The other day I came across something on the internet about self-compassion. Knowing this to be an important and relevant topic for us, I decided to write an article on it. I hope this helps you, or at least gives you enough insight into the nature of self-compassion so you can help another devotee who may benefit from being kinder to themselves.
May you always think of Krsna.
Like ourselves, spiritual practitioners of all traditions have high ideals, and this can cause us to be upset and hard on ourselves when we don’t live up to these standards, particularly when we do something (or have thoughts) that go against devotional principles.
When we fail to maintain devotional standards in either thought or action, or even when we desire anything that is not helpful to our bhakti, we are usually trying to satisfy an habitual urge or need. Let’s look at this more deeply by understanding this phenomenon from the psychological perspective.
When we feel empty, when we feel we are lacking something in our life, or perhaps when we even feel miserable or sad, we try to fix this emptiness with some kind of gratification. For some it is sex. For others it is alcohol. For many it is overeating or shopping. In any case, we are trying to fill a void in our hearts.
After we do this, we feel guilty because we know we didn’t need to do it or shouldn’t have done it. So we think, “I am bad because I have no self-control.” This then creates a vicious cycle in which we turn to our old habit (food, shopping, illicit sex) to fill the void that this activity created when we last did it. You go there to feel better, but it only makes the emptiness greater. And the cycle continues. It is a classic description of rajaguna, a treadmill of endless unfulfilled desires. It is a perfect system for keeping conditioned souls bound to the material world.
This creates a lot of negativity in our heart. We criticize ourselves. We feel bad, but bad in a way that doesn’t solve the problem. The bad we feel, as we said, creates a vicious cycle, because when we feel bad, we look to drown our sorrows in sense gratification. And it just doesn’t work. And we know it. But we do it again. So, of course we feel bad again.
How do we deal with this?
Acknowledge that you went looking for happiness in the wrong place. Separate your sense of self from your behavior. Then ask yourself, “What need am I trying to meet by doing this?” In other words, why do you want to buy what you don’t need, watch the movie you don’t need to see, go to that website you don’t need (or shouldn’t) look at, or do whatever it is that you shouldn’t be doing? Are you trying to cope with stress, suppress anger, avoid feeling lonely or run away from something? Or have you given up on yourself and you just don’t care anymore, so you are not even trying to control your habitual urges? Whatever it is, you need to hone in on what is driving your urge to do or think what you know is wrong.
It’s important to be present with your feelings instead of pushing them away. We have a strong tendency to resist the sore areas of our lives, the areas inside that need repairing. We either don’t want to look at them, pretend they are not there, or tell ourselves we’ll deal with them later, only to put them off indefinitely.
When you see this problem in yourself, what do you do? Many people become more depressed. But this is counterproductive. When you are tempted to slip into a bad habit, you can extend patient compassion to yourself. Understand that you are conditioned, and this means that you came into this world with an inheritance of negative samaskaras, tendencies for activities that are harmful to you – and also picked up many new bad habits.
Don’t beat yourself up. Be patient, kind and tolerant with yourself. Recognize that you are simply trying to fill an emptiness in your life that exists because you are not more Krsna conscious. Then, when confronted with the tendency to do the wrong thing in the future, pull back a little bit and prepare yourself to make a wise, self-supportive choice.
Don’t allow yourself to do things which are self-destructive. Treat yourself as you would a small child. Take care of yourself. Nurture yourself. Be kind to yourself. Understand that any actions that take you away from Krsna consciousness are self-destructive and demonstrate a lack of self-compassion.
Instead of criticizing yourself, remember that guru and Krsna love you – even if you believe you don’t deserve their love. Just as they love you, you should also love yourself. If you don’t, you’ll become your own worst enemy; and you’ll prevent yourself from making needed changes in your life.
Affirm that, “I’m changing this behavior because this is how my spiritual master wants me to live. I am changing my behavior because I am meant to live this kind of life.” This curbs your inner critic, the voice that tells you what’s wrong with yourself.
Your inner critic holds you down. Although as a guru, Prabhupada’s duty was to criticize his disciples, he rarely did. He always encouraged them. Deal with yourself in the same way. Choose encouraging internal responses to your difficulties. For example, if you’re berating yourself for something you did wrong, remind yourself you are on the path of perfection and that every master was first a disaster. Just be willing to try harder next time.
In the Manu Samhita it says a brahmana never berates himself. And we are all practicing brahminical culture. It’s okay to not be perfect as long as you keep trying to improve.
