The Power of Compassion: The Mountain that Loved a Bird

We live in a culture that encourages us to try to feel good all the time.  We hear the overt and covert messages: Be happy! Overcome struggles! Look on the bright side.

What is the problem with such messages?

First, it’s not possible to feel good all the time. Telling ourselves the story that we “should” feel happy when actually we feel worried, or sad or disappointed tends to compound difficult feelings. Instead of offering ourselves compassion and soothing ourselves for how difficult it is to struggle, we instead shame ourselves for not feeling good. “Shoulding” ourselves when we feel down is incredibly unhelpful.

Another problem with consuming the message that we shouldn’t feel sad or lonely or disappointed, is that it directs us away from the healing power of self-compassion. One way to define compassion is holding sorrow or suffering (our own or another’s) in a tender, loving embrace. When challenging emotions are held with connection and love, our hearts and lives can be transformed in positive ways.

There is a children’s story that beautifully illustrates the healing power of compassion: The Mountain that Loved a Bird. Although this touching story by Alice McLerran is now out of print, a small group of children and I have created a play of the story. I highly encourage you to set aside a little time to watch the play below and allow your heart to be transformed.

Four Steps to Help Kids Grow Self-Compassion

Father son pairHow many of us know someone – an adult, teen or child – who could benefit from the resource of self-compassion? We might think, Wow! That person really needs to be kinder to themselves and stop beating themselves up! 

But what is the best way to help another person to develop the resource of self-compassion? When I contemplate this question, I am reminded of the following quote by Albert Schweitzer: “Example is not the main thing in influencing others. It is the only thing.”

While helping another individual develop self-compassion involves more than just our example, the power of example cannot be overstated. This is expecially true when it comes to children. The process of helping children grow self-compassion involves four steps, which are built upon the foundation of caregivers’ self-compassion.

Four Steps to Help Children Grow Self-Compassion

  1. Caregivers learn the skill of self-compassion either on their own or alongside their child.
  2. Model self-compassion in the presence of children.
  3. Be the external voice that you want children to internalize.
  4. Children learn and practice offering themselves self-compassion.

STEP 1: Caregivers learn self-compassion.

We can’t help children to acquire a skill that we do not possess. That’s why our first step as caregivers is to grow the personal resource of self-compassion. If, when you were a child, your parents modeled self-compassion and also consistently soothed you when you were struggling, lovingly encouraged you to own your mistakes, appreciated your strengths and supported you in becoming your most authentic self, then it’s likely that you already possess the resource of self-compassion. If you are like the rest of us who received parenting that was somewhat less ideal than the above description, you likely need to do some learning and practicing to acquire the skill of self-compassion. You can strengthen your self-compassionate voice by using adult resources such as Mindful Self-Compassion training and books such as the Mindful Self-Compassion workbook, and/or you can take a parent-child self-compassion class and learn alongside your child. 

STEP 2: Model self-compassion in the presence of children.

Modeling self-compassion as caregivers means that we appropriately name our struggles in the presence of children and model giving ourselves encouraging and/or tender support for our difficulties. This might look like giving ourselves a hug or audibly offering ourselves reassurance or support when we feel distressed. We might let kids know that we are going for a walk, calling a friend, or making ourselves a cup of tea as a kind response to our struggles. When we name and model compassionately responding to our struggles we create a bridge between children and ourselves. Our example lets kids know that it’s okay to struggle and that they can seek out support (including their own kindness) during difficult moments. Our self-compassionate example can then be internalized as a model for children to emulate when they struggle. As caregivers, we need to have our own self-compassion practice (step 1) in order to model self-compassion for children.

STEP 3: Be the external voice that you want children to internalize.

When you speak to children, ask yourself the question: Is this the voice that I want my child to internalize? Is this how I want children to talk to themselves in their own minds? Because children internalize the voice of their caregivers (including tone), as much as possible, we want our words to convey compassion – sometimes tenderly soothing and sometimes encouraging and motivating. When we are successful at speaking to a child in this way, our words contribute to the development of a child’s compassionate voice. When we fall short of this aspiration, as we all do, it becomes an opportunity to acknowledge our human imperfection and offer ourselves compassion. We can show children that just like them, we are on the learning team when it comes to treating ourselves and others with kindness.

STEP 4: Children learn and practice offering themselves self-compassion.

