By Lori & Monte Dube
When we were talking to a friend recently about the concept of self-compassion, and our desire to cultivate more of it in our post-retirement years, he let out a big laugh. He grew up with a loving, but critical, Jewish mother, and even though she isn’t alive anymore, he still hears her voice in his head. “I didn’t think Jews were taught that,” he said, more serious than joking.
Self-loathing, and a persistent and relentless feeling of not being enough, is bread and butter material for Jewish standup comics. But self-compassion — a sense of kindness and soothing turned inward— is a lot less familiar to many of us raised in Jewish households. Constantly hearing messages like “Why only a 99%?” each time he brought home a near perfect test was enough to turn our friend into his own harshest critic.
When we started our Mindfulness Meditation Teacher Training Program with the Institute for Jewish Spirituality, we thought the tools we learned about quieting the mind and cultivating awareness and kindness towards others would resonate with traditional Jewish values of Tzedekah (generosity), Tefilah (prayer), and Teshuvah (repentance). What we also found in our deep dive into Jewish spirituality is that our sacred texts and practices offer a treasure of self-compassion technologies to open and soothe our own hurting hearts.
Professor Kristen Neff, Ph.D. Associate Professor at University of Texas at Austin, is the leading expert in the study of Self-Compassion. Synthesizing more than 1,000 studies done on the subject, Neff has created a simple to remember (but not easy to do) formula for offering compassion to one’s self when experiencing the pain of judgment, loss, hurt, sadness or the myriad of other emotional wounds that everyone deals with day to day.
Neff’s 3-part approach goes like this:
Step 1. Be Mindful. Notice when you’re thinking or feeling something that causes you pain. That’s all you have to do to get started on the road to self-compassion. Realize that you are hurting. Developing a regular meditation practice, even a few minutes a day, can help train the mind in “noticing.”
Step 2. Step out of Isolation. Remember that you are not alone in your pain. It’s all part of the human condition to have times that are hard, and not how we want them to be. Life is filled with ups and downs, and it’s not realistic to think that things are always going to go right, or go according to plan.
Step 3. Offer yourself kindness, in words, loving tone, and even in soothing touch (maybe placing your hand on your heart, gently massaging your arms, cradling your face in your hands, or any other gesture of touch that would offer comfort to you). Talk to yourself, using words that you might say to your closest friend who was having a hard time, “I know this is so hard for you, I’m sorry you are in so much pain,” or hear the words and voice of comfort from someone who has offered that to you in the past. The key is to be very loving, kind and gentle with yourself.
That’s Neff’s whole formula. If some of this feels simplistic, or ever foreign to you, we want to suggest familiar Jewish texts and teachings that may be used to achieve the same self-compassion goal. For starters, here are a few things that might sooth your Jewish soul when the self-judgment tape is playing over and over in your head.
Try beginning your morning, even before your feet hit the floor, with the traditional prayer Elohai Neshamah Shenetata Bee Tehora Hee, which translated means, “My God/Source, the soul you have given me is pure.” Starting your day with gratitude for your birthright, a pure soul (despite all of our self-critical stories about our not enoughness), can be a supportive lens to help view ourselves, and the world we inhabit, with compassion.
Sure, we may have messed up yesterday, and our behavior later today may well fall short, again, of our best intentions. But at our core, we’ve all been given the potential to continue to evolve into better versions of ourselves.
Here’s another possibility for bringing a bit of self- compassion into your day even before you sit down for your morning coffee. Try closing your eyes and saying the words of the Shema, the Jewish tradition’s core prayer affirming Oneness: Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad.
Recognizing interconnectedness of all aspects of the Divine, as manifested in all the world’s unique creations—including yourself—can help you feel less alone and isolated, and help you recognize your common humanity with fellow beings. Put another way, it sure can be comforting to remember that we humans are all in this complicated “life thing” together, each of us doing the best we can.
Finally, one more possible way to flex your self-compassion muscle; Google Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers), a collection of timeless, pithy Rabbinic sayings. Find a nugget of wisdom and compassion that speaks to what you need to hear. A personal favorite of ours is: “Who is rich? One who is happy with his portion”. Which is to say, you don’t need to be a billionaire—or a perfect person—to be happy, grateful and self-compassionate—for the many gifts you already have, and which shouldn’t be overlooked or minimized. Jewish wisdom has always known that we’re all works in progress. And that bringing home the 99% test result is pretty darn good!