A little compassion


It sounds a little silly, but one of the best pieces of advice I ever received was from the Oprah show.  Years ago I watched a show with Elizabeth Gilbert, author of “Eat, Pray Love”, required reading for any divorcing yoga enthusiast.  I’m not really sure what else was said on the show but I’ll never forget one very sage piece of advice from this woman who I seemed to have so much in common with.  She said “Change your mantra”.  Now, a mantra is typically a sound, syllable, word, phrase or even paragraph that is repeated to aid in some sort of transformation.  In yoga classes we often chant the word “om” or the syllables “so-ham”.  Meditators often mentally recite mantras, even the rosary is a type of mantra.  So why would I want to change my mantra?  I cringe to think of all the things that I was repeating to myself constantly in those dark days, but I can tell you they were cruel.  If someone talked to one of my friends or one on my children that way I’d be tempted with violence. For some reason it seemed okay to say these things to myself, all the time.  Which is probably why it seemed so familiar in my miserable marriage that was ending at the time.  Starting that day I began to stop my self from wallowing in my own cruelty.  My mantra became, “I’m doing my best” and evolved over time into even kinder phrases.  Self compassion seems like an undeserved luxury to many of us.  Somehow we believe falsely that these insulting mantras we repeat to ourselves hourly are a kick in the pants we need to behave, achieve, stay grounded, etc….  I assure you that nothing could be farther from the truth.  This month the Yoga Diet is about self compassion and the concept and practice of Metta.

Loving Kindness, or Metta is a concept that began with Buddha and has gained more and more attention in recent years.  Metta means loving kindness.  Other synonyms to the word are; friendliness, benevolence and even close union with others. You may have heard that the former Ron Artest of the LA Lakers recently changed his name to Metta World Peace.  Interestingly, Artest has a criminal record of domestic violence and  rough play on the court.  While I applaud his new commitment to world peace, Metta is a practice that begins with the individual and can’t successfully be reversed from the infinite to the infinitesimal.  Indeed, a defining factor in Metta is that the genesis is in practicing self compassion.  Physiological  studies have been conducted recently that measure the changes in the brain in subjects who practice an ancient form of Metta, Metta Meditation.  Compassion meditation has been shown to increase positive emotions and well-being, lower reaction to inflammation and distress and even reduce pain and anger in study participants with lower back pain.  I’m aware that most of us are not going to sit down and meditate on compassion.  But this concept of Metta can still help us reach our goal of becoming healthy.

By now most of us know that our relationships with food and exercise are intermingled with our emotions.  We eat when we are happy or sad or stressed or bored.  One of the many problems contributing to eating disorders, including obesity in our culture is a serious lack of self compassion.  Have you ever listened to yourself when you sit down with a bag of potato chips or in front of a big bowl of ice cream or even just splurge a little on a favorite treat?  It’s bad right?  If someone else said those things to you, you’d try to spend as little time with them as possible.  Enter self compassion, and your knowledge that even very well-developed will power needs a rest sometimes (see last month’s blog for more on this).  Perhaps it’s not the guilt associated with breaking the “diet” rules that’s got you putting yourself down, but the crappy way that you feel about yourself that caused you to reach for that slice of self-destruction.  Let me put your mind at ease; there are no rules about what you can and can’t eat on the Yoga Diet.  If you really want it you should have it, yeah really.  There is a caveat though, you must experience every bite fully and stop eating when you are no longer hungry, full is too far.  Then, let it go.  No self bashing.  No repentance at the gym.  If your mantra in the past has been “I’m so bad” it’s now “I’m doing my best”.  If it was “I’ll start tomorrow” it’s now “Every meal is a new opportunity to improve my habits”.  If it was “I’m such a pig”  it is now “No one speaks to me that way!” I believe that when we remove the noise of  emotion and guilt from eating we can listen to and really hear what our bodies need to be properly nourished.  Remember that big changes start small.  By allowing yourself these moments of compassion you are creating habits that can grow.  Not only into your own healthier body and mind, but also into more compassion and understanding for those closest to you.

Perhaps you are a closet self-basher like me.  For some reason you have an unlimited amount of understanding for and compassion toward others but get a kick out of beating your self up.  This is not true compassion and isn’t really good for anyone.  In Metta meditation, or tonglen, loving kindness begins with oneself then spreads methodically to your loved ones, friends, teachers, strangers, enemies, and finally towards all sentient beings.  This, my reader is not only Metta but yoga at its purest.  Growing the tiniest seed of awareness into something great, but it has to start with you.  It’s like affixing your own oxygen mask in case of loss of pressure in the airplane cabin.  It’s not selfishness, not just self-preservation, it’s affirming your right to breathe!  So maybe your new mantra for a while is “I am worthy”.   Try it for a month.  Notice your current mantra or mantras and institute a no tolerance policy on self cruelty.  There are so many opportunities to suffer in this world.  Why hang on to one more than can be eliminated?  Let me know how it goes.  Jot down a quick comment or catch me after class.  I’d love to know your thoughts.  Namaste

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