Relieve Distress By Allowing It: Compassionate Abiding 101


Picture of A Pink Lotus FlowerI am now going to take a short break from our tour of the Mindset Mood Lenses to introduce you to one of the most powerful techniques I have ever found for increasing internal peace.  This advanced Mindset method is extremely useful in bringing relief to a wide variety of uncomfortable and unwanted physical, emotional and cognitive states.

The practice of Compassionate Abiding operates on a premise exactly counter to the one most of us use in times of distress; that is, we tend to try and run in the direction opposite our uncomfortable or “hooked” experiences as quickly and vigorously as possible.  We understandably do this in an effort to negate our discomfort, to annihilate it, ignore it, suffocate it, analyze it, judge ourselves for having it, fold, spindle and mutilate it, run it over with our cars, and beat it up really badly.

The disadvantages to applying this very human “solution” are many.  First, if we try to attack any part of ourselves (such as our thoughts, feelings and physical sensations), we are not only acting as the rejector/aggressor, but also as the recipient of such rejection/aggression; the more successful we are in hurting ourselves, the more hurt we are.  Second, the momentary relief we might gain in temporarily warding off our uncomfortable experience is just that; perhaps only moments later, the discomfort returns, and is now more severe due to the rejection it just suffered.

In stark contrast, the practice of Compassionate Abiding involves a radical shift in the nature of the relationship we have with our discomfort, and with ourselves.  And just to save you a possible trip to the dictionary, abiding simply means “allowing,” “enduring” or “tolerating.”  In this context, we strive to abide our experience with full acceptance versus annoyed resignation.  The ultimate goal of this technique is to make peace with our unwanted feelings, thoughts and sensations; to become friendly toward our “internal enemies.”  It has been said that, to the degree we can achieve a peaceful relationship with these internal adversaries, not only will we feel better about ourselves, but the potential distress triggered by external sources (and their overall relevance to us) will also notably reduce.  This is fully in keeping with Mindset’s assertion that growth truly is “an inside job.”

As you might have already guessed, the concept of paradox is central to the practice of Compassionate Abiding; the less we fight against that which is disturbing us, the less disturbing these experiences become.  Counterintuitive, yes.  Effective? Most definitely. Because once this acceptance-based technique is mastered, change is more easily achieved.  As Dr. Carl Rogers, the extremely influential proponent of humanistic psychology wrote, “acceptance is a pre-condition of change.”  Although the premise may temporarily challenge your preconceived ideas about how to approach “problems,” you may find significant benefit in giving it further consideration.  Best of all, this method is quickly and easily learned, and can be performed “on the spot,” in a very short period of time.  Positive results are almost immediate.

Okay, that’s the good news.  I must note, however, that, as an advanced technique of The Mindset Method, the optimal use of this practice does rest on the assumption that you have already developed some basic technical and attitudinal abilities, most of which have been described previously in this program.  These “prerequisites” include: 1) an ability to gain awareness of the painful thoughts, feelings and physical sensations with which you struggle, 2) an open-hearted and courageous motivation to release these unwanted experiences, and 3) a willingness to adopt a sympathetic and compassionate stance toward yourself; to be gentle and respectful with yourself in understanding the unfortunate circumstances under which you ever developed such self-defeating ways of treating yourself in the first place.

If you have not yet acquired these skills, or been able to access the compassionate motivational stance, not to worry.  You can still benefit from the practice of this technique, and may even develop greater ability to strengthen these skills through the repeated use of Compassionate Abiding.  You can also gain insight into areas for further personal development by noticing the aspects of the practice that you find most difficult.  I will give you more direction on how to do this after describing the basic practice.

One last note before we start.  I strongly recommend that you read through the entire exercise before trying it, and that you review these written instructions as many times as necessary to gain a basic understanding of it before doing so.  This will facilitate your having the most fluid, comfortable and enriching experience.  So, without further ado, here is how to begin the practice of Compassionate Abiding:

1)  Start by contacting and becoming aware of the basic fact that you have become hooked or triggered by your internal enemies.  You will typically begin the practice after you have already noticed the presence of the hooked feeling, however you can also elect to conjure it up for the purpose of practicing this technique; both approaches are useful.  So, how do you know when you are hooked or triggered?  Most often, this will come from an awareness of unpleasant, painful emotions, such as sadness, anxiety or anger, troubling thoughts involving worry, self-criticism, or frustration, or uncomfortable physical sensations such as muscular tightness, pain or gastrointestinal distress.  You might notice the presence of all three, or any combination thereof.

