We are fascinated by your work! Are you able to tell us a bit more about what it is that you do and teach?
I teach the practice of mindfulness and self-compassion, which is about learning to treat yourself with kindness and understanding when we experience painful emotions or stress. In other words, how to treat ourselves in the same way we might treat a friend or someone we really care about when they were struggling. Often this involves helping people recognize that they are human, and to see the unnecessary suffering they cause themselves by being tough on themselves when they meet life’s inevitable trials and tribulations and to develop a more compassionate attitude.
A lot of your work is in the area self-compassion. What drew you to this?
Self-compassion was a kind of personal epiphany. I discovered first hand that being continually tough on myself was not a sustainable way to live, and that it is really only with kindness and compassion for ourselves and others that we can truly flourish AND also achieve what we want to in our life. Curiously, it is the fear that if we were to treat ourselves kindly we would lose our edge or become complacent that often prevents people practicing self-kindness. Turns out it’s the opposite that’s true, and that was a revelation that inspired my own research using self-compassion as an intervention for people with diabetes. Our hypothesis was that people who were taught self-compassion may be motivated to look after themselves better, and that might be reflected in better mental and physical health. I was taught to practice and teach self-compassion by Dr Kristen Neff (www. Self-compassion.org). When I started sharing these practises with other people, I was amazed at the difference it made in their lives as well.
How can we show ourselves compassion & kindness?
I think the first thing we can do is to regularly stop and gently check in with ourselves. To feel our feelings – especially when they are difficult or painful. To remember that we are human ‘beings’, not human ‘doings’. To drop anchor, to breathe, to stop the endless running and racing, even if just for a few minutes each day. To recognize that our own needs also need attending to, alongside other peoples. If we take care of ourselves we are then better equipped to continue to take care of others as well.
One really easy way to show ourselves compassion and kindness when we are feeling emotional pain is to give ourselves a gentle touch or caress, maybe putting your hand on your heart to feel its warmth. The important bit is to make some kind of loving physical gesture to yourself, in the same way you might naturally comfort a baby, or someone you truly love. Research show that soothing touch releases oxytocin, which is soothing and calming, and an effective antidote to stress.In fact, any practice that trains and strengthens our capacity to be “present” can also be helpful. It doesn’t have to be a formal meditation practice (although this really is helpful for many people), but can even be mindfully walking to your car, or deliberately noticing and slowing your breathing. I particularly like this poem, which provides some very gentle guidance.
Walk Slowly (Danna Faulds)
It only takes a reminder to breathe,
a moment to be still and just like that,
something in me settles, softens
makes space for imperfection.
The harsh voice of judgment drops to a whisper
and I remember again that life isn’t a relay race;
that we will all cross the finish line;
that waking up to life is what we were born for.
As many times as I forget, catch myself charging forward
without even knowing where I am going,
that many times I can make the choice
to stop, to breathe, to be and walk slowly into the mystery.
In your opinion, what are some of your top tips for health and happiness?
Go easy on the constant striving. Give yourself permission to be imperfect and a little bit messy from time to time. That doesn’t mean being self-indulgent or making excuses for yourself, but rather the recognition that constant self-criticism is harmful and that a perfect human being I will never be. Curiously, beating myself up when I feel inadequate is more likely to take me down a rabbit hole of rumination and recrimination. Self-compassion on the other hand means I am more likely to do things aligned to my health and happiness – even when those actions are hard, for example the courage to say “no” to other people’s demands when I am overscheduled or overworked, or to stand up for my own needs when these are invisible to others. Connect to your values and let these be your compass when you are lost.
Today’s world seems increasingly busier and more stressful. How do you think we can manage this without burning out?
Make a deliberate choice to “drop anchor” at least once a day. While I am not always able to take his advice literally, I am inspired by the Dalai Lama’s words “meditate for at least 20 minutes a day, apart from when you are really busy – and then you must do so for an hour”. The point is that when we are really busy we need to be extra careful to take care of our selves. Because it is only then that we will have the capacity, the resources and the love to keep giving to others without getting resentful or burned out. Self-compassion is not an indulgence - often it’s required for survival! I have also come to think it is absolutely essential to flourishing and being happy.
What are your top tips for combating stress when it inevitably hits?
Give yourself a “self-compassion break”. This means:
1. Recognising when you are feeling stressed or overwhelmed (this is mindfulness, the first part of self-compassion)
2. Allowing yourself to be human, to remember that everyone feels like this from time to time (connect with your common humanity, the second part of self-compassion).
3. Offering yourself the same kind words and gentle understanding you would naturally offer a best friend or someone you truly love (this is self-kindness, the third aspect of self-compassion).
You can download the Self-Compassion Break recording at www.self-compassion.org.
Mindfulness is a ‘buzz word’ these days, it’s hard not to pick up a magazine and see it in there! What are your experiences with mindfulness, and how do you see it helping people improve their wellbeing?
Yes, there is a lot written about mindfulness these days and, to be honest, a lot of it is fluff and not terribly helpful in my opinion. In the context of self-compassion, mindfulness means the capacity to feel and accept difficult feelings with curiosity and openness. Not avoiding or resisting, but simply staying present with ourselves, particularly when it is hard and we might otherwise distract or avoid or deny how we are feeling. Mindfulness is a form of brain training. It’s like going to the gym. It requires committed practice in order to strengthen the capacity to return to the present moment. It’s a constant practice.
The well hub is all about providing people with techniques to improve their overall wellbeing. What is your wellness philosophy?
My wellness philosophy is as far as possible, to cultivate un-busyness, to build a life in which my practice of yoga and meditation are the very foundation of my day. I find that when life intervenes and I don’t get to these practices, I have a sense of my “anchor” dragging and my day can certainly feel less satisfying, more chaotic and stressful. A teacher once told me that getting up early to practice yoga or meditation is like pushing a boulder up hill first thing in the morning, but then you get to roll down the other side for the rest of the day. So these practises are self-compassion in action for me. When I commit to these routines, I feel like I have a whole lot more available to give to other people. And when I fall way from these practices from time to time, I remind myself that I am only human, recommit to my values and get back on the mat!