the shadow of shame that seems to follow catastrophic misfortune.
In the MSC course, working with shame is paired with songwriter Peter Mayer’s evocative video, Japanese Bowls, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qOAzobTIGr8. This song was inspired by the Japanese art of Kintsugi, which dates back to the 15th century, when a Japanese emperor sent a tea bowl to craftsmen for repairs. By filling the cracks with gold and lacquer, damaged vessels were not only repaired, but their value increased, and a new art form was created. As a philosophy and metaphor, this ancient art invites acceptance of change, and a compassionate embrace of the knocks, breaks, and shattering that we’re all subject to in the course of our lives. If only our scars and lines could be something we celebrate, a mark of wisdom that increases our value rather than something that needs to be hidden or disguised. One of our participants quipped, “This fix is the polar opposite of botox!”
Breathing meditations for the workplace
This past weekend I attended the biannual Mind and Life International Symposium for Contemplative Studies, which featured the Dalai Lama, cutting-edge neurobiological research on mindfulness, and lectures by meditation teachers. One talk that has stayed with me (and that was organized bypsychiatry residents at our new Center for Mindfulness and Compassion, Cambridge Health Alliance, Harvard Medical School), was given by New York Times best-selling author Sharon Salzberg, whose newest book is Real Happiness at Work. Salzberg talked about email apnea (or screen apnea), a finding by Linda Stone, a writer, researcher, and former executive at Apple and Microsoft . Stone noticed that a majority of people (possibly eighty percent) unconsciously hold their breath, or breathe shallowly, when responding to email or texting.