2)  Continue by further grounding yourself in, and focusing upon, the quality and location of the tight, unpleasant, squeezed, numb or painful sensations.  Try to identify exactly where in your body these sensations are clustering.  Often this will be felt in the belly, the chest or the shoulders, but it may also be noticed in the neck, back, head, feet or hands.  Most of us have an area in our bodies where we are most likely to experience tension, and we usually know where this is.  If you don’t, simply spend some time focusing awareness upon your physical experience of your body, and the tight area will typically become apparent to you.  As this area may or may not be troubling you at the time you first experiment with Compassionate Abiding, simply pick the physical location that most commonly acts up, and make that your focus for the exercise.

3)  Once you have localized the most intense areas of physical uneasiness, begin to attune further to the specific thoughts and feelings that are accompanying these unpleasant sensations.  For example, what are you saying to yourself as you experience this uneasiness?  What images might be coming to mind at that time?  What painful “script” or “storyline” unfolds as you focus on your discomfort?  Again, most of us are quite keenly aware of the “self-talk” or meaning we have attached to these feelings.  They are typically quite limited in number, and comprise our “greatest hits” of pain, so to speak.

It may be helpful, especially as you first begin to experiment with this practice, to speak and describe your process aloud, as doing so will further ground your attention to it (saying something aloud, and hearing yourself do so, activates a much broader level of neurobiological and emotional processing than does simply thinking it).  You may also find it useful to record this exercise process (the iPhone’s “voice memo” function is ideal for this purpose), so that you can review it, refine it, and perhaps use it as a guide for further practice.  You may also find it helpful, at least initially, to close your eyes while practicing this technique, or to at least “soften” your gaze, and direct it toward the floor a few feet in front of you.  This may help prevent you from experiencing undue distraction by your environment.  With increased mastery, you will likely find you are able to engage in this practice just about anywhere at any time (I have done it while driving, walking, doing therapy with patients, and even while engaging in challenging conversations with others).  In fact, the universal portability of this practice, and it’s opacity to others, are a few of its greatest strengths.  At least during the initial learning phase, however, you will most likely benefit from performing it in a relatively quiet and solitary setting (especially if you are going to take my advice and speak your internal process aloud!).  You may adopt a seated or standing posture as you practice the technique, whichever feels most appropriate, and so long as you are comfortable.

Again, please do ensure that, in addition to the unpleasant thoughts or cognitions you are experiencing, you focus as well upon the unpleasant emotions that accompany them; these may include fear, sadness, hurt, frustration, anger, guilt or worry.  Notice that the thoughts you are having will typically echo the feelings.  For example, if you are feeling anxious and worried, you might be thinking about the great pressures or expectations you are experiencing in your life, the burdensome weight of living up to these in order to meet your own or others’ approval.  Or, you might be thinking about the mistakes you fear making in the future, the potentially negative outcomes or events that you are anticipating, or the unpleasant feelings you fear having if such negative outcomes were to actually occur (the fear of experiencing significant anxiety, depression or anger, sometimes referred to as “emotion phobia,” is extremely common in individuals who suffer from anxiety).

If you are feeling mostly hurt, sad, and depressed, you may be thinking about ways in which you view yourself as having “screwed up” in the past or present, how you have been rejected by others, or how you are seeing yourself as deficient or inadequate in some way; you may therefore be the throes of guilt and self-criticism.

Finally, you may be filled with the molten heat of anger and frustration, because you believe you have been lied to, betrayed, cheated, overwhelmed, disrespected, deceived, treated unfairly, or taken advantage of.  Of course, it is entirely possible that you are experiencing varying levels of of all of these thoughts and feelings as you increase your awareness of what is accompanying your physical discomfort.  These various “flavors” of discomfort are all quite common, are all typically felt as unpleasant, and are all manufactured and housed within ourselves; these are our internal enemies.  Although these cognitive, physical and emotional phenomena may be triggered or related to some aspect of the external world (financial distress, relationship conflict, work challenges, etc.), the emphasis in Compassionate Abiding is placed solely upon the internal impact of these external triggers.  In this practice, we will be attempting to respectfully and gently abide and allow these aspects of our internal experience rather then try to eliminate and annihilate them by acting upon the external circumstances to which they may be related.  Again, acceptance is a pre-condition of change.

