Self-care break

We all need to stop from time to time and recharge our batteries. Here’s a practical, 3-min self-care exercise that can decrease stress and increases self-awareness, self-compassion and resilience.

This practice uses the acronym S.N.A.C.K.

S is for Stop and self-care. Permission to stop. We can lift our eyes from our screens, perhaps looking at something soothing like the view out of a window, a plant or a family photo. In this phase, we can investigate a soothing touch… placing a hand on the heart or belly, rubbing the arm, hugging ourselves – whatever feels reassuring.

Once we’ve found our soothing touch, we can appreciate this for a moment. Taking in the warmth from that contact or the comforting sensations from the reassuring rub.

Now we can begin taking soothing breaths. Long, easy breaths… exhaling fully on the out-breath… encouraging a sense of letting go. Tuning into the nourishing quality of the in-breath, the way the body naturally energises itself with oxygen.

N is for Notice. Noticing physical sensations… for example, tuning into the feeling of the earth supporting our feet and legs. Or the seat supporting our weight. Noticing emotions… how are we feeling? A bit anxious, irritated? Bored? Where do we feel this in the body? And noticing thoughts. I’m noticing a thought as I type of, “I hope I’m expressing this practice well!”

A is for Acceptance. As best we can, accepting whatever we feel. We can express this silently to ourselves with a phrase like, “It’s okay to feel this.” Choosing words that fit for us. Even if we’re feeling resistance towards a certain feeling, seeing if we can accept the resistance.

C is for Common humanity. We all feel this way at times. It can be a real relief to remember we’re not alone. Expressing this silently to ourselves, with a phrase like, “Everyone feels like this from time to time,” or whatever words feel right.

K is for Kindness. No matter what life throws at us, no matter how many mistakes we make, we can benefit from treating ourselves with kindness. Perhaps reminding ourselves with a phrase like, “May I be kind to myself in this moment.”

Finally, resting in this sense of kindness, or our soothing touch. Taking a few soothing breaths to complete.

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Many people find that this short practice, which can take just 90 seconds, helps them to pause the accumulation of stress and generate a sense of warmth, acceptance positivity and friendliness that is very motivating.

Just now, as I did this, I experienced a familiar feeling of anxiety and thoughts like, “I’ve got so much to do today! Should I really be blogging?” The practice helped me normalise this and not take it so seriously. Now I have a smile on my face, and though my workload hasn’t decreased, I feel good about continuing and the anxious feeling has subsided somewhat.

Taking a break like this might highlight further needs, like physical or social needs. Maybe we notice we’re feeling stiff and need to stretch, maybe drink some water, or that we feel like talking to someone.

It can be beneficial to drop any expectation that this practice will definitely ‘make us feel good’. It might be that the practice allows us to tune into unpleasant emotions that weren’t so obvious before. Here, we can lean into the acceptance, common humanity and kindness phases. The point isn’t to make us feel good. The point is to get in touch with what is real, acknowledge it and be friendly and kind to ourselves with whatever we’re experiencing.

You can find a guided audio for this practice on the meditation app Aura Health.

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Recently, Lulu Cook and I led this practice for Mind With Heart with hundreds of attendees at conferences with amazing mental health charities Standby and Roses In The Ocean, to help support everyone’s self-care on the day.

If you’re regularly noticing unpleasant emotions and feeling a bit stuck, you might want to get more help with this. Lifeline and Beyond Blue operate helplines in Australia 24/7. If you’re in another country, The Samaritans are an international charity offering emotional support to anyone in crisis.

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Can compassion be learned?

Is compassion something you are born with, or can you learn to become more compassionate?

New research suggests that compassion can be both taught, and learned. Richard Davidson and associate scientist Antoine Lutz studied the brain scans of 16 monks and 16 control subjects. All were asked to practise a special compassion meditation whilst undergoing an fMRI scan. The scientists found that areas of the brain used for empathy were stimulated during the meditation practice.

Davidson and Lutz believe that this research could be useful in treating people with depression. The theory is that if people suffering with depression could be taught a compassionate meditation practice, they could relate to the suffering of others more easily. “Thinking about other people’s suffering and not just your own helps to put everything in perspective,” Lutz says.

This is a subject that science is taking very seriously. The Dalai Lama is speaking at the CCARE Conference on Scientific Explorations of Compassion and Altruism on Friday, October 15, 2010 at Stanford University. You can watch a live webcast of the conference here.

From personal experience, I can say that compassionate practise has helped me deal with family problems more usefully. Over the summer, I learned a compassionate meditation practise during my three weeks on working retreat at Casa Saraswati. This is based on the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, and involves visualising a being or situation that gave you love, feeling the love grow in your heart, and then transferring this same love to others. Often we would sing the Avalokiteswara mantra after meditating, which also encourages compassion. I practised for three weeks, and noticeably became a much kinder, more generous and giving person in my daily life.

When I returned from my retreat, I found that my mother had become mentally ill again. Up until now, I have been notoriously unkind to her during her bouts of illness. As a child and younger adult I felt angry at my mother for not taking her medication, and bringing such suffering to everyone around her, not just herself.

This time, things were different. I was much more understanding of my mum. I felt more tolerance towards her. It wasn’t always easy: sometimes the old anger would arise while I was sitting with my mother, so I would sing the Avalokiteswara mantra over and over in my head until I softened. This would always work, and allow me much greater empathy for my mum. As a result, I was much more able to help and support her through this difficult time, and she managed to come out of hospital much sooner and with much less stress than in the past.

I am extremely grateful to the Buddhist tradition and my teacher Didier Danthois for this incredible gift. I also had the support of a very loving and compassionate partner, Caroline, who is a care-worker. She has already achieved a very high level of compassion towards others, without any mediation.

Imagine if we could teach compassion practices like these to children who were bullies, or to prisoners?

Imagine how greater compassion could better your relationships with your family and work colleagues?

Imagine how we could all care for the environment and put an end to war if we all learned to develop greater emotional understanding of all living beings around us?