When you’re struggling to make a change, it’s tempting to see your mistakes as evidence that there’s something wrong with you. But as Patanjali points out in the Yoga Sutras, everyone struggles on the path to self-transformation. This doesn’t mean you should berate yourself every time you get up late, lose your patience, or do something stupid. Rather than say, “I am so stupid,” use a mistake as an opportunity to learn how to not make the mistake again. Self-compassion helps you do this. Self-hatred makes you give in to such an extent that you won’t even try to learn from your mistakes. Instead of improving, your mantra is, “This is just how I am. What’s the use in trying.”
Research confirms that self-reflection and self-compassion help you make positive changes, while beating yourself up often turns a minor setback into a major relapse. Not getting up early can turn into, “I can never get up early regularly, so what’s the use in trying.” And failing in some way in devotional service can turn into “I’ll never be a good devotee, so why even try.”
This response is so common that researchers have given it a name: the “what-the-hell effect.” The problem is not the mistake, but your negative response to it. This tempts you to find comfort in the very things you’re trying to stop doing. Or you just give up on a goal so you won’t have to feel bad about failing. Studies have shown that whatever you’re trying to do, accepting where you are at, and forgiving yourself for past failures, makes you more likely to succeed. Why? Because it removes the negativity that would become the very cause of failing.
Having more self-compassion motivates you to try again without triggering the guilt and self-blame that are common when you have difficulty changing. Self-compassion gives you the impetus to think more about your spiritual well-being, even when you’re tempted to give in to an old habit. Of course, sometimes feeling really bad about what you have done can make you so disgusted that you want to change. But this change takes place because you feel bad about what you are doing, not bad about yourself for doing it.
What does Krsna say in The Gita about not being perfect? He says that actions born of one’s nature, even if they are faulty, should not be relinquished. Krsna goes on to say that all undertakings are covered by some fault. Krishna is telling us to try out best but don’t always expect perfection. What He says is most important is the consciousness with which we do it.
The more we perform actions solely for the pleasure of guru and Krsna, the more we will get the strength to overcome habitual thoughts and actions for satisfying our senses. As we become more habituated to act only for Krsna’s pleasure, the energy to give in to tendencies for self-pleasure lose their power over us.
We all need to make changes because none of us are perfect. Think of the changes you need to make, the big obstacles you need to deal with. Now think of them with self-compassion. As you work to change, you’ll be fighting the temptation to give up. Remember that being kind to yourself will give you the strength to change. And never forget that you have an inner resource of wisdom, resilience, and strength, Paramatma. You don’t have to fight alone. When your connected with Him, you will not doubt yourself.
You might find it strange that I would write an article on self-love because self-love seems selfish. If lack of self-love were not such a pervasive problem there would be no need for such an article. I find that lack of self-love is often at the heart of bad sadhana and general negligence in one’s spiritual life. If we don’t care about ourselves enough, we won’t care enough to uplift ourselves spiritually. So what follows are some ways we can cultivate a little more care of our own souls.
Acknowledge that you’re worth whatever effort you are making to overcome a bad habit or obstacle. If you are not worth it, then why would you make the continued effort in the face of difficulties?
Recognize how you create your own suffering and stress by giving into bad habits (and how you also create suffering being hard on yourself).
Acknowledge that neither Krsna nor Prabhupada want you to suffer, that you do not want to suffer either, and that Krsna wants you to be happy.
Allow yourself to experience how bad you feel when you are doing something wrong.
Out of self-love, begin to detach yourself from doing things that are harmful to you, either in thought or action.
Don’t be artificially humble. Give yourself credit for any actions you take to improve or make changes. Humbly and gratefully celebrate your successes.
When you fail, remind yourself you are human, and that failure is both part of learning and a necessary step in making change. Instead of focusing on the failure, reaffirm your goals and focus on them.
Make one of your goals to become free of self-inflicted suffering.
I have counseled many devotees who struggle with destructive thoughts and actions, particularly with illicit sex. Every one of them tells me that when they go on yatras, when there are absorbed in Krsna conscious, sexual thoughts disappear. Why? Because during those times they are fulfilled.
So be really selfish. Fill yourself up with Krsna consciousness. As Prabhupada says, if you love Krsna than you are loving yourself. So engaging in pure devotional service is truly the most self-loving thing you can possible do.
In what ways does a lack of self compassion manifest in your mentality?
What thoughts and actions of yours are self-destructive?
What are you resisting dealing with?
Make a list of things you can do to be more self-compassionate.
What do you tell yourself about yourself?
What needs are you trying to fulfill through self-destructive behaviors?
Think of kinder ways you can talk to and deal with yourself than berating yourself.