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The Difficult Art of Self-Compassion

“We need to re-learn the value of calculated moments of self-compassion; we need to appreciate the role of self-care in a good, ambitious and fruitful life.”

“Compassion,” wrote historian Karen Armstrong in considering the proper meaning of the Golden Rule, “asks us to look into our own hearts, discover what gives us pain, and then refuse, under any circumstance whatsoever, to inflict that pain on anybody else.” In her beautiful ode to compassion, Lucinda Williams urged: “Have compassion for everyone you meet … You do not know what wars are going on down there, where the spirit meets the bone.”

And yet even the most compassionate among us have one sizable blind spot: the self. Our culture’s epidemic of self-criticism has left us woefully unskilled at self-compassion — that essential anchor of sanity, which both grounds and elevates our spirit.

In this short, immensely helpful exercise, The School of Life offers a daily self-compassion practice so simple that cynics might mistake it for simplistic — and yet out of its simplicity arises a profound reorientation to our own selves.

To survive in this high-pressured, crazy world, most of us have to become highly adept at self-criticism. We learn how to tell ourselves off for our failures, and for not working hard or smart enough. But so good are we at this that we’re sometimes in danger of falling prey to an excessive version of self-criticism — what we might call self-flagellation: a rather dangerous state, which just ushers in depression and underperformance. We might simply lose the will to get out of bed.

For those moments, we need a corrective — we need to carve out time for an emotional state of which many of us are profoundly suspicious: self-compassion. We’re suspicious because this sounds horribly close to self-pity. But because depression and self-hatred are serious enemies of a good life, we need to appreciate the role of self-care in a good, ambitious, and fruitful life.

Complement with my commencement address on the discipline of resisting cynicism and self-compassion and Ann Patchett on why self-forgiveness is the most important ingredient in making art, then revisit the School of Life’s sensitive and sobering animated essays on higher consciousness, what great books do for the soul, how to stop letting habit blunt your aliveness, what philosophy is for, how to find fulfilling work, and what comes after religion.

BP

Anne Truitt on Compassion, Humility, and How to Cure Our Chronic Self-Righteousness

“Love … is the honoring of others in a way that grants them the grace of their own autonomy and allows mutual discovery.”

Countless great minds have attested to the creative and psychological value of keeping a diary, but few have manifested that more beautifully than artist Anne Truitt (March 16, 1921–December 23, 2004) — perhaps in large part because Truitt’s formal training as a psychologist before she turned to art gave her higher-order powers of introspection and self-awareness, which, coupled with an artist’s penchant for patient observation, produced a true masterwork of psychological insight.

In one particularly poignant sequence of diary entries Daybook: The Journal of an Artist (public library) — the same soul-stretching collection of reflections on the creative life that gave us Truitt on the difference between doing art and being an artist — she examines the art of humility and the perils of self-righteousness as a gateway to true human connection, the elixir that makes possible what Adrienne Rich would so memorably describe mere months later as “an honorable human relationship.”

In early August of 1974, 53-year-old Truitt recalls a symbolic moment from her childhood and considers how we inadvertently engineer our own myths, and not always healthy ones, by letting others define us:

As I work to understand my life, its scale seems to diminish, as a tree I gaze up into flattens when I walk up a mountain and look down on it. Humility is really more natural than pride, which seems to me always to involve a lie.

I remember when this lie began for me. I was in my mother’s bedroom, standing in front of a gold-bordered pier glass. It was early afternoon. The light was sunny. It was warm. I had on a white batiste undergarment, all one piece with a drop seat. The neck and arms were edged with narrow lace, and the same lace was on the ruffles gathered by elastic around my legs. I was being dressed for a party. My dress lay on the bed behind me, a translucent white cloud. My mother and my nurse were paying a new kind of attention to me, the same flavor of attention now paid to me at the openings of my exhibits. They were arranging my thin whitish blond hair into a “roach” curl, which was to run from the back of my head along its crown to the center of my forehead. They brushed my hair up, used a little water to hold it, and brushed again. The curl was totally artificial and had to be forced into being. Admonished to stand still, puzzled by their excited determination (very unlike the usual matter-of-fact tenor of the household), I addressed my image in the mirror.

