Compassionate Self-Care

These are selec­ted excerp­ts from a talk given by Stephen Robbins Schwartz during a gathe­ring in Valley Cottage, New York. 

Compassionate self-care is a path of kind­ness and respect for our­sel­ves. It offers a way of rela­ting to our inter­nal expe­ri­ence which is not pushed, coer­ced, or mani­pu­la­ted. In this path the­re are no cate­go­ri­cal labels, no deman­ds, no suc­cess or fail­u­re. There isn’t anything to achie­ve, get to, or make. No ide­al sta­te of con­scious­ness is pro­po­sed which is any bet­ter than the one we find our­sel­ves in right now. We allow our­sel­ves to feel just what we are fee­ling, to brea­the con­scious­ly, and to stay atten­ti­ve to the body. We don’t let our­sel­ves beco­me con­fu­sed by thoughts which sug­gest to us what our fee­lings mean.

Breathing is a gift to the body and to the being in and around the body. We don’t have to earn our life breath; it is given to us freely.

The breath is the princi­pal meta­phor for the pro­cess of com­pas­sio­na­te self-care becau­se it repres­ents the truth of rela­ti­ons­hip, eco­lo­gy, spi­ri­tua­li­ty, devo­ti­on, and pray­er. We are not inde­pen­dent. We are interdependent.

The inner work of com­pas­sio­na­te self-care invol­ves dis­tin­guis­hing bet­ween rhyth­mic and arrhyth­mic pro­ces­ses. Through this work, we return our life to the gre­at rhyth­ms of giving and recei­ving and respect­ful­ly let go of that which is arrhyth­mic. Breathing is a simp­le rhythm. The heart beats in ano­t­her rhythm. The blood moves through the veins in yet ano­t­her rhythm. The ner­vous sys­tem is fil­led with ener­ge­tic pul­sa­ti­ons. As we move deeper and deeper into the pro­ces­ses of the body, we find an array of rhyth­ms and move­ments that are gifts to us. The moment one of the many rhyth­ms of our life is dis­rup­ted, we can feel it. We beco­me less clear, less balan­ced, and less grounded.

The fee­ling life is not a con­cep­tu­al expe­ri­ence. Feelings are not ide­as, but sub­t­le phy­si­cal expe­ri­en­ces. They take place in the body. They are not inher­ent­ly mea­ning­ful in the way they seem to be when we app­ly our thoughts and beliefs to them. Feelings are part of the rhythm, the giving and recei­ving, the nou­rish­ment, and the inter­de­pen­dent eco­lo­gy of our expe­ri­ence here.

We are in this body, this exo­tic life form, on this puz­zling pla­net, assuming that we under­stand what the con­scious­ly felt ener­ge­tic fluc­tua­tions cal­led fee­lings actual­ly mean. Mystery is the pre­do­mi­nant qua­li­ty of our human expe­ri­ence. We don’t know very much. We can’t know very much and yet the­re is so much here, so much to recei­ve and so much to give.

In order to dis­co­ver the sac­red pos­si­bi­li­ty of our human embo­di­ment, we must learn how to turn to our­sel­ves and be with our expe­ri­ence in a way that tru­ly honors our life here. This requi­res lear­ning how to honor and bring digni­ty to each aspect of our life. We must learn what it means to attend to our­sel­ves with abso­lu­te respect, even though we don’t real­ly under­stand what we are, who we are, or whe­re we are going.

The con­di­tio­ned mind is making con­stant deman­ds for clo­sure and con­cep­tu­al under­stan­ding. It lobs labels and names at our deli­ca­te expe­ri­ence, many of which sug­gest that the­re is some­thing wrong, that we are undi­gni­fied, ugly, or weak in various are­as of our life. The path of com­pas­sio­na­te self-care offers an anti­do­te to the mind’s demands.


