The Challenges and Benefits of the ‘Compassionate Mind’ (Part 2)

 

How do I develop my ‘compassionate mind’?

By Katy Woolf

In part 1 of the blog, we talked about what we mean by the ‘compassionate mind’ and why we might struggle with this at times.  Whilst we all have a compassionate mind, we can lose touch with this, perhaps allowing it to shrink away amongst the chatter of our threat-focused mind. But we can begin to turn the mind towards compassion and practice being kinder towards ourselves, and in turn notice the benefits that this has to offer.

It might be helpful at this stage to think about your own personal motivation for developing compassion. Perhaps you’re very aware of your self-critical voice and the impact that this has on your inner resources. What might it look like if you were more compassionate towards yourself? Compassion is not just about feeling good about ourselves when we achieve, it is about being kind to ourselves in the face of struggle. These are the times when we need compassion the most, and the times when it might be the hardest find.

The exercises below are designed to support you to begin to open up to your soothing system and experience a felt sense of compassion flowing into you. This experience provides a foundation from which to build and nurture your compassionate mind so that it can support you in times of struggle.

 

‘Soothing rhythm breathing’

This exercise focuses on activating our soothing system. It’s a bit like an ‘on switch’ for the soothing system. From here, we are in a much stronger place to begin to experience the attributes of compassion which reside there. The purpose of this exercise is to help us train our attention to focus on feelings of calming, soothing contentment, allowing us to get in touch with the soothing system and step out of the threat system.

 

Start by gently focusing on your breathing. Initially, just notice the air going on and out through your nose. As you breathe, notice the air coming down into your diaphragm. Feel your diaphragm move as you breathe in and out. Just notice your breathing and experiment with the pace. Generally, soothing rhythm breathing is slightly slower and slightly deeper than your normal breathing. It’s roughly a count of three seconds on the in breath, slight pause, then three seconds for the out breath. But find a breathing pattern that, for you, seems to be your own soothing, comforting rhythm. It is as though you are checking in and linking up with the rhythm within your body that is soothing and calming to you. What you will usually find is that your breathing is slightly slower and deeper than normal. Ensure that the breaths in and out are smooth and even. For example, notice if you’re breathing a bit too quickly, running out of breath or rushing the out breath. Keep in mind that you are not trying to force yourself to do anything, to clear you mind of thoughts or to make yourself concentrate; a wandering mind is normal. You are simply noticing if your mind wanders away from your soothing rhythm breathing, and then refocusing on your breathing and the experience of your body slowing down.

 

(Lee, D. (2012). Recovering from trauma using compassion focused therapy. Robinson: London)

 

Building a ‘Perfect nurturer’

Below I have outlined an exercise which focuses on developing the compassionate mind through the process of building a ‘perfect nurturer’. This is focused on experiencing kindness from another, and is an incredibly powerful resource to take with us into times of struggle, asking ourselves ‘what would my perfect nurturer offer me in this moment?’.

Creating a perfect nurturer

Sitting in a place where you won’t be disturbed, first engage your soothing rhythm breathing. In this exercise we are going to create you a ‘perfect nurturer’. If you could imagine or create someone who would capture everything you want from somebody totally focused on your welfare, what qualities would they have?

Whatever image comes to mind that you choose to work with, note that it is your creation and therefore your own personal ideal- what would you really like from feeling cared for? It is not uncommon for people’s first image to be that of an inanimate object (like a tree or colour). Some find that they would like their perfect nurturer to be human-like; others prefer an animal or even a fantasy character. There are those who bring to mind a fictional character from a book or film whilst others prefer to invent their own companion. You can use people you know, although in my experience this can be a little complicated. Often, the people we know are not compassionate all of the time-after all they are only human!

Whatever your perfect nurturer looks like, it is important that you try to give them certain qualities, which are outlined below. These are superhuman-complete and perfect-compassionate qualities that are there for you to practise creating and bringing to mind. They include:

  • A deep commitment to you: a desire to help you to cope with and relieve your suffering and take joy in your happiness;
  • Strength of mind that is not overwhelmed by your pain or distress, but remains present, enduring it with you;
  • Wisdom that has been gained through experience and truly understanding the struggles we go through in life;
  • Warmth, conveyed by kindness, gentleness, caring and openness;
  • An acceptance that is never judgmental or critical but understands your struggles and accepts you as you are, whilst at the same time being deeply committed to helping and supporting you.

One of the key experiences is that your image really wants you to be free of suffering, and/or to be able to deal with your difficulties and to flourish. It knows that we all just find ourselves here, living as we do, trying to make the best of our minds and our lives. It understands that our minds are difficult, that emotions can run riot in us, and that this is not our fault. The key to this experience is not the visual clarity. Indeed some people don’t really see their images in any clear way at all. Rather it is the focus on and practice of compassionate desires coming into you. Imagine that your perfect nurturer has the following desires for you:

That you be well

That you be happy

That you be free from suffering

Allow yourself to sit with and open up to these experiences of compassion, in the knowledge that you can always rely on your perfect nurturer to offer you their commitment, strength, wisdom and acceptance.

You may notice that your mind wanders, perhaps to memories of times when people have not been compassionate towards you. This is perfectly normal. Just gently bring your mind back to focusing attention on experiencing compassion from your nurturer.

 

(Lee, D. (2012). Recovering from trauma using compassion focused therapy. Robinson: London)

 

Going forward…

Developing your compassionate mind can be tricky, and is a skill just like any other. Imagine it like a muscle, if we want to strengthen this muscle we need to practice building this up over time. At first we might only be able to do little bits, and it will likely be tough, but over time, as we tread this path of self-compassion, the muscle gets stronger and we find our way more easily.

If you want to know more, there are some great books and websites which talk about compassion and outline a number of exercises that you can practice.

 

Recommended book: “The Compassionate Mind Approach to Building Self-Confidence”, Mary Welford

Recommended website: www.compassionatemind.co.uk