My Path to Self-Compassion
I want to share how I came to an interest in and experience of self-compassion, self-forgiveness and gratitude in my own life. In the process of reflection, a feeling of unworthiness, deep shame and guilt came from my collective German as well as my personal family history. I remember the days of being a 12-13 year old and learning about the atrocities my people had committed to Jews, gays and many others. With that knowledge, my childhood ended abruptly. Images of mountains of glasses that belonged to the people that had died in gas chambers, of the children behind barbed wired fences haunted me. I was ashamed of being a German, to be part of a society with awful secrets, which were now covered over by materialism and a post-war economic boom. This painful history felt like a heavy stone on my heart, leaving me with a deep existential sense of meaninglessness.
I knew this feeling of shame and self-reproach also from feeling like the outsider in my family, the awkward one, the one without a father. Given our family’s very strict Catholic beliefs, my mother, upon learning she was pregnant, had hidden me in an orphanage for the first two years of my life. She tried to keep my birth a secret. I felt tormented by the feeling of not being able to undo this awful history, by not being able to save my mother, who was in a lot of pain, and by not being able to untangle these feelings of disgrace.
In 1980, after two major car accidents and two months in hospital I took a break from university and travelled with my boyfriend to Sri Lanka. There I had an unexpected encounter: One day when I walked down the streets in Colombo, a street sign that read “International Buddhist Center Road” caught my eye. Led only by intuition, I entered a narrow alleyway leading to large stone building. Not knowing at all what to expect, I rang a heavy doorbell. A slender young monk in yellow robes opened the door. “What do you want?” he asked. Bewildered, I answered, “I don’t know.” “Very good,” he said with a smile, and with an inviting gesture he pointed, “Follow me.” Up and down the stairs and through corridors we went, deeper and deeper into the belly of a monastery. Finally we ended up in a spacious, darkened room located in the depth of this surprisingly big building. A number of solemn, senior-looking monks in ochre robes were sitting on dark cushions. My young guide stopped in front of the most ancient-looking monk. In fact, this old man, who was sitting with his eyes closed, looked to me like a mummy. He was a tiny little monk, all skin and bones, almost drowning in the bounty of his robes. Taking me by surprise, the ancient monk opened his eyes and looked straight through me. I had never experienced something like that.
When I looked into the eyes of this ancient, wise monk, I glimpsed for the first time the spaciousness and lucidity of liberation, which felt to me like a refuge from this torturous inner place I had been in. Sitting in front of him so unexpectedly, without knowing anything about Buddhism, gave me this deep sense of longing – longing for a wholeness that I had been missing. Even though the practice in this Sri Lankan monastery was excruciatingly hard, we sat for many hours at a time, I finally had found a safe place, a refuge inside myself.
Some years into meditation practice, however, I realized that my propensity for self-criticism as well as feelings of deficiency and guilt sabotaged my learning. I was experiencing my mind as unmanageable and was blaming myself for this; I was feeling that I was falling far short from what I thought would be a good practitioner. I continuously bumped up against my LRPPs. Let me explain what I mean by this. LRPPs, as I call them, are Longstanding-Recurrent-Painful-Patterns, inner psychological formations, which many of us carry around since childhood. Freud called these ancient patterns complexes. For me, these mental and emotional patterns surrounded themes of unworthiness, abandonment and fear, and they felt ancient to me.
In those many years of sitting Vipassana I began to realize that I needed an additional kind of practice to work with my unquiet mind and aching heart. Therapy helped, but I longed for meditation practices that would assist me in quieting this inner conflict. I also sensed that it would be helpful to find a bridge between the work I was doing in therapy and my meditation practice.
In the late 1980s I came across Sharon Salzberg’s book on Loving Kindness. And, even though I liked metta practices, they felt at times too formulaic to me. On the one hand they were very simple, for example: May I be happy, may I be safe, may I be free. Yet often their simplicity did not touch my core. I needed them to be more relevant to my own predicament.
With the encouragement of my mentor Jack Kornfield, and after many years of practice with myself and my clients, I began to develop phrases that felt more alive, accessible and relevant to me, that touched my heart. As I was able to identify my LRPPs, e.g. my fear of people, of the potential they raised for criticism and abandonment, along with my dread of failure and of the anger I would feel towards those I felt hurt by, I began to formulate constructive, creative and moving phrases for myself: of compassion for myself and others, forgiveness for myself and others, as well as acceptance and gratitude.
Jack Kornfield taught me a totally new kind of understanding about compassion when he said, “Compassion arises naturally as the quivering of the heart in the face of pain, ours and another’s… When we come to rest in the great Heart of Compassion, we discover a capacity to bear witness to, suffer with, and hold dear with our own vulnerable hearts the sorrows and beauties of the world.”
This practice now was NOT about “self-indulgence,” but instead about a willingness to feel with ourselves and a readiness to experience our sensations and emotions of hurt with non-judgmental kindness.