We honor the body becau­se it is more than what it loo­ks like. This body is not sim­ply the phy­si­cal appearan­ce that we can see and touch. Within the body and sur­roun­ding it, the­re is an ener­ge­tic field which can­not usual­ly be seen by the naked eye. 

The gre­at and cen­tral ope­ning of the human body is loca­ted in the domain of the heart. The front of the body — the heart and the area around the heart — is a por­tal, a sub­t­le pas­sa­ge­way which is respon­si­ble for our fee­ling life. It is through this ope­ning that we expe­ri­ence cou­ra­ge, inspi­ra­ti­on, love, and the crea­ti­ve act itself.

Turning the atten­ti­on to the body is the begin­ning of the pro­cess of com­pas­sio­na­te self-care. We allow wha­te­ver fee­ling expe­ri­ence we are having the­re to beco­me part of the rhyth­ms of the body. We don’t make deman­ds on our fee­lings. We sim­ply give them the space they need. We attend, allow, and respect. This is self-care.

Thoughts about fee­lings are a con­di­tio­ned respon­se to some­thing we do not under­stand. The actua­li­ty of the fee­ling can­not be defi­ned. It can only be recei­ved and allo­wed. We brea­the, we feel, and we allow. How much time is spent each day arguing with this orga­nic pro­cess? How much time is spent try­ing to for­ce back and push away some­thing that we think is not right about our­sel­ves? How much time is lost dis­re­spec­ting the sac­red pre­sence which inha­bits and radia­tes from the phy­si­cal form becau­se we misun­derstand the beau­ti­ful mys­te­ry of our exis­tence here?

The fee­ling life is not a con­cep­tu­al expe­ri­ence. Feelings are not ide­as, but sub­t­le phy­si­cal expe­ri­en­ces. They take place in the body.

The capa­ci­ty of the con­di­tio­ned mind to hate the pre­sent is very gre­at. It sug­gests that life would be bet­ter if we were dif­fe­rent from how we are now or that some sta­te exists which is supe­ri­or to the one we find our­sel­ves in at this moment. It belitt­les and bera­tes, com­pa­res and jus­ti­fies. We should never unde­re­sti­ma­te the degree to which the mind holds on to its beliefs in wrong­ness and shame.

The way to over­co­me the coun­ter­for­ce of self-hate is to bless and respect our own expe­ri­ence. This self-care work is based on the princip­le of non­re­sis­tance, ahim­sa. We don’t fight our expe­ri­ence. We don’t com­mit vio­lence against the sac­red pre­sence of life as it has mani­fes­ted wit­hin us.

Our day-to-day expe­ri­ence doesn’t have to be a batt­le, an argu­ment, or a war. We turn toward our fee­ling life, offe­ring it all the space it needs. We offer rhythm and space to every expe­ri­ence — good, bad, or indif­fe­rent. We return our con­scious­ness to the rhyth­ms of the body and allow our­sel­ves to breathe.

As ver­ti­cal bein­gs, our very form allows us to face the world in an open and vul­nerable way. We not only have eyes to see, ears to hear, skin to touch, mouth and tongue to tas­te, nose to smell; we also have the fron­tal ope­ning, the fron­tal mem­bra­ne, so that we can recei­ve the ener­ge­tic nou­rish­ment which pours toward us all the time.

When we turn our atten­ti­on to the heart and loca­te our con­scious iden­ti­ty the­re, we begin to under­stand and feel gra­ti­tu­de for the very inter­de­pen­dence that we so often try to reject. Everything is given to us. Our pur­po­se is to recei­ve, trans­form, and give back. Such is the beau­ti­ful pos­si­bi­li­ty of the fron­tal mem­bra­ne, the ver­ti­cal posi­ti­on, and the radi­ant field in which our body lives.

Attention is con­scious space. It is not thought. When we bring our atten­ti­on to any part of the body, we are offe­ring that part a spe­cial kind of spa­cious­ness. When we bring our atten­ti­on to our fee­lings, no mat­ter how dif­fi­cult they may seem to be, we are giving them a con­scious space in which to expand and trans­form them­sel­ves organically.

