Compassion as a cure for stress

Creating inner sanctuary

When I was much younger, my body completely betrayed me.  After a lifetime of effortless slimness, I gained 20 pounds seemingly overnight, the results of my heartbroken overeating after the end of my little starter marriage.  The rapid weight gain created a layer of what the Germans call "kummerspeck," (literally, "grief bacon") all over my otherwise perfect 23-year-old body.  Dieting didn't work, exercise didn't budge the pounds...but one day I had an epiphany.  As I was gazing upon myself in the mirror with disgust, I became suddenly aware of my inner dialogue:  I was calling myself a fat pig!  I realized that I would never speak to my friends who were struggling with their weight with such contempt.  It shocked me profoundly, and changed me.  I won't say the bacon melted right off, but it did eventually - and as I found my way to a kinder tone within, my grief certainly eased.

This was my introduction to the supreme importance of compassion to our mental and physical health.  I have learned to listen carefully to the tone of my inner voices as a cue to my own stress level.  Am I using harsh language with myself? Is there a mean edge to my tone?  There is no greater stressor than self-hatred.

Tone can be described as the emotional subtext of the words we use.  Most of us are civilized enough to modulate our words to other people (with notable exceptions.....yeah, you, Scary Trump!), but learning to soften our tone is trickier.  Learning to notice the tone of your inner voices is a key stress reduction skill because it's the first step to creating inner sanctuary through cultivating a nurturing inner voice.

Many of us did not have people around us during our childhood who could or would use a softer tone with us, and so harsh and critical voices were downloaded into our sensitive software before we had any choice in the matter.  Thanks to what modern brain science is teaching us about our ability to rewire our brains and change our minds, it's not too late to choose a better way for ourselves.

Find your own version of a kind voice:  if one doesn't occur to you, consider the voice of a friend who really loves and gets you, and the tone they use.  You can even use a public figure as a role model:  I particularly love the soft cadences of American Buddhist nun Pema Chodron, and hers is the voice I summon when I most need comfort. 

Use a kind, soft, affirming, warm voice, but not a gooey, indulgent one:  “You poor thing” isn’t nurturing.  “You deserve that brownie” when you’re working on better food choices isn’t supportive.  The nurturing voice speaks with confidence about your power to do good, enjoy life, create peace and well-being even when life is pinching and biting you.  It affirms your right to have all human feelings, even difficult ones.  It doesn't pressure you, but accepts the truth of where you are, in this moment.  It reinforces healthy boundaries without judgment, blame or shame (the Toxic Triad).

Also consider exploring the more formal practice for cultivating compassion called Metta, or Loving-Kindness.  Sharon Salzberg writes and teaches eloquently on this topic. To practice Metta in its simplest form:  you find a comfortable, upright seated position, take three deep breaths, and using your softest, most authentically kind inner voice, say either silently or aloud, several times:

"May I be happy,

May I be healthy,

May I be safe and

May I live with ease."

Take time after each repetition to let this intention for yourself sink in deeply.  Notice the places that resist, notice the places that accept.

Never underestimate the power of real kindness to reshape your world.



Posted on August 18, 2015 .