When I ventured into academic study of compassion (after practicing compassion meditation for several years), I was confused and frankly disturbed by the term ‘self-compassion.’
Practicing compassion for others felt really good to me. It shifted focus away from me and my problems. It clicked things into perspective and helped me tap into deeper meaning. It was energizing and inspiring. I was feeling the benefits and that was plenty; I didn’t see the need to add in a ‘self’ component.
At the time conversations with my partner James were incredibly clarifying. Those early conversations continue to inform how I experience and describe compassion practice. His take on the self component of compassion is key:
From the perspective of consciousness (or awareness), the self – the collection of thoughts, memories and ideas about who ‘I’ am – is the primary other.
With this in mind, consider the definition of compassion — compassion is an awareness of others’ suffering coupled with a willingness to help ease their suffering. Compassion is sometimes offered to the primary other, sometimes to other others.
Compassion is a bike with two wheels
Here’s another way to think about it. Compassion is like a bike with two wheels – self and other. You need both the self wheel and the other wheel to be well functioning, filled up with air and in alignment in order to move down the road. It’s best not to separate them.
Over-emphasizing the self component of compassion invites the potential for narcissistic self-focus. Over-emphasizing compassion for others invites the potential for co-dependent other-focus and ‘helpism.’ Usually we’re out of balance in focus on self or focus on others. This can definitely be rebalanced with practice.
For whom suffering arises (self or other) is not really that important. What’s important is the willingness to help ease it.
The two wheels of the bike can also be imagined as giving and receiving. Eventually — just as the distinction between ‘my’ suffering and ‘your’ suffering becomes less relevant — the distinction between giving and receiving also becomes less relevant.
Compassion encourages us to ‘give the gift of receiving’ and ‘receive the gift of giving.’
Enjoy the ride!