Explicitly teaching children self-compassion and scaffolding their practice can sometimes be tricky, especially when teaching our own children, but it is a vital step. Many caregivers find it helpful to use resources, such as self-compassion books or a parent-child self-compassion class to help children consciously learn and practice the skill of self-compassion. After children have learned self-compassion practices, caregivers can begin to gently and selectively encourage self-compassion practice. When a child is having a difficult moment, it usually works best if caregivers first provide the child with compassionate support, and then, if the child seems receptive, invite the child to offer compassion to themselves. It’s important not to push a child to practice self-compassion as this can have an adverse effect. If a child resists practicing self-compassion, it can be helpful to focus primarily on the first three steps described in this article (increase caregivers’ self-compassion, model self-compassion, and use a compassionate voice with children).

It’s important that we, as caregivers, have a long-term view of children’s self-compassion development. We can normalize and offer ourselves compassion when children develop the resource of self-compassion more slowly than we would wish. It’s important that children know that we are learning and practicing self-compassion along with them, and that it’s self-compassionate to allow ourselves to grow slowly over time.

She’s Going to be Okay

A few weeks ago, my ten year-old came home from her first field hockey practice with some news that touched my heart. She said that the first half of practice she had been practicing self-criticism and comparing herself to others, but then the second half of practice, she remembered self-compassion, and she began to repeat the kind wishes in her head that we’ve been practicing together for the last few years (May I be joyful…May I be the person I wish to be…May my heart be full of love and connection…). 

My heart leapt with joy at her compassionate inner voice, and I thought to myself, “She’s going to be okay!” This is the same thought that I had when my now fourteen year-old began to report that she had an inner voice that soothed and encouraged her when she felt “less than” in middle school. When a child develops an inner self-compassionate voice, I know they are going to be “okay.” They have an inner ally that will soothe them during difficult times and help them to grow and change in positive ways.

It is my deepest wish that all of us – adults and children – can develop an inner self-compassionate voice that helps us to know that we are “okay” and loved. As grown-ups, we can grow our self-compassionate voice by taking self-compassion training or learning about self-compassion, and then intentionally practicing our inner soothing and encouraging voice. We can also encourage the youth in our lives to take a self-compassion class or read self-compassion books to support them in learning and growing the compassionate voice that they have hopefully been hearing from the grown-ups around them.

My favoritie self-compassion program for families is the parent-child self-compassion class. I love it because it enables children and their grown-ups to learn self-compassion side-by-side. It is beautiful indeed when both caregivers and children encourage each other to remember to be self-compassionate during their difficult moments (see the below one-minute video).

Wishing you and the youth in your life the resource of self-compassion.

With love,
Jamie Lynn 

Creating Space for Grief

When I learned that school had been canceled due to the coronavirus, I was more than a little shocked.  My default coping mode was to get busy and stay positive.  I also knew that I had to move my body and spend time in nature each day. 

Simultaneously, I became less diligent about my daily meditation practice.  Unconsciously, I think that I knew that if I sat still for long, grief and despair would catch up with me.  Anxiety mounted as I tried to stay busy, positive, and focused on service to others.

This past Saturday morning, I awoke at 5am, unable to fall back asleep.  I decided to spend the next couple of hours journaling, meditating, and doing mindful yoga.  The discomfort was immense.  I had a strong urge to get on my computer and start DOING SOMETHING.  But I disciplined myself to stay present until 7am.

An hour later while I was making breakfast for my children, I suddenly broke down sobbing.  I was crying because I felt so much empathy for all of the people struggling.  This situation is somewhat challenging for me, and I offered myself compassion for that.  Additionally, I am aware that there are many, many others who are suffering in big and small ways: people who are living alone and completely isolated from human touch, people who don’t have enough savings to cover their bills, people that might not have enough money to buy food, and people who are dying from this virus. 

My children came into the kitchen to check on me, and I told them that I was crying because this situation is sad.  It is really, really sad.  The three of us hugged one another and mourned together in the kitchen for a period of time.   I cried for a bit more, and then I went back to making pancakes.  I noticed that I felt markedly less anxious after my tears. 

During this pandemic, I am reminded that in addition to practicing gratitude, noticing what is good and being of service to others, we also need to create space to acknowledge and hold ourselves while we grieve.  This situation is incredibly sad, and it is healthy and natural to mourn during these times of collective pain and social distancing.  We can remember that we are not alone in our distress.  We can both grieve and rise together.

