A Self-compassion practice for times of illness
This piece has been written by Mindfulness Chaplain, Dr Kitty Wheater.
In ordinary times, illness – when we have it – takes up space in our lives. It’s a material space: we have bodies that are tender and alive, and sometimes sick and painful. It’s emotional, too: fear and worry about symptoms waxing and waning, self-doubt over how much fuss to make. And it is cognitive: remembering to take certain pills; allotting time for treatments that are lengthy, for rest, or for other forms of self-care; picking up the phone to follow up an inquiry.
But in extraordinary times, all of this is amplified. Our lives have changed, and this shows up in experience of illness. Symptoms hang on, monitored for crisis, not cure, by your kind but disembodied doctor on the phone. Substitute drugs have different side-effects. Closed-down systems create frustration. People feel too guilty or afraid to take up medical resources: hospitals and GPs report a sharp drop in people seeking care, including a 50% drop in A&E attendance for heart attacks.
People are not just staying home to weather coronavirus; they are also trying to weather conditions and symptoms that in ordinary times, they would not. And so if you are currently experiencing illness, there is something important about meeting this with self-compassion: seeing both the symptoms, and the weathering, clearly; investigating them, gently; and then acting wisely to care for ourselves in the midst of these extraordinary times, as best we can. The meditation teacher Tara Brach’s RAIN practice – Recognise, Allow, Investigate, and Nurture – explores difficult experience with compassion and curiosity. You may find it helpful to close your eyes and follow along with Tara’s guided practice, or just to work through the steps below, perhaps writing down what you notice.
In this step, see if it’s possible to bring a sense of interest and inquiry to your symptoms in this moment. Notice if your mind immediately jumps to how they felt this morning, or yesterday, and gently bring it back. What do you notice, right now? There could be pain in a particular place in the body; dizziness; tension. If you are experiencing a mental health problem, you may notice rumination, exhaustion, anxiety, or low mood. Recognise, and name, gently, what is here. It could be a lot, or it could be less than you expected.
Take a moment to acknowledge and give space to what you have noticed. You might even say to yourself, internally, ‘ok, this is what the pain is like right now’; ‘ok, anxiety is here in this moment,’ as if you were speaking gently to a friend.
Allowing your symptoms to be as they are is not the same as being resigned to what you find. Rather, it opens up the possibility of fully acknowledging them. Whatever is here is already here – and to acknowledge this allows you to see your reality clearly, with some compassion.
When we give space to what is here, it enables us to discern how we have been relating to it up until now. We may have been distracting ourselves, or putting off action; we may have been stuck in fear, with various possible outcomes playing across the mind. Self-critical thoughts sometimes come up, or, in the midst of COVID-19, particular fears or frustrations around medical treatment.
Right now, you may spot your mind’s preferred flavour of reaction flickering again in awareness. Name it: ‘distraction’; ‘imagining the worst’. Where does this show up in the body? Investigate this with some curiosity. You may have a sense of tension, or bracing. The body may be flooded with energy, or be heavy and listless. Take a moment to listen, sitting quietly with what you find.
After recognising how things are in this moment, seeing what they’re like, and investigating gently, you might ask yourself: what does this need? Allow the question to land, and see what comes to mind. As I’ve written elsewhere, ‘While denial mind would have us continue on autopilot, and panic mind would have us do the biggest thing imaginable, often the small things are powerful: remembering to eat lunch, or drink a cup of tea; a phone-call to a friend, or a particular action or conversation.’
Sometimes, insight emerges with startling clarity. But the question ‘what does this need’ can echo, repeatedly, for as long as it feels helpful in this exploration. It may be that you start by responding in some small way, and that that opens up space, when you ask the question again, for some bigger decision or step.
As you give yourself this space to settle, and discern what your situation most needs, remember that self-compassion is a practice. It may not come immediately, or easily. That’s why it’s helpful to set an intention to be kind to yourself, even when you don’t feel it, because this orients you in a new direction, with scope for travel. Sometimes self-care means knowing that it is time to harness the care of others: asking for medical help when we are unsure; speaking honestly with friends and family; leaning on structure, like the guiding steps of RAIN, for reflection. Remember, too, that we may not have all the answers right now, but that things will unfold; and if we stay connected to what is here, we will be able to act wisely, with the information we have, to look after ourselves.