On a (Not Writing) Retreat: Somewhere in Perth Part 4

In the first post of this series I wrote, ‘Part of my plan is to “report”, via Elixir, my progress… to… share what challenged me… how I stayed, or failed to stay, on track…’. I can, this week, share that I’ve haven’t achieved what I set out to do. I have, however, started another utterly unexpected quest. My writing dried up, but I unwittingly began a deeply personal, psychological and spiritual investigation.

‘Retreats’ writes Jules Evans in his recent blog,

are not the chill-fests people imagine. When you remove external distractions, you come face-to-face with your inner restlessness and dissatisfaction in its rawest form. You see all the spikes of your likes and dislikes. Outside, you think you could easily be happy if it wasn’t for all the idiots around you. Inside, you begin to see the problem might be you.

Alone in the silence, bereft of ideas for my novel, let alone the motivation or inclination to work on it, I devoted myself to writing my Daily Pages. As a result I fell, like an aged and jaded Alice, into a rabbit hole of profound introspection, personal assessment, and discovery.

pexels-photo-268092Evans is right; the time, space and silence integral to a retreat invariably confront participants with the imperfect, often monstrous and usually querulous inner self…the being we hide not only from others but from ourselves. Such a confrontation is no task for the faint hearted.

I won’t go in to the grisly details of my ‘adventure’. I will say I’ve been, at times, angry, anxious, and acutely aware a change in attitude…in my attitude and my perspective… is needed.

Here’s some of what I learned in the last week:

  • The support, in the form of phone calls, text messages and emails, from several women in my life has been astonishing. While none were aware of what I was dealing with, they all contacted me at the exactly right time. I am grateful for their sensitive, generous and compassionate spirits. They each, in their own way, helped me get through the difficult days,
  • Over the last few months I’ve tried to build a regular meditation regime. During my stay in Perth I’ve explored and practiced familiar and new meditation techniques. I read a book and several articles about self-compassion and started reading a book about women in Buddhism. I am, therefore, grateful to the men and women who wrote this material. When Lynette Benton’s Brevity Essay arrived in my in-box late last week I gained a much-needed perspective on why I write, and my hopes and dreams concerning my writing.

During the difficult times I consoled myself by:

  • Listening to women jazz vocalists and exploring classical music (something I neglected in my youth). It’s a marvelous way to soothe and uplift the troubled ‘retreater’,
  • Getting out of the house even to just go shopping. My trip to Perth’s Art Gallery was an enormous boost to my troubled spirit,
  • Writing my ‘Daily Pages’ helped me explore my experience and gave me the means to express it coherently. I returned to journaling, after a long break, late last year and I approach it differently to when I was a young woman. I start each day’s journal entry with ‘what made me happy today?’. This supplies a much-needed perspective, while reading back over happy or pleasurable moments keeps me balanced,
  • Planning and writing blog posts helped me stay mindful and grounded and,
  • Reading the biography of Mary Shelley, and a novel, helped me appreciate different perspectives and allowed me to stop focusing on my problems.

I’ve always wanted to go on a ‘proper’ retreat, one run by an experienced meditation practitioner. Part of me, however, has been afraid of what I might learn about myself. Because the intended focus of this retreat, working on my novel, didn’t work out as planned, my time alone has morphed into a rich, confronting and rewarding discovery of the ‘inner woman’ who dwells in the very heart of my writing.

I can’t wait to see what next week brings.

accessory balance blur close up
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Have you ever started one task only for it to become something completely different? What prompted the change and how did it feel?

Have you been on a retreat? Do you agree or disagree with Jules Evans’ comment and why?

Footnote to Self-Compassion

Experts suggest there are six emotions: anger, fear, disgust, happiness, sadness and surprise.

Buddhists believe the best response to another’s sadness, fear and even anger is compassion, the ability to understand another person’s suffering and to ease their distress. For Laura D’Olimpio, empathy,

feeling the feelings of another or imaginatively reconstructing the feelings of another

and sympathy, the ability to identify

with the other based on feelings of common humanity,

are both components of compassion, but they can also be problematic. Empathy risks triggering self-misery, while sympathy assumes it is possible to experience the feelings of another. Neither guarantee mercy nor aid. It is too easy to stand by and say, ‘Oh, that’s terrible, I know what you’re going through,’ or ‘poor you, my condolences.’ girl phoneReal change, the kind of change that reduces human distress, takes effort. A compassionate individual refuses to stand by, wring their hands and offer meaningless platitudes. Compassion is ‘fellow feeling’, understanding the misery, fear or anger of a fellow human. It calls us to end or relieve suffering. More importantly,

everyone has the capacity to be compassionate: to treat others as you would wish to be treated. To be kind and tender, generous and forgiving, hospitable, helpful and attentive, curious, listening and present, empathic and connected, respectful, understanding and acknowledging. It takes courage, self-reflection and self-compassion.