While I Lie Awake at Night

The other night I lay in bed, unable to fall asleep.  I was feeling sadness about something that had happened earlier in the day, and I offered myself a little compassion for the difficulty.  I then went through my usual repertoire of things I do when I lay in bed: I thought about three good things that had happened that day, and then I did the 61 points meditation that so often lulls me to sleep.

I was still awake.  So, I repeated the sequence: three more “good things” and another round of 61 points.

Still awake.  Hmmm….  What now?  I wondered to myself.  Should I get up and do some mindful yoga?  Or stay in bed?  Then it flashed into my mind that I could offer myself kind wishes.  I felt compassion for my little sleepless self, and I began to offer myself kind phrases:  May I be safe.  May I be happy.  May I be healthy.  May I live with ease.  I repeated these phrases slowly and kindly in my mind, and it felt good.  Like an extra warm blanket covering me while I lay awake in bed.

At some point my mind dazed off, and eventually I fell asleep.  I feel so grateful for my self-compassion tools (and mindfulness and gratitude practices) that offer me comfort when I encounter the inevitable challenges of daily (and nightly) life.

Note: I have guided audios of 61 points and loving kindness/ kind wishes meditations available if you’re curious to try (maybe next time you can’t sleep). 

How Self-Compassion Saved My Daughter…and Me

My older daughter Maya was born sensitive, curious, and creative.   As Maya grew, I learned that all of her five senses were extra sensitive.  For her sounds were louder, smells and tastes more acute, she had a strong draw to everything tactile, and she saw  “light shows” that made artificial lighting both intriguing and exhausting.  Maya’s overstimulated nervous system made it difficult for her to regulate her emotions, and full out meltdowns were a common occurrence.  When Maya was given free time, her curiosity and creativity allowed her to engage herself in a task for hours.  At the same time, transitions and rote tasks were incredibly challenging for her because they pulled her away from the mesmerizing present moment. 

When Maya became preschool age, I felt challenged as to how to both support her curiosity and creativity as well as facilitate her acquisition of simple life skills and lead her to accept redirection.  Maya’s intense wonder and curiosity made walking from her preschool to the car parked in front of the building a half-hour endeavor (with periodic meltdowns), and brushing her teeth a task that required many, many redirections.  

I practiced mindfulness to stay calm.  I tried making tasks and transitions playful.  And I tried “love and logic” to see if consequences would help her to acquire a bit of self-discipline.  As much as I tried to be neutral or compassionate when Maya failed to complete a “simple” task, Maya picked up on my subtle signs of frustration.  Over time she began to develop the low self-esteem that comes from knowing that you are not living up to the standards of the adult who you so desperately want to please.  She began to push herself to try to complete a task (like hanging up her jacket) with intense effort and self-criticism.  She began to be ashamed of her curious, creative, sensitive, beautiful self.

To have my daughter begin to lose her sense of self-worth was my worst nightmare, and  I began to see a helping professional in the hopes that I could learn to be more patient and less reactive to Maya’s distractibility and frequent tantrums.  The professional who I worked with suggested that I needed more self-compassion.  She suggested that I was “too hard on myself.”  Hmmmm……

I read a little bit about self-compassion, and then I signed up for a Mindful Self-Compassion training course.  I learned how to truly “be there” for myself in my difficult moments.  I learned how to let go of shame about my imperfections because I began to  understand deeply that we all have imperfections.  I began to ask myself how I could be more kind to myself.  I had always been good at “self-care,” but I began to practice self-kindness.  And a remarkable thing began to happen, as I began to apply self-compassion to myself, I naturally began to help Maya to acquire  self-compassion as well.

As I learned how to walk myself through the voice of shame into the sunlight of compassion, I was increasingly able to walk Maya through the voice of shame into the sunlight of compassion.  As I learned how to embrace my own imperfections, I became able to help Maya to embrace her imperfections.  As I grew in self-love and self-appreciation, I helped Maya to grow self-love and self-appreciation.  And my daughter and I both began to thrive.

Self-compassion proved to be the missing ingredient to helping Maya learn to apply self-discipline with kindness.  She can now acknowledge that because of her intense curiosity and creativity, performing a rote task can be incredibly challenging for her.  And she has been increasingly able to use her strengths to make a game out of routine tasks.  Self-compassion is not so much a technique as it is a way of being.  A way of being with ourselves that naturally transfers to those we love.  Learning to practice self-compassion on myself was the best gift I could ever have given my daughter.  It saved her from a voice of shame and self-criticism, and it gifted her with an appreciation for her unique and beautiful self.