4)  As this technique is called Compassionate Abiding, you may still be wondering about the “compassion” part.  This is an extremely important component of the practice, and yet it is also one you may find the most challenging to access (which is exactly why you need the practice!).  First, please understand that the most basic shift here, from attempted annihilation to attempted abiding, is in itself, a hugely compassionate one; this is true whether we are speaking of the stance we adopt toward ourselves, toward others, or toward events and circumstances.  And the deepest compassion we can have during this practice extends beyond simply acknowledging the pain or discomfort we are experiencing; this awareness is good, and yet we can go further to sympathize with this suffering of ours of which we have now become aware.  We go further by cultivating compassion for the fact that we ever learned to think and feel in these distressing, uncomfortable, self-attacking, unyielding and burdensome ways in the first place.  We know that we did not emerge from the womb hating ourselves, living in terror, carrying deep feelings of hurt or rage, or believing that we are inadequate and that we can never be loved just as we are.  We were not born with an overwhelming sense of pervasive and unreasonable worry, rumination and anxiety.  So, it is the lamentable fact that we ever learned to become so proficient at thinking and feeling in these painful ways in the first place for which we now want to practice compassion.  Again, the compassionately abiding stance is precisely opposite to that which we most typically adopt in regard to these difficult aspects of our internal experience.  More commonly, we blame ourselves for feeling depressed, anxious or angry, and see our failure to overcome such feelings as a sign of our moral, emotional, intellectual, spiritual or physical weakness, ineptitude or deficiency.  Thus, we feel bad for feeling bad.  If you have not already read about this awfully common phenomena, which I refer to as Level 1 and Level 2 Thinking, you may wish to do so now by clicking on the highlighted concept.

5)  Once you have become sufficiently aware of the general physical location of the discomfort, and of the quality and content of the thoughts and feelings, and have begun to cultivate compassion for the fact that you are experiencing all of these, you will then begin to inhale deeply and fully, directing this breath right to the uncomfortable location(s) in your body you have identified.  Intentionally visualize the incoming breath being routed specifically and powerfully toward that location.  Of course, if you have never directed your breath so intentionally, this may sound like a really ridiculous request.  I recall the first time, almost 25 years ago, when a yoga teacher in Los Angeles instructed my class to “breathe into the small of your back.”  I remember thinking, “Huh?  I can’t do that!”  As you let your rational thinking fall away, however, and simply open yourself to this task, you will find that it is indeed quite easy to perform.  It simply requires attention, intention and practice, like learning to flex or strengthen a certain muscle in the body or even wiggle your ear. 

6)  While directing your in-breaths to the place of discomfort, continue to remain aware and allowing of the difficult thoughts, sensations and feelings, exercising compassion for them completely, and opening up fully to their painful quality.  The purpose of the in-breath is simply to increase the internal space allocated to the feelings, thoughts and sensations, so that they can exist peacefully;  you are now giving them room, without pushing them away or trying to annihilate them.  Visualize the in-breath as ventilating, aerating, surrounding and bathing the tight location and its accompanying thoughts and feelings.  Visualize each new in-breath flowing into the space around the tightness, providing it with insulation and cushioning.  Notice what begins to happen within the tight place as you repeat this breathing exercise; is it becoming much tighter, remaining unchanged, or loosening up even slightly with each new breath cycle?  Okay, not to worry, I am now going to tell you what to do on the exhale; I won’t leave you hanging!

7)  Next, still abiding with the urge and edginess of the internal experience, allow yourself to breathe out slowly and relax, and just notice how the internal experience may have shifted slightly.  To be very clear, the out-breath is NOT a way of expelling or sending away the uncomfortable physical sensations, thoughts or feelings, but simply of loosening the tension around the tight locations, and of becoming aware of some increased space in those areas in which the discomfort is occurring.  With each slow exhale, notice if perhaps even the tiniest amount of extra space develops around the discomfort; even just a millimeter or two around the perimeter of tension might be quite significant.

While doing this, attempt to maintain a focus on your internal experience, as described above, versus distracting yourself or allowing yourself to become preoccupied by discursive thoughts.  Of course, it is quite common for this “drifting” to occur (after all, we have about 70,000 thoughts per day!), yet the instruction here is for you to notice if and when you begin to digress from your own experience, in the moment, and to simply return to the practice and the breath and the present moment.  The goal is never to “not have thoughts,” as this is unrealistic and impossible to achieve, yet it is to maintain an awareness of our tendency to be hooked or hijacked or preoccupied by our thoughts, and to return attention to the breath.  We return to our physiological sensations, such as breath or touch or temperature, because this is the most rapid and direct route back to the present moment.  It has been said that “sensations are owned in the present and thoughts are simply rented from the past;” thus, you will find that one of the most active therapeutic mechanisms underlying Compassionate Abiding is that which keeps returning us to the now.  And when (not if) you find your attention wandering away from the practice, please refrain from criticizing or punishing yourself for any such digression, as that would obviously run counter to the mission at hand.  Again, this goes back to the Level 1 and Level 2 Thinking concept described earlier.  As is true here and throughout our existence, forgiveness is something we do for ourselves so we can heal and move on.

8)  Continue to repeat this process several times, deepening your contact with the unpleasant thoughts, feelings and sensations, while fully ventilating and bathing the tightness in a compassionate manner, and using the out-breath to notice any increased space.  As you do this, continue to allow an awareness of the practice’s effect upon your physical sensations, your emotional experience, and the type and quantity of the thoughts you are having.  You may find yourself spending between 5 and 10 minutes performing the initial practice, however, you may stay in it for as long as you like.  If you find that the painful quality of the sensations, emotions or thoughts is simply too uncomfortable to endure, please do allow yourself to pause the practice, be gentle with yourself for having done so, and make note of the aspects of what you experienced that were most uncomfortable.  Additional work may first be necessary for you in these personal “content” areas before you can contact and sit with them so directly.

