– written by Ken Lunn
I was arguably ready for a bit of self-compassion when I turned up at Trigonos in January this year for a Mindful Self-Compassion (MSC) course. I had broken my arm very badly in November – I was still strapped up and, though no longer in much pain, I was still finding movement difficult and a lot of day-to-day activities problematic. The injury occurred in the middle of a busy period, and a lot of people were depending on me, so I felt the pressure to continue to work. Indeed, work often helped me not dwell on the limitations I faced. But, therein is a clue to a common way I deal with issues – to drive on regardless.
So, with huge thanks to Kath who gave me a lift all the way from Leeds (and carried my bags, bless her), I turned up at a wet Trigonos, as people were slowly arriving. With life being busy, added to with hospital appointments and being slow at anything physical, I had not really built up many expectations or really prepared for the course, but it was a relief in many ways to put the baggage of daily life down for a few days and settle into the flow of the week.
It was on a retreat the previous summer that I began to contemplate doing some compassion training. Christina Feldman and John Peacock introduced Metta practice in a way I had not interpreted it before, and it triggered a lot of buried emotions from my childhood. During that retreat, I found focusing on some difficult periods from my childhood and offering the hurt child in me some kindness and attention was very helpful in ways that are hard to explain. It certainly softened my attitude to myself in a number of ways, and I believe it helped in some of my dealings with others. Earlier in the year, I had heard Paul Gilbert speak at the Chester conference, and I had found that intriguing.
I started training as a mindfulness teacher five years ago, having had nearly twenty years of a personal meditation practice that had developed often in idiosyncratic ways. I struggled at first to adjust my formal practice to be what I now understand to be a mindfulness practice. Although I intellectually understood the concepts behind the training, it was some time before I really began to apply that understanding. Once I began to deeply appreciate the importance of attitude, both in formal practice and daily life, I then began to really understand mindfulness as more than just another way of meditating. The exploration of attitude through a formal compassion-based training course was a way of deepening that understanding.
The Mindful Self-Compassion (MSC) course is not aimed specifically at mindfulness practitioners. It was refreshing to find a number of people on the course who hadn’t already gone through an eight-week mindfulness course, and there were a number of teachers like myself who wanted to broaden their personal practice and explore new avenues for teaching.
The teachers, Vanessa Hope and Colette Power, led us gently through the course. MSC is usually designed to be taught over eight sessions over eight weeks, so we were getting an intense version of it in a week. There is an awful lot in the course, with much practice and discussion. As important as the teachers’ embodiment of the practices and holding of the group was the support of the group itself, and the openness that was cultivated through the week really made the course worthwhile.
There is too much content to summarise the course. However, I would like to mention the notion of backdraft that I found built on my personal experience from the retreat last summer. Similar to the backdraft that is created when a real fire is exposed to air, when we open our hearts, previous painful experiences can revisit us, often with great intensity. Colette talked about how it can be tempting to open the furnace door wide, especially if like me you are quite driven and prone to approaching things directly, but there are gentler ways of dealing with it. Self-compassion training can help us learn these more gentle approaches.
Some of the practices were very helpful over the next few weeks, particularly when the hospital advised me that it would be another two months before I could start to use my arm properly. I even got mindfulness lessons from my physio, who said, “put your hands in your pockets and go for lots of walks, and when the arm heals you can start being more active.” There is always a choice to work with what you have rather than regret what has happened, and part of compassion practice for me is being able to consciously make such choices. In due course, despite periods of frustration, my arm healed; whether mindfulness or compassion practices improved the healing process is a mute point, but certainly I was able to continue through four months of limited mobility with just a few periods of frustration that did not last too long.
So, at the end of the week, I set off on the journey home via Bangor, where I had some business meetings. This time I had to navigate the train network with my luggage and relying on the compassion of strangers to get my luggage on and off trains and up and down stairs. At the practical level, I had learnt a few new practices. At a deeper level, I am now able to appreciate more fully a different perspective on mindfulness, both as a practitioner and a teacher. The part of Jon Kabat-Zinn’s definition of mindfulness about paying attention non-judgementally is more important than I had understood. I also understand more fully Shauna Shapiro’s model of mindfulness that is based on intention, attention and attitude – mindfulness is about paying kind attention. Also, some of Kristin Neff’s teaching on our common humanity as a basis for compassion is very helpful to me.
The MSC course is very accessible, not only to those setting out on an exploration of mindfulness practice, but also for those with more experience who want to build upon thier understanding of informal and formal compassion practices. Whether you adopt the practices or not, the insights can be helpful. I keep going back and reading more about compassion-based approaches, and slowly introducing things into my personal practice and my teaching. I also plan to do some more training as part of my personal and professional development.
Needless to say, the insight and practices have helped me in many ways through a challenging year. And, of course, a week in Trigonos, with great teachers and great participants, is always worthwhile.