Why self-compassion isn’t selfish

As I said in my previous post, I have been meditating on self-compassion for the past six months or so. I have been pondering what makes it so effective and also – why it doesn’t make me more selfish, because I don’t think it does. I think I have hit on the difference:

Selfishness is about grasping at the self – when I am selfish, I grasp at what I think will make me happy and push away at what I think will make me unhappy.

Self-compassion, as taught by Kristin Neff, starts with accepting that pain happens and allowing myself to nurture myself while feeling (even accepting) that pain.

In other words: self-compassion is an acceptance based intervention, like mindfulness. This doesn’t mean that it’s a bad thing to walk away from a bad job, a bad relationship or to take care of yourself when you’re ill. In fact, allowing ourselves self-compassion is precisely the way in which we can learn to distinguish between the bad things that just happen and need to be accepted, and the bad things we can do something about.

In the words of Kristin Neff (Chapter 16 in that free ebook)

The beauty of self-compassion is that instead of replacing negative feelings with positive ones, new positive emotions of care and connectedness are generated by embracing the negative ones, so that both are experienced simultaneously.

The fact is – and this is the basis of the first and second noble truth of Buddhism – that negative emotions don’t disappear when we push them away. Similarly, positive emotions don’t stick around because we grasp at them either (*) Distracting ourselves can have a temporary function, but in the long run it will leave us exhausted. I find that accepting negative emotions as part of life, frees the energy I usually spend on pushing them away – which is liberating. And it’s also a source of happiness.

Kristin Neff also says (Chapter 16 in that same ebook)

It’s a riddle. When self-compassion training is used to manipulate our moment-to-moment experience it will inevitably fail because that’s a subtle form of resistance. But when we’re kind to ourselves simply because we feel bad, as we might be towards a child with the flu, then profound relief occurs as an inevitable side effect.

It’s interesting how we can learn to work with our grasping and change such a fundamental pattern around through meditation.

(*) We CAN strengthen positive emotions like joy, gratitude and love through practicing them. There is a subtle difference between grasping at pleasure and training ourselves in loving kindness. Perhaps the difference isn’t so subtle, it’s in the motive: when training in loving kindness, happiness occurs as a (very welcome) side effect. The moment we make happiness our MOTIVE, the meditations no longer work.