https://charterforcompassion.org/images/menus/Healthcare/PDFs/CompassionforCare.pdf

For Dr Kristin Neff, compassion is

feeling moved by others’ suffering so that your heart responds to their pain (the word compassion literally means to “suffer with”). When this occurs, you feel warmth, caring, and the desire to help the suffering person in some way. Having compassion also means that you offer understanding and kindness to others when they fail or make mistakes, rather than judging them harshly. Finally, when you feel compassion for another (rather than mere pity), it means that you realize that suffering, failure, and imperfection is part of the shared human experience.

Why, then, was self-compassion mentioned in the definition from The Charter for Compassion? Self-compassion, according to Neff, is

acting the same way towards yourself when you are having a difficult time, fail, or notice something you don’t like about yourself. Instead of just ignoring your pain with a “stiff upper lip” mentality, you stop to tell yourself “this is really difficult right now,” how can I comfort and care for myself in this moment?

http://self-compassion.org/the-three-elements-of-self-compassion-2/

So, while compassion requires change on a communal, collective and global level, self-compassion implies a willingness to change on a personal level.

One way we can be more compassionate towards our self, is to learn how to regulate the six emotions listed above, a process of checking in on and altering (not repressing or denying), one’s feelings, thoughts, actions, words and even physiological responses. Emotional regulation also allows us to interact and communicate with the rest of society in a healthy, peaceful and meaningful way.

Emotion regulation (ER) is regarded as a crucial factor in well-being, in the popular literature, clinical psychological practice, and scientific research alike.

Nyklícek, Ivan, Ad Vingerhoets, and Marcel Zeelenberg. Emotion Regulation and Well-Being. New York, Springer, 2011, p. 2.

Neither emotional regulation nor self-compassion can stop us from feeling sad, angry or fearful. Emotional regulation will (particularly if combined with mindfulness), help us to recognise, understand and accept difficult situations and deal with them rationally.

sisters-bmewett
Photo:B Mewett

Self-compassion combined with emotional regulation soothes and comforts the inner self. It can help us find appropriate and loving support from those around us, but in our worst moments, when we feel utterly abandoned, self-compassion, self-care and mindful awareness is a powerful, healthy and humane response. Why? Kristen Neff believes compassion for others begins with self-compassion. Humanity is not ‘us and them’, it is just us’. If we fail to care compassionately for ourselves, how can we begin to care for others?

Today’s Footnote: Do you yell at the television because you’re irritated by the politician being interviewed? Do you turn away from your partner and refuse to speak to them for a week when they question your decisions? Do you slam the door to put a full stop to your arguments? Do you hang out the car window and hurl thunderbolts of rage at the driver of the car in front of you?  If so, maybe a hearty meal of emotional regulation served with a side of compassion and topped by the sweet sauce of self-compassion will give you the perspective you need.

 

 

Writers and Self Compassion

Several months ago I met a woman who challenged me to investigate the meaning of selfishness. Part of me was intrigued, part of me was irritated; we all know what being selfish means, don’t we? Most of us have met self absorbed, self-interested people whose chief concern is getting what they want when they want it. For some reason, however, the word and it’s significance continued to niggle at me. As well as looking the word up in the dictionary and reflecting on it’s meaning I did a little extra digging and chanced upon the idea of self compassion.Dino Reichmuth

Since last November I have found the tension between art and life is no longer an abstract issue but a very real concern. I’ve struggled to find a comfortable balance between the two, and my friends and family are casualties of the struggle. That bothers me more than I can say. It also feels extremely selfish. My exploration of self compassion is incomplete but I am interested in how it might help me establish a more convivial balance.

Kristen Neff defines self compassion as

being touched by and open to one’s own suffering, not avoiding or disconnecting from it, generating the desire to alleviate one’s suffering and to heal oneself with kindness. Self compassion also involves offering non judgemental understanding to one’s pain, inadequacies and failures, so that one’s experience is seen as part of the larger human experience.