What dif­fe­rence does it make what we’ve told our­sel­ves all the­se years? What dif­fe­rence does it make how we’ve cha­rac­te­ri­zed our­sel­ves, what we’ve belie­ved about who we are? Here is a moment in which we can trans­cend all our cru­el and dis­tor­ted beliefs. Turning with care to our own life, com­ing to the heart, allows us to begin out­shi­ning tho­se arbi­tra­ry ide­as which have con­fi­ned us for so long.

We know what we have said to our­sel­ves and others about our resent­ments and our hurts. We know what the sto­ry is. We have run it through the mind over and over again. And this is all right. But now ins­tead, even for just a moment or two, we turn with care toward our­sel­ves so that we may attend to the wound — not to the sto­ry about how the wound came to be the­re. We enter our expe­ri­ence directly.

It is not wrong to hurt. The hurt is an ope­ning, a door. It is not a cau­se for shame or a remin­der of our ugli­ness. It is sim­ply a woun­ded pas­sa­ge­way in a radi­ant space. And healing does not requi­re har­sh words, ten­si­on, humi­lia­ti­on, or the stinging sneers of reg­ret. It requi­res only that we attend to it with care.

Our hurt is a wound in love’s body. And even though we have been taught to turn away from that which hurts — to run, to make fun of our­sel­ves, to break it, to get rid of it — none of that real­ly works. Pain can’t be trans­for­med through self-hate.

We might look at the oce­an on a sun­ny day and noti­ce the wind, the waves, and the white­caps. Even though we know that each wave, each ripp­le, is uni­que, we may also be awa­re that the waves and all their move­ments are simp­le modu­la­ti­ons of one gre­at still­ness. Waves appe­ar and disap­pe­ar in rhyth­mic fluc­tua­tions, but in the end, the waves and the oce­an are the same. Our indi­vi­dua­li­ty, our uni­que qua­li­ties, are like waves — one thing appearing in dif­fe­rent ways. From the sea we come, in the sea we live, and to the sea we must return.

Self-care means that we offer the space of our atten­ti­on and the rhythm of our breath to every fee­ling that we per­cei­ve. We are fee­ling bein­gs. We are rhyth­mic bein­gs. We are bein­gs who dwell in spa­cious­ness. And in this human body, we are also bein­gs of warm­th. The body is warm. Warmth and space and rhythm per­me­a­te our life here. When we fight against our fee­lings by app­ly­ing the arrhyth­mic vehi­cle of thought, attemp­t­ing to hold them back, they do not appe­ar to be warm; they seem cold, or neu­tral at best.

As we open to our fee­lings and brea­the with them, we can begin to dis­co­ver the warm­th which lies wit­hin. Even tho­se fee­lings we’ve labe­led as dark and dif­fi­cult are like har­den­ed seeds with a warm and nou­ris­hing core. Deep insi­de every fee­ling is warm­th. Warm ener­gies meet the warm body and are con­duc­ted through warm­th toward expres­si­on and return.

It’s true that he hurt us, she left us. It’s true that he or she died. It’s true that we did not live up to someone’s expec­ta­ti­ons for us or they did not live up to ours. It’s true, perhaps, that we are ill or that the bank account is not fil­led in the way we want it to be. But all that can sub­si­de for a moment when we come back to the hurt, if hurt is the­re. We return our atten­ti­on to the breath to find the space at the source of all things. Into this space we go, and from this space we return. That is what it means to be born again. It’s not what we belie­ve. It’s not what scrip­tu­re we read. It’s not the moral code we sub­scri­be to. It’s the washing we recei­ve as we stay with the body and brea­the, as we enter into the silence so that we may cast off the old clothes — the resent­ments, the reg­rets, the self-hate — and sit for a while in the mys­te­ry. Then we return again, cleansed.

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