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How to soothe distressing emotions: exercises in compassion


Did you know that not only does compassion help to soothe distressing emotions, it actually increases feelings of contentment and well-being?


Throughout history people have sought to cope with a life that is often stressful and hard. We have actually known for some time that developing compassion for oneself and others can help us face up to and win through the hardship and find a sense of inner peace. However in modern societies we rarely focus on this key process that underpins successful coping and happiness and can be quick to dismiss the impact of modern living on our minds and well-being. Instead we concentrate on ‘doing, achieving’ and having’.


Compassion can be defined in many ways, but its essence is a basic kindness, with a deep awareness of the suffering of oneself and of other living things, coupled with the wish and effort to relieve it. Although humans can engage in intensely cruel and callous behaviour (and, looking back at human history, they often have), for more than 3,000 years, compassion has been understood to be one of the most important and distinctive qualities of the human mind. Not only has it been encouraged as a spiritual and moral pursuit in many religions, but compassion has also been seen as a major healing process for our turbulent minds and relationships.


Until relatively recently, the impetus for developing compassion and the way of doing it came primarily from spiritual and religious traditions. What is extremely exciting is that the last 30 years or so have seen the science of psychology and studies of the human brain begin to put compassion, caring, and pro-social behaviour centre stage in the development of well-being, mental health and our capacity to foster harmonious relationships with each other and the world we live in.


Exercise: Exploring the desire to be at peace


In this first exercise, we’ll explore your desire to be at peace with yourself. This is what you do. First, engage in a soothing, mindful breathing rhythm for about a minute. Adopt a relaxed posture. If you wish, work through your body, relaxing from your feet upwards while staying alert. Then make a half-smile, noticing how your facial muscles create a gentle, compassionate expression. Again, spend about a minute on this. Now allow your attention to come back to yourself. In Buddhist practice, there’s a focused exercise that is linked to developing loving kindness for the self – a friendly, caring motivation to be free from suffering. You imagine your heart area opening up and you gently repeat: ‘May I be well. May I be happy. May I be free from suffering.’ You imagine these phrases going into your heart area repeatedly.


Here’s an adaptation of that basic exercise:

  • Recognize yourself as a being created in the flow of life; like all of us, you’ve just found yourself here.
  • Now consider your deep and true desire to be at peace with yourself and have a kind and contented mind.
  • Focus on your desire to be free from suffering and in a state where you’ll experience full well-being.
  • Become familiar with what that desire feels like.
  • Focus on what it feels like to know within yourself that there’s a part of you that understands the struggles of the flow of life and really wants peaceful contentment.
  • Be clear to yourself that this part of you is wise and caring; it’s not the part that feels exhausted and thinks, ‘Oh yeah, anything for a rest – I’m knackered.’ The part that really wants peaceful contentment may recognize how tired you are but that part isn’t tired.

Try and spend as long as you can focusing on these. After you’ve practised for as long as is comfortable, write down any thoughts you’ve had in your compassionate journey notebook. Writing is useful for reflection and can also act as a memory or journey trail for you. What you might find interesting is whether you noticed any resistance to the idea of really wanting to be content and at peace – any thoughts that this is difficult to achieve or even that you don’t deserve to be peaceful, or fears of being peaceful, for example that you might miss out on other life opportunities or let your guard down. At this point, just note them with interest. Also jot down what it feels like to think that there’s a part of you that genuinely desires a state of well-being for yourself.


Exercise: Experiencing peaceful joyfulness


In the next imagery exercise, which you might want to try a few days later, imagine yourself experiencing a certain peaceful joyfulness – that is, not just being content and at peace but feeling more joyful and happy. This joyful feeling also links with our drive and energizing system. Happiness of this type relates to a slightly different balance or pattern of interactions between the drive/excitement and soothing/contentment systems than that which operates with contented peacefulness. It’s very useful to be aware of the kinds of thoughts that emerge during these exercises. When your mind wanders, just gently bring it back on task.


These exercises can be useful in themselves for stimulating brain patterns within us, but they can also be valuable because they illuminate interesting thoughts that may be blocking our path to personal well-being and developing self-compassion.