I had never, to my recollection, seen myself before. I looked all right to myself in general; my feeling for my body seemed pretty well matched by what I saw. In fact, I was interested and would have been glad to have been left alone to look. But the chirps about the curl went on and on, and I began to feel uncomfortable. Something was being added to me. They wanted me to be more, and the “more” was the curl. I began to want the curl too, and I remember the first sick feeling of anxiety as they worked to get it to stick there. My healthy self felt whole without it, and recognized quite clearly that I was being made a fool of. But I was fascinated by being praised. The whole room danced with how cute I was. I knew I had done nothing except to stand there. I hadn’t made the hair to begin with, much less the curl. But there it was; I began to want to please in order to get praise. I began to participate in the lie that I was something special, to take that role, to accept what I did not want and did not even think right for myself, in order to taste the sickly sweet flavor of praise.

I remember turning around from the mirror to the bed as they lifted the dress and held it out for me to step into. I held my head stiff with pride.

[…]

The roach curl is the earliest remembered strand of a web I wove to add on to what I was, what others wanted me to be. The idea that I must meet arbitrary requirements caught fire from my clear recognition that I was very small and powerless; and it coalesced into the fear that if I failed to meet these mysterious requirements I would be abandoned.

Truitt observes that we turn the same tendency outward, in how we relate to and assess others, indulging a dangerous and presumptuous compulsion to impose on their identity our own shoulds, adding to history’s most elegant definitions of love:

Unless we are very, very careful, we doom each other by holding onto images of one another based on preconceptions that are in turn based on indifference to what is other than ourselves. This indifference can be, in its extreme, a form of murder and seems to me a rather common phenomenon. We claim autonomy for ourselves and forget that in so doing we can fall into the tyranny of defining other people as we would like them to be. By focusing on what we choose to acknowledge in them, we impose an insidious control on them. I notice that I have to pay careful attention in order to listen to others with an openness that allows them to be as they are, or as they think themselves to be. The shutters of my mind habitually flip open and click shut, and these little snaps form into patterns I arrange for myself. The opposite of this inattention is love, is the honoring of others in a way that grants them the grace of their own autonomy and allows mutual discovery.

[…]

Compassion is one of the purest springs of love.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from ‘We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy,’ an unusual story about compassion and love. Click image for more.

Recounting another childhood memory, Truitt reflects on the cruelty of judgmental opinions, which seem to come to us almost automatically — something all the more palpably true half a century later, in our present age when people feel increasingly entitled to passing public judgment on others, in a culture where it’s so much easier to be a critic than a celebrator. This tragic automation of the human psyche, Truitt suggests, is constantly conditioned by peer pressure — one that good-personhood requires we actively counter:

Why didn’t Miss Perry marry Mr. Lockhart, who sat in the sun outside his hardware store all day? And I could make people laugh by saying, “Because he’s too fat,” tickling myself with pleasure while feeling sick because I never passed him without feeling deep compassion, so short on his little stool, so round a cannonball of stomach resting on his patiently parted knees. Why doesn’t she marry him, I asked myself in a different part of myself, feeling the sere waste of their lives, his resignation to his lonely stool, hers to her sewing machine and to her stolid, passive mother.

The judgments I copied, then learned to make as I observed others make them, with just enough of myself in them to make them amusing or interesting contributions to conversation, began as fragments. It took time and effort to make them fit into cohesive plaques of personality that would be hailed with little cries of recognition and appreciation. It was a lot more difficult than the curl, but the effect was the same: I had to hold myself stiff, but I got the praise. And saved myself from being outcast.

In a diary entry two days later, Truitt revisits the subject of self-righteousness, distilling with piercing poignancy the essence of compassion and empathy:

I have always been mystified by the speed with which people condemn one another. Feeling as righteous as Christ chastising the money-changers in the temple, they cast their fellows into the outer darkness of their disapproval. This seems to give them intense pleasure. Whenever I am tempted by this pleasure, I remember some impulse in myself that could have led me, granted certain circumstances, into the condemned position. This has caused me to distrust the part of myself that would relish self-righteousness.

Daybook is rich and revelational beyond words from cover to cover. Complement this particular excerpt with Anna Deavere Smith on the discipline of not letting others define you and Anne Lamott on how we keep ourselves small by people-pleasing.

