top of page

Compassion: a nit worth picking

I said in my last post that we don't need to split hairs or pick nits when it comes to kindness, but there is one nitpick/hairsplit that is crucial, at least for modern Westerners. And that is the distinction between kindness towards oneself, and kindness towards others.

There is an interesting story here about the transmission of Buddhist practices and ideas from the East to the West, and from Buddhism to Western psychotherapies.

The classic Buddhist meditation on kindly feelings is called the Metta Bhavana, which means something like the cultivation (or ripening) of loving kindness. It moves through a number of stages: first you send good wishes to yourself, then to a good friend, then to someone you don't know too well, and then to someone you don't like very much. Finally, you send good wishes to more and more and more people, until you are sending good wishes to all living things, and also to all the various gods, demons, and other supernatural beings that people in ancient India believed in.

In the modern West, this and other meditations on kindness have been taken up not only by meditators, but also by psychologists and psychiatrists. It has been incorporated into a range (a plethora, even) of healthcare interventions: Compassion Focussed Therapy, Mindful Self-Compassion, Cultivating Compassion Training, Cognitive Behavioural Compassion Training, Sustainable Compassion Training, Mindfulness-Based Compassionate Living, and probably more that I haven't heard of.

What stands out about many of these interventions is their emphasis on kindness towards oneself, or, more specifically, on self-compassion. I won't get into defining that term precisely, as I will fall foul of the academics and therapists who have done the noble work of popularising the term and the practice, but hopefully we can all agree that it has something to do with being kinder to yourself. And this would seem to make a lot of sense: if your aim is to improve people's mental health, then teaching them to be kinder to themselves seems like a reasonable thing to do. Whereas being kinder to others would seem more like a moral issue.

But what's interesting is the divergence here between the ancient Eastern minds that gave us the practice, and the modern Western ones that have adopted (and adapted) it. Because while the traditional Metta Bhavana begins with sending good wishes towards oneself, that is apparently not because kindness towards oneself is the most important aspect of the practice, or because kindness towards oneself is a prerequisite for developing kindness towards others ("You have to love yourself before you can love anyone else", in modern therapy-speak). Rather, it's because for ancient Indian Buddhists, the easiest person to love was yourself. You start by cultivating kindness towards yourself because it's effortless, and then you move onto the harder work of directing the same loving kindness towards others.

This is very, very far from the experience of the modern Westerner, or certainly from the average modern Westerner who shows an interest in mindfulness, meditation, or therapy. Instead, when we are asked to try and send good wishes towards ourselves, typical responses range from, "It felt a bit weird", to, "It reminded me of just how much I hate myself". The default for us, it seems, is to tolerate ourselves at best, and to loathe ourselves at worst. Hence the emphasis on self-compassion in our kindness-based, Buddhism-influenced healthcare interventions. For people who are disposed to despise themselves, the work of self-compassion is hard but necessary.

This is, apparently, startling to contemporary Eastern Buddhists, just as it would be to ancient ones. It's said that when the Dalai Lama heard that Western Buddhists find these meditations hard because they don't like themselves, he was astonished and appalled. How could people not like themselves? I don't know how true this is, or how far it generalises to other Tibetans or even other non-Western cultures, but it certainly raises some questions: why do we hate ourselves so much? And what can we do about it?

I don't know the answer to the first question (Our childrearing practices? Our culture in general?), but both psychology and modern Buddhism think that they have the answer to the second: you can practise developing kindness towards yourself, as well as to others.

And so this particular hair is worth splitting, and this nit is worth picking. Self-hatred is at the core of many of our difficulties, from depression to loneliness to relationship problems. And even kindness to others can become a problem, if we don't extend it to ourselves: many of us feel compelled to put others first while neglecting our own wishes and needs, resulting in unhappiness and resentment. So while you explore kindness in meditation, make sure to develop it for both yourself and others.

And as for how to do that, read on...


bottom of page