Self-Compassion and Self-Fulfillment

heartblessA friend of mine in conservatory once asked me, in all honesty: “How can I expect to get better without the voice that tells me I suck pushing me to work hard to improve?”

And, in all honesty, it’s a bit of challenge to argue with that. Who among us does not know that voice, and does not, at least at some level, listen to it and appreciate the motivation it provides?

And yet, if you’re a fan of this blog, the Feldenkrais Method, or any of a great variety of life-affirming approaches to self-improvement, you also know that following that voice is ultimately limiting. At best it is an inefficient waste of effort, and at worst it is self-defeating, since we can never satisfy the demands of our inner prosecutor.

The power of self-compassion

This week’s theme is tiferet, embodying beauty and compassion. It is seen as integrating the two previous opposing forces of outpouring chesed (love) and constraining gevurah (power and discipline).* When applied to the way we treat ourselves (bein adam l’atzmo, in classic Jewish terminology), tiferet is the antidote to the chastising voice. Our self-love, or desire to achieve, and our self-discipline, or path to achievement, are harmonized in self-compassion: the way we treat ourselves as we pursue our goals.

Moshe Feldenkrais liked to say that his method showed people a way to make the impossible possible, the possible easy, and the easy, elegant and satisfying. The trick is to begin at the end of the sentence: to make our simple, merely-possible movements satisfying to us, or as he sometimes put it, aesthetically pleasing.

When you are engaging with yourself from a place of self-compassion, you can be patient with your difficulties, and you don’t waste energy and effort pushing through things that don’t work. Your internal resistances melt away when you stop fighting them, and you find the most efficient way to improvement. You begin to notice what is working, rather than what is not, and since you act on what you notice, things begin to work better almost on their own.

Discover it yourself

Here is a simple exercise to both cultivate an attitude of self-compassion, and discover (and re-discover) how simply noticing can lead to improvement. This is another gem from the Sounder Sleep System:

Lie quietly in any comfortable position (one good way is to be on your back with your hands on your belly or your chest), and…

Make no effort

Make no effort to breathe

Make no effort to breathe deeply

Make no effort to breathe deeply, or in any special way.

Simply let the breath come and go of its own accord. Trust your body to know how much oxygen it needs from moment to moment. Certainly if you’re lying down quietly, your body doesn’t need much oxygen, so there’s no reason to breathe deeply.

As you feel the breath come and go begin to notice where you move as you breathe. Somewhere in your belly? Your chest? More on one side than the other? It doesn’t matter where. Just notice where you are moving. You might want to put a hand there, to make the sensation clearer.

As you continue to make no effort to breathe deeply, or in any special way, simply attending to where you  feel the movement of your breath, you will likely notice an interesting thing: parts of yourself near the first place you noticed your breath will begin to participate more. And anywhere you put your attention (or your hands) and simply feel any movement at all, the movement will slowly grow, as more and more of you softly participates in the gentle ebb and flow of your breath.

You can do that for as long as you like. Some sensitive people will be able to feel the effect in just a few minutes. Maybe you’ll fall asleep if you’re tired. Or maybe you’ll feel a sense of ease in your breath and throughout yourself, which is the best foundation for learning.

Please do share your thoughts in the comments below — whether on the ideas or on the breath experiment.  And if you’d like to explore breath more, check out my breath workshop and retreat!

* (Rabbi Simon Jacobson also connects it with truth and objective reality — a favorite theme of mine, but I’ll get into that in a few weeks. (In the meantime, any sfirot geeks out there can contemplate the obvious connection between tiferet and yesod).

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