BP

Confucius on Good Government, the 6 Steps to a Harmonious Society, and Self-Discipline as the Key to Democracy

“Things have roots and branches… If the root be in confusion, nothing will be well governed.”

Confucius on Good Government, the 6 Steps to a Harmonious Society, and Self-Discipline as the Key to Democracy

Two and a half millennia before Leonard Cohen wrote in his timeless and tender ode to democracy that “the heart has got to open in a fundamental way,” the ancient Chinese philosopher and statesman Confucius (551–479 BCE) recognized the indelible link between personal and political morality, recognized that interpersonal kindness is the foundation of social justice, recognized that democracy — a form of government only just invented on the other side of the globe in ancient Greece, not to take root in his own culture for epochs — begins in the heart.

Confucius. 1909 engraving, artist unknown. (Available as a print.)

Centuries before the advent of Christianity and its central tenet of the golden rule, the Chinese sage pioneered the concept of compassion as a moral guiding principle — an ancient concept subtly yet profoundly different from empathy, which only entered the modern lexicon at the dawn of the twentieth century as a term for projecting oneself into a work of art. On his existential reading list of essential books for every stage of life, Tolstoy listed Confucius among the most mature reading. His teachings went on to influence millennia of poets, political leaders, and ordinary people seeking to live nobler, kinder, more empowered lives.

Among them was the poet Ezra Pound (October 30, 1885–November 1, 1972) — a man of immense talent and immense blind spots, of sympathetic idealisms and troubling sympathies — who set out to translate and compile the most enduring teachings of the great Chinese sage. His 1927 more-than-translation earned Pound the $2,000 poetry prize of The Dial — the pioneering Transcendentalist magazine Margaret Fuller and Ralph Waldo Emerson had launched nearly a century earlier at the peak of their intense and complicated relationship, which shaped the history of modern thought. Pound used the funds to launch his own poetic-political magazine. The following year, his translation was published in book form as Confucius: The Unwobbling Pivot / The Great Digest / The Analects (public library).

In his prefatory note, Pound observed that China was tranquil and harmonious for as long as its rulers followed the teachings of Confucius, but dynasties collapsed into chaos and social catastrophe as soon as these principles were neglected. In a sentiment that applies as much to those ancient sociopolitical collapses as to the perils of the present, he writes:

The proponents of a world order will neglect at their peril the study of the only process that has repeatedly proved its efficiency as a social coordinate.

The Sage and the Banditti. 1887 woodcut, artist unknown. (Available as a print.)

That process, as Confucius conceived it, was one of treating public good as a matter of personal goodness, rooted in a purity of heart and a discipline of mind. Noting that “things have roots and branches” and that “if the root be in confusion, nothing will be well governed,” the ancient Chinese sage outlines the six steps to a harmonious society:

The [ancients], wanting to clarify and diffuse throughout the empire that light which comes from looking straight into the heart and then acting, first set up good government in their own states; wanting good government in their own states, they first established order in their own families; wanting order in the home, they first disciplined themselves; desiring self-discipline, they rectified their own hearts; and wanting to rectify their hearts, they sought precise verbal definitions of their inarticulate thoughts. Wishing to attain precise verbal definitions, they set to extend their knowledge to the utmost. This completion of knowledge is rooted in sorting things into organic categories.

Confucius. Colorized 1900 photogravure, artist unknown. (Available as a print.)

This essential classification is the work of clarity and comprehension — we classify to understand and to order our priorities. Once this work is complete, Confucius counsels, the process is folded over and the six steps are retraced back to the original goal of good government:

When things had been classified in organic categories, knowledge moved toward fulfillment; given the extreme knowable points, the inarticulate thoughts were defined with precision… Having attained this precise verbal definition, they then stabilized their hearts, they disciplined themselves; having attained self-discipline, they set their own houses in order; having order in their own homes, they brought good government to their own states; and when their states were well governed, the empire was brought into equilibrium.

Complement with mathematician Lilian Lieber on how Euclid illuminates the roots of democracy and social justice and the great humanistic philosopher and psychologist Erich Fromm on what self-love really means and how it anchors a sane society, then revisit Ursula K. Le Guin’s superb more-than-translation of Tao Te Ching and its ancient wisdom on the wellspring of personal and political power.

