“We begin by using mindfulness to identify the patterns of thought that lead to our suffering. These include thoughts of unworthiness, jealousy and hatred, revenge, anxiety, clinging, and greed. Then out of compassion we change what is in our minds. We transform our thoughts as a loving protection of ourselves and of others.”
~Kornfield, 2008, p. 296
What I love about these words from Jack Kornfield is the reminder that working with our own minds is an act of compassion both towards ourselves and others. This is the foundation for any change that we want to see, whether it be a change in our lives or in the community.
What does it mean to work with our own minds?
For me, it means that I can take care of my mind. When it gets overwhelmed with worried or hurtful thoughts, I can practice replacing these with more positive and kind ones.
Similar to how I might treat my sore back or my tangled hair, I can make them better or worse. I do not pretend that they are beyond my control. If my back hurts, I will do my best to take care of it. When my hair is messy, I will brush it. Or, not.
The point is that I have a choice. In terms of my mind, I can practice noticing what thoughts are arising, and how different thoughts make me feel and act. Seeing this, I can choose to focus on thoughts that bring more happiness, and that are kinder towards myself and others.
It begins with noticing. Another word for noticing is mindfulness.
We stop hurtful thoughts and nurture kind thoughts not to avoid reality or deny difficult experiences. In fact, when we support ourselves with a gentle internal dialogue we can be with painful feelings that arise more directly.
It is the same principle that applies to being with any agitated or hurt creature. Imagine one sunny morning you are standing in your kitchen and suddenly thwack! A chickadee flies into your window. You go outside and find it on the ground beneath your window, alive but stunned. You gather this bird in your palms. You aren’t angry with the bird. You aren’t chastising it. You aren’t commanding it to fly or else. You cup it gently and wonder how you might help. Maybe you whisper “hey little birdie” and stroke it softly with a fingertip to revive it.
Many of us find it easier to extend compassion to others rather than inwards towards ourselves.
If we absorbed negative messages about our worth from other people, the media or the culture, we may feel unworthy of feeling good about ourselves or of being kind to ourselves. Be loving but also fierce in challenging such thoughts of unworthiness.
Fierce determination and compassion are powerful allies in the transformation of suffering. Be fiercely compassionate.
In the face of the pain we experience, we can practice not creating more suffering for ourselves or others. Instead of negative or hurtful thoughts, we can practice kind and true thoughts, such as: I am figuring this out. I am human like everyone else. I have support and can ask for help. I am alive and life is precious. I am capable of getting through this. I am able to take care of myself.
Practice turning your compassion inwards.
How do you start? Simply wishing to do so is a good place to begin: May I be as compassionate with myself as I am with others. Say it to yourself softly. With your hand on your heart, take a breath and say it again. Begin by aspiring to know what the mind of compassion feels like.
When we become aware of the suffering we have caused ourselves or others by harboring damaging thoughts of unworthiness, jealousy, hatred and so on, it is natural to feel sadness. This is not the sadness of self-pity or depression. This is the tender sadness of compassion. This is your heart.
Compassion readily stretches both ways between ourselves and others. It wants to include you. Invite it in.
And, if you are still finding it hard to be kind to yourself, remember that everything is easier to hear if you preface it with “hey little birdie….”
Be affectionate with yourself!
Kornfield, J (2008). The Wise Heart: A Guide to the Universal Teachings of Buddhist Psychology. Random House.
Image 1: Audrey Neffenegger, Monkey Mind, 2010
Image 2: Joyce Huntington, Space of Love