Exercising self compassion, claims Dr Neff, is knowing the difference between self-kindness and self judgement, between feeling isolated and excluded and acknowledging our shared humanity, and between being mindful of our difficulties and ruminating or worrying about them. This is how I suggest self compassion can help writers:

  1. We need to acknowledge that writing is hard. It is really hard. It is exhausting, painful, soul destroyingly hard. This is not a new idea. Talk to your nearest friendly writer (if they’re not writing) and even the most optimistic and successful will admit there a days when writing a reasonable sentence is a chore, let alone trying to write a novel. A self compassionate writer will acknowledge the difficulty and understand all writers share this experience. Being creative is a glorious, absorbing, exciting, rewarding chore. It feels like consorting with the gods one day and burying yourself in a pit of foul self-loathing the next. To pretend otherwise is to disconnect from the self and from making art. Writers need to be kind to themselves. Most writers are their own worst enemy; they are scions of self judgement and superstars of self criticism. Instead of focusing on what’s wrong with our stories, novels, plays or poems we need to look for what is right with them (and work from there). We need to celebrate sentences, praise the standout line from poems, and honour the hours we spent honing that chapter.
  2. We need to understand we are not alone. I suspect that’s one reason writers blog. Bogging is connection, blogging is sharing, blogging is knowing someone on the other side of the planet is awake and has stumbled onto your blog and noticed that you, like they, are miserable. Clusters of writers are found at writer’s festivals chatting about their latest projects; at workshops learning how to write intelligently, sensitively and knowledgeably about indigenous people, people with a disability or transgendered folk; in suburban lounges reading their latest poem or a draft chapter of their novel. We are a supportive community. The image of the lone writer ripping sheets of paper from the typewriter in an orgy of writerly frustration must be laid to rest. The self compassionate writer seeks other writers, seeks the comfort of shared problems and shared celebrations when writing goes well.
  3. The self compassionate writer is a mindful writer. Novels are rarely written by a committee. Even writers who belong to a writing group write alone in the quiet of their study or a corner of a coffee shop where they are undisturbed, apart from the waiter discretely placing the fifth cup of coffee on the table.  Padurariu AlexandruSelf compassionate mindfulness acknowledges and releases the self critical judgements that loop through your brain, replacing them with your plot, the rhythm of your sentences and the delicacy of your images. How to do this? Meditation. Regular breaks. Going for long walks (with a pen and notebook). Reading, lots of reading. Eating properly. Getting a good night’s rest. Spending time with writers, artists, dancers, actors and other creative folk; going to an art gallery, a play, a movie. And did I say meditation?

I admit I don’t always practice self compassion. I believe I am the only writer to create tedious, ungrammatical, poorly punctuated sentences. As a perfectionist I have self criticism down to a fine art. Despite being a member of a writing group and living with an actor (who patiently waits and watches as I discover all of this), I feel isolated and adrift from fellow writers and intimidated when I meet other artists. I forget to be mindful, I forget to meditate, I forget to go for a walk. I sit in front of a keyboard for hours and forget to eat or drink.

It’s time I stopped thinking and reading about self compassion and started practising it regularly. It’s time I stopped confusing selfishness with self compassion. It’s time to acknowledge that writers, artists of any kind, constantly balance their need to make art with the rest of their lives and that’s okay.

If, says Neff, we lack self compassion we risk becoming self-esteem junkies hooked on the marvel of our amazing selves, our accomplishments, our gifts and our talents. What’s wrong with that? Isn’t that what teachers and parents have tried to do since the late 1960s? Raise children who believe in themselves, who are confident in their abilities? In her article, Neff demonstrates that good self esteem is no longer the positive achievement we thought it was. Self esteem fosters narcissism, self-absorption, self-centredness and a lack of concern for others. Being told we aren’t successful in our job, we failed a test, or did poorly on the playing field threatens our sense of self and triggers negative emotions. Neff further explains that self esteem is founded on comparisons; we feel good about ourselves because we compare ourselves to others. By reinforcing our self esteem we put others down.

If we feel compassion for ourselves, if we acknowledge our failures and weaknesses, if we understand that all of humanity suffers and grieves, we can turn to the person next to us and acknowledge their humanity. Self-compassion inspires compassion for all creatures, all beings. Self compassion encourages us to try to end our suffering and the suffering of others.

self-compassionThat’s something worth writing about.

What do you think? Is there a difference between selfishness and self compassion? Has the self-esteem train run off the rails? Do you practice self compassion?

REFERENCES

Neff, Kristin. ‘Self-compassion: An alternative conceptualization of a healthy attitude toward oneself.’ Self and identity 2.2 (2003), pp. 85-101.