You are the Sky: thoughts on self-compassion

For some, self-compassion is a unicorn

of an idea that sits on the highest shelf of the cabinet and far from reach. You know it’s there, but it’s hard to see and almost impossible to grab. And while self-compassion might be accessible to some, for others it cannot simply be snagged off the top shelf. It takes time. It takes practices. It takes tools. All of which are worthwhile, and no matter how near or far the experience of self-compassion sits at this moment, there are endless benefits to developing and expanding our abilities to enact it. 

Self-compassion is a tool that can literally change the quality of our senses – how we see, hear and interact with all pieces of life.  And whether you are someone who is devoted to your own growth, ease of life and healing, or someone who is devoted to the growth, ease of life and healing of clients, friends, loved ones or the world, self-compassion is a tool for it all. For how are we expected to see through peaceful, compassionate eyes if our internal experience is not peaceful or compassionate?

Through Dr. Kristen Neff’s years of research on self-compassion, she has come to three key behaviors to create or further develop it.

The first is to remember that we are not alone on this journey.  This key piece asks us to remind ourselves that we are not the only ones who suffer or know pain and discomfort. And while your experience is unique and no other can know it quite like you, we must remember that there is always another person, or people, on this path also experiencing some level of suffering or challenge.  In other words, you are not alone. You are a part of the human experience that can often include challenge. So for the sake of your own compassionate heart, please remember your common humanity. 

The second piece is to call on kindness. And while important, people often confuse this piece as the whole “pie” of self-compassion. As Neff notes, self-compassion asks us to recognize that challenges and imperfections within the experience of life are inevitable. So offering gentleness when confronted with the rawness of life, rather than inflicting anger or frustration upon one’s self, is essential.  

And while these two first two pieces are significant, I am interested in more deeply diving into the third, which reminds us not to over-identify with our experience. A famous Pema Chödrön quote to start:

You are the sky. Everything else – it’s just the weather.

Imagine yourself in your wholeness as infinite blue sky. The passing clouds symbolize your experiences: emotions, feelings, beliefs, etc.  And these clouds are meant to pass along the sky – not to become it.  But what often happens is that instead of these clouds (or experiences) simply passing through, there comes a urge and tendency to self-identify with these clouds (or experiences) to the point that they become one’s whole sky (or whole experience).

For example, the experiences of sadness, anger, frustration, loneliness, etc. are often parts of the realities and complexities of being human at this time. And all the while, we have created a practice where when experience these things, we very quickly identify as being them. The clouds become the sky.

In other words, feelings of sadness can quickly translates to the experience of: I am a sad person. Feelings of anger to: I am an angry person. Loneliness to: I am a lonely person. When we allow these “I am” identifications to become our whole sky long enough, overtime, our brain builds them into rooted beliefs. And in so, time and time again - most often unconsciously - the brain works to prove these beliefs right, even if they do not serve us. And in so, sadness, anger, loneliness, etc. continue to arrive again and again. 

So instead of I am a sad person, I offer to myself: I am a person who is experiencing sadness. And while in that initial moment, the emotional experience of that new perception may seem to be the same as the former. However, the subtle shift in perception will allow one to digest the experience in a new way.  Allowing the experience to be acknowledged without have to become it.  In other words, the passing cloud of sadness gets to be just that, without taking over the entirety of the sky. 

Sometimes those passing clouds last hours, days, months or even years. But regardless of where one might land on that spectrum, there is space. There is always space, even now, to begin to loosen the shackles of identification and to free one’s self from needing to prove that belief as true over and over again.

In the meantime, may we remember to breathe. Remembering the grandness of the sky and that we all have passing clouds. Remembering the wild, raw and complex human experience. And even in it all, can we still honor the moments in passing? Whether they are small spots in the sky or big waves of clouds that take time to pass. May we breathe with them, letting go of the need to become them again and again, and instead, just be with them.

***And finally, in no means does this intend to oversimplify the human experience and the incredible value, and sometimes need, in thoroughly addressing what is present and to receive support in the process.  If the cloud continues to show up day after day, and if it feels to be covering much of your sky, how can you resource yourself to once again exist beyond this cloud? So, honoring the fine dance: exploring how to not over-identify with the experience, and all the while, deeply acknowledging and honoring when we must sit and work with the cloud.

May all of this be done with the remembering that self-compassion is a practice, and when enacted with intention, we can move through the wildest of clouds.