Compassion and Self-Compassion

What we call compassion is the love we have in us, meeting suffering in ourselves, in our family, and in the world. We are closest to ourselves, and so of course we know our own suffering better than that of others. We need this one quality called self compassion to turn to what is difficult, and to keep our attention on it, and hold it tenderly until it begins to transform…


Sometimes this feels like caring for a young child, one who is frightened, or in tears. At first it may be that all we can feel is our own hurt, trembling, uncertainty, remorse, or fear. When we can hold this feeling, encompassing it with the warmth of unconditional love and compassion, we calm down. We find a sense of ease restored.

Thinking back now, I can see how compassion for myself is what had me begin to search for a way to live in this world, and to heal myself. It’s what led to what is colloquially called taking refuge in sources of safety and protection.

In my thirties, I travelled to Asia for this reason.

In my 50’s I went on retreat for a year, from this same compassion for self and others.

Self compassion is like this – it has us begin, and it’s the power in us that has us continue, until we find deeper answers, and deeper healing.

Some traditions speak mostly of love for oneself, as essential, but to me compassion is more to the point here – that we are addressing the suffering we have known, and carry.

It’s easier to speak of compassion and care for our loved ones, and those all around us in this world, but this –  self compassion, is how we know what it is to be human, to struggle and suffer, sometimes to fail, and to endure. It’s what we need to find comfort, and relief that is longer lasting than what the world commonly offers.

Having compassion for ourselves is what has us begin a path of practice, or begin again, as many times as needed, and then to continue, and from that, we are able gradually to be more available to others, and to share what we have found that actually helps.

The warmth we feel for others we have to have known ourselves.

As it’s said in the Bible, in the first letter by John,

We love, because we were loved first

which I can read now as,

We have compassion for others, because we ourselves have received compassion first.

This can be from a parent, or a teacher, or a friend, or a Holy Being, or it can be from ourselves, from a pure, deep place inside ourselves.

When we choose to let go of negative, destructive habits, or an entire outlook and values, it’s because of this self compassion, that is protective, and that has wisdom, knowing the effect of actions over the long term.

Refuge and renunciation of samsaric suffering then both have this basis, of feeling worthy of love, and of self compassion.

How often do we really appreciate the indestructible, healing quality of compassion throughout our lives as it arises to meet our needs? It’s a truly beautiful quality that isn’t talked about or highlighted enough, I don’t think, but it should be praised, and cultivated, and honored by all, and its importance shared with others.

Over the years, I have taken the bodhisattva vows many times in my heart, but I have to say, in truth, that I have not yet fully resolved my own samsaric suffering. What I have found is that it really is difficult, and it really does take time and dedication to practice for a person to completely transform the mind, as our great teachers have done, and to accomplish the stages of liberation, and non-regression.

Until then, what is plain to see is that What I can give is limited by my own lack of freedom. How can I give to others what I don’t have myself? To modify the language just slightly of something I wrote over a decade ago, about cultivating love for ourselves

I know that some people, especially in spiritual traditions, would try to skip this step, of having compassion for themselves, or gloss it over lightly, on the way to the great, heroic, and truly praiseworthy actions of a bodhisattva living in this world, but I’ve come to realize that this is a mistake.

We can only help others to the extent that we understand our own experience, our own samsaric suffering, and get free of it, and we do this by receiving and awakening compassion for ourselves, and learning what it means to care for ourselves well, for our whole lives.

I’m afraid that those who would skip this step, and even put it down, achieve neither their own personal liberation, or the ability to help others. So the more I think about it the more it seems that this is something that is absolutely necessary.

Compassion leads to Great Compassion

This precious quality of self compassion can be with us all throughout our lives and meditations, and it is naturally onward leading. When we are in touch with how hard it is to overcome suffering in our lives, over time we become less judgmental, more patient, and gentle, and generous, creative and adaptive, and willing to meet ourselves and others wherever we are in our lives. This only comes about because when we have not turned away from our own difficulties, sorrow and confusion, however much of it remains.

The clouds part at last, and the sky clears, and this one sun illuminates us all.

Look at the dedicated lives in this world, at our spiritual teachers, at those with something to give, and you will see it is this way.

So please, do your best to be kind and loving and compassionate to yourself. It is the way out of the wilderness, to safety; it is a protector; it is light and sustenance all along the journey, and the way to find purpose and fulfillment here on earth.