9)  Finally, after you have completed the initial practice session(s), you will benefit from further allowing yourself to become aware of and assess it’s impact.  You may therefore wish to ask yourself the following questions (and I would sure love to know the answers, so that I may continue to refine the technique for optimal effectiveness; I would therefore ask that you take a few minutes to complete the several survey items at the bottom of this page as you become aware of your experience of this practice):

  • To what degree was I able to localize the area(s) of physiological discomfort that accompanied my distress?
  • To what degree was I able to identify and experience the unpleasant thoughts that troubled me, and which accompanied this physiological discomfort?
  • To what degree was I able to identify and experience the unpleasant emotions that accompanied the physiological discomfort and unpleasant thoughts?
  • To what degree was I able to direct my in-breaths to the location(s) of my discomfort? To what degree was I able to visualize doing so?
  • To what degree was I able to visualize the ventilation and aeration of the uncomfortable bodily location(s) with my in-breaths?
  • To what degree was I able to remain focused on my physiological sensations, uncomfortable thoughts and unwanted feelings during the practice versus distracting myself or drifting away from this awareness?
  • When I did drift, to what degree was I able to forgive myself for doing so and return my attention inward to the breath and the areas of discomfort?
  • To what degree was I able to exercise compassion for the unpleasant sensations, thoughts and feelings I felt during the practice, and for the fact that I ever learned to experience such an unpleasant internal stance toward myself? 
  • To the degree that I struggled to cultivate compassion for myself, how much of this difficulty was caused by a semi-conscious or intentional unwillingness to do so?
  • What impact did the practice have on my felt area(s) of discomfort?  Did it cause a greater tightening in the area(s) of discomfort, did it yield no change at all, or did it result in an increase in the space around my discomfort?
  • What impact did the practice have on the quality of my emotional experience?  Did it cause significantly more emotional discomfort, did it yield no change at all, or did it result in a reduction of emotional discomfort?
  • How did the practice affect the quantity and quality of my thoughts?  Did it result in a slowing of the unpleasant thoughts and a reduction of the discomfort associated with them, did it increase the quantity of thoughts and the intensity of them, or it did yield no change in my thought flow and quality at all?
  • Do I believe that continued practice of Compassionate Abiding could be of use to me during times of physical, emotional or cognitive distress?

I truly hope that you were able to experience some useful results from your initial experimentation with Compassionate Abiding, and that you were able to realize, even a little bit, the merit of adopting an “allowing” versus “disallowing” stance toward your own experience, pain and discomfort.  Even if you obtained only mild benefit, I would encourage you to continue practicing it.  As I have written before, “We get better at whatever we practice and we are always practicing something.”  Sadly, self-aversion is a common and very muscular habit for human beings, yet it shares an inverse relationship with compassion for the self that might be described as one of “reciprocal inhibition.”  Simply put, the better we become at practicing self-compassion, the less adept we become at practicing self-aversion.

Again, I would greatly appreciate your now taking a few moments to run through the following survey questions regarding your experience of the practice of Compassionate Abiding.  I greatly welcome any response you care to offer, and hope you will also feel free to post comments or questions for me about this technique.  In a future post, I will discuss the origin and development of this technique, provide some troubleshooting guidance with regard to the most common stumbling blocks experienced in learning and practicing it, and give you more information on it’s clinical and personal applications.  I will also make available to you an audio or video recording of a guided Compassionate Abiding practice for you to use in developing your facility with it. 

Thank you so very much for reading, and for learning The Mindset Method.  I wish you peace.

 

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About Richard E. Schultz, Ph.D.

Hello. I am Richard E. Schultz, Ph.D., and I am a clinical psychologist practicing in Atlanta, Georgia. For consultation and treatment, please visit my practice website: www.drschultz.org.
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3 Responses to Relieve Distress By Allowing It: Compassionate Abiding 101

  1. Great article – thank you!

  2. Soul-Journer says:

    Your article was long but I stuck to it .I am at Level 1 but I feel ready to move on, partly because my medications for depression have kickied in. I feel I can make use of this internal change by purposely practicing the steps to Compassionate Abiding.. That way, I’ll be better prepared for the ‘Downs’. I appreciate your involvement with PsychCentral and participating in the forums. As a clinical psychologist you are aware of much information. I am so glad you did not keep private—for your clients only. I hope you will continue this involvement. I see that you have other posts—I will read them, as well.. Thanks!

  3. Ennaira says:

    Thank you for this:) I have trouble controlling my anger and outbursts and will try your method.

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