BP

Spell to Be Said against Hatred: Amanda Palmer Reads Poet Jane Hirshfield’s Miniature Masterwork of Insistence, Persistence, and Compassionate Courage

“Until each breath refuses they, those, them…”

Spell to Be Said against Hatred: Amanda Palmer Reads Poet Jane Hirshfield’s Miniature Masterwork of Insistence, Persistence, and Compassionate Courage

“When we come to it,” Maya Angelou beckoned in her stunning cosmic vision for humanity, “when the curtain falls on the minstrel show of hate…” Then, she bent the mind in language to remind us, and only then will we have risen to our cosmic destiny — a destiny built on the discipline of never forgetting, never daring let ourselves forget, our shared cosmic belonging. “For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.    Remember?” But we do forget, and so the minstrel show of hate remains with us; the curtain falls, only to rise again, as if to affirm Zadie Smith’s poignant observation that “progress is never permanent, will always be threatened, must be redoubled, restated and reimagined if it is to survive.”

It is especially in times of uncertainty, in tremulous times of fear and loss, that the curtain rises and the minstrel show resumes — a show of hate that can be as vicious and pointed as the murderous violence human beings are capable of directing at one another, or as ambient and slow-seething as the deadly disregard for the universe of non-human lives with which we share this fragile, irreplaceable planet. “We don’t know where we belong,” Annie Dillard wrote in her gorgeous meditation on our search for meaning, “but in times of sorrow it doesn’t seem to be here, here with these silly pansies and witless mountains, here with sponges and hard-eyed birds. In times of sorrow the innocence of the other creatures — from whom and with whom we evolved — seems a mockery.”

How to end the mockery and the minstrel show is what poet Jane Hirshfield — one of the most unboastfully courageous voices of our time, an ordained Buddhist, a more-than-humanitarian: a planetarian — explores in “Spell to Be Said against Hatred,” a miniature masterwork of quiet, surefooted insistence and persistence. Included in the anthology Dear America: Letters of Hope, Habitat, Defiance, and Democracy (public library) alongside contributions by Jericho Brown, Ellen Bass, Naomi Shihab Nye, and Robin Wall Kimmerer, it is inhaled into life here by musician, activist, fellow more-than-humanitarian, and my darling friend Amanda Palmer.

SPELL TO BE SAID AGAINST HATRED
by Jane Hirshfield

Until each breath refuses they, those, them.
Until the Dramatis Personae of the book’s first page says, “Each one is you.”
Until hope bows to its hopelessness only as one self bows to another. Until cruelty bends to its work and sees suddenly: I.
Until anger and insult know themselves burnable legs of a useless table.
Until the unsurprised unbidden knees find themselves bending. Until fear bows to its object as a bird’s shadow bows to its bird. Until the ache of the solitude inside the hands, the ribs, the ankles. Until the sound the mouse makes inside the mouth of the cat. Until the inaudible acids bathing the coral.
Until what feels no one’s weighing is no longer weightless.
Until what feels no one’s earning is no longer taken.
Until grief, pity, confusion, laughter, longing know themselves mirrors.
Until by we we mean I, them, you, the muskrat, the tiger, the hunger.
Until by I we mean as a dog barks, sounding and vanishing and
sounding and vanishing completely.
Until by until we mean I, we, you, them, the muskrat, the tiger, the
hunger, the lonely barking of the dog before it is answered.

“Spell to Be Said against Hatred” was originally published in Hirshfield’s altogether soul-resuscitating collection Ledger (public library), which also gave us the wonderful “Today, Another Universe.” Complement it with Marie Howe’s kindred-spirited poem “Singularity” and a soulful reading of Hirshfield’s splendid succor for resilience, “The Weighing,” then revisit Amanda’s enchanting readings of “When I Am Among the Trees” by Mary Oliver, “Einstein’s Mother” by former U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith, “Life While-You-Wait” by Polish Nobel laureate Wisława Szymborska, “Humanity i love you” by E.E. Cummings, “Hubble Photographs: After Sappho” by Adrienne Rich, and “Questionnaire” by Wendell Berry.

BP

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