Self-compassion is an area we will continue to visit often in this group as it is something helpful for us all to practice and something we generally struggle to do, so encouragement and reminders to be self-compassionate are helpful.

Compassion literally means to ‘suffer with’ and is an active word, implying movement, a rising up to alleviate suffering. The group spent some time reflecting on how they feel towards others when suffering and experiencing that sense of feeling moved to alleviate suffering. When asked about practising self-compassion, group members continued to talk only about others. This was noted! People were able to identify a strong expectation of perfectionism within themselves which could lead to self-criticism in ways they would not expect from or criticise others.

Kristin Neff’s component explanation of self-compassion of self-kindness versus self-criticism was presented. She puts it this way, in her website

“Self-compassion entails being warm and understanding toward ourselves when we suffer, fail, or feel inadequate, rather than ignoring our pain or flagellating ourselves with self-criticism.  Self-compassionate people recognize that being imperfect, failing, and experiencing life difficulties is inevitable, so they tend to be gentle with themselves when confronted with painful experiences rather than getting angry when life falls short of set ideals. People cannot always be or get exactly what they want. When this reality is denied or fought against suffering increases in the form of stress, frustration and self-criticism.  When this reality is accepted with sympathy and kindness, greater emotional equanimity is experienced.”

Research into self-criticism and self-compassion have shown that self-criticism increases anxiety whereas self-compassion can decrease anxiety. We considered the three systems approach used in Compassion Focused Therapy to understand this more, from Getselfhelp

Group members identified a strong identification with an active threat system and less so with the soothing system.

Each time we tried to talk about how to be self-compassionate, people started talking about compassion for others. Indeed it is the full vision of compassion focused therapy that all; ourselves and others, are treated compassionately. However the deflection from self-compassion to compassion for others was explored. What we discovered was a well documented feeling of resistance towards the practice of self-compassion because of deeply ingrained self-criticism, and that the idea of kindness caused an unwelcome emotional response and began to expose painful experiences of being criticised, hurt, let down and having trust betrayed by others.

Kristin Neff compares this reaction to self-compassion as a backdraft:

“Some people find that when they practice self-compassion, their pain actually increases at first. We call this phenomena backdraft, a firefighting term that describes what happens when a door in a burning house is opened – oxygen goes in and flames rush out. A similar process can occur when we open the door of our hearts – love goes in and old pain comes out.”

Group members were keen to learn how to be more self-compassionate, so we introduced the ‘Compassion break exercise’. This is a nice way to start practising self-compassion because it allows us to start thinking about how to be kind and care for ourselves as we start to notice and identify having a moment of suffering. This could be anything such as feeling acute loneliness, words spoken that really stung us, feeling left out of something, or feeling horrible about things said and regretted in an argument.

You can find the exercise here: Self-compassion Break

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Guilt and Forgiveness

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We began the group discussion looking at how sensitive we are to feeling guilt by exploring a couple of scenarios;

If you received too much change in a shop and kept it without saying anything, how uncomfortable would you feel about this?…

This led to a discussion about guilt in relation to values, moral relativism and context. Levels of guilt depended on whether it was a big store or a local shop and whether the individual cashier was considered.


You shared a friend’s secret, and even though they never found out, do you now take extra extra care when keeping secrets? There was a common consensus with this scenario that people would feel terrible guilt about breaching confidence.

Forgiveness is a helpful relative of guilt and so we spent some time looking at ideas shared about this topic from writers including; C.S Lewis, R.T Kendall, Lewis B. Smedes, Pema Chodron, Corrie ten Boom and a podcast from P’s and G’s church Edinburgh.

Sometimes the news takes an interest when we hear of atrocities and where victims or families of victims say things like:

“The aggressor could be my son and I forgive him.  He was not in his senses.  I am a great believer, I forgive what he did.” (Man whose daughter and son-in-law were shot in a supermarket orphaning their children).

The above man chose to forgive. Forgiveness is not an easy choice. It is tough, challenging, demanding, and is not an easy option because we have to face what happened and be in the painful feelings.

We might hope we would be forgiving in the face of a great offence, or even a small one, but we don’t know how we react or what we would feel inside until something actually happens.

C.S Lewis said “Everyone thinks forgiveness is a good idea-until there is someone we need to forgive.”

Revenge can seem like an attractive option for dealing with the pain. Indeed when we watch TV, films and read books we may be routing for people to get their ‘just desserts’. There is a big difference however between revenge and justice. It is cautioned “Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.”

Lewis B. Smedes says: “Vengeance is a passion to get even. It is a hot desire to give back as much pain as someone gives you. The problem with revenge is that it never gets what it wants; it never evens the score. Fairness never comes. The chain reaction set off by every act of vengeance always takes its unhindered course. It ties both the injured and the injurer to an escalator of pain. Both are stuck on the escalator as long as parity is demanded, and the escalator never stops, never lets anyone off”.

Group members talked about their own experiences of forgiving and the weight it took off them. Some had also reconciled stating however that this can only occur when someone has taken responsibility for the wrong they have done; reconciliation must go hand in hand with truth.

We might be familiar with some very powerful stories of forgiveness, the power seems to be in the release experienced when we forgive. Although when we have been deeply hurt we feel angry and bitter, this can eventually become destructive, the person who suffers most from unforgiveness is us.

It is important to understand what forgiveness is and what it isn’t.

R.T Kendall suggests that forgiveness isn’t approving of what the person has done, or just pretending like it didn’t happen.  It does not mean excusing or justifying what they did and it doesn’t mean reconciling. The other person may be dead so we can’t always reconcile, or they may not be a safe person to be in contact with. But we can forgive.

Forgiveness affects us, not the other person.  Forgiveness is not denying what the other did, or denying the hurt and angry emotions we feel or denying the consequences. Forgiveness is not about forgetting-we may need to remember in order to forgive.  It’s not about ignoring the pain, the wrong or the hurt or taking it less seriously.

Forgiveness is being fully aware of what someone has done and yet still choosing to forgive them. Corrie ten Boom said: “Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart.”

Forgiveness is a conscious choice to keep no record of wrongs, a desire to keep it quiet. To stop telling the story to everyone. It is often tempting to talk about how outrageous they were and how deeply we feel hurt, forgiveness is a decision to stop doing this.  We recognised that when we hurt it is important to process it and to talk it through. But, resentment, where we literally re sense it, over and over again, feeling the pain with whoever will listen is generally not productive.  Forgiveness desires the idea that the other may forgive themselves. Those being forgiven often struggle to forgive themselves, it can be very difficult to believe someone else can forgive them.

We considered the unforgiveness we hold towards ourselves. When weighed with self-compassion and an understanding that all humans are flawed and have shortcomings this can start to make forgiveness easier than holding standards of perfection with expectations that no one should ever get it wrong. Recognising the common humanity that every one of us messes up sometimes can help us to be more compassionate and forgiving to self and others.

Group members talked about Brene Brown who we have spoken about in the group previously. Guilt, was discussed as a sometimes helpful emotion as it indicates we are doing something wrong, other people may refer to this sense as ‘conviction’ or conscience. Shame takes it all to a personal level, believing that we are wrong in our entirety as a person. Shame is not always helpful.

Forgiveness is a deliberate choice each and every day. It is also a process that can take time to process what happened and how we feel before we are ready and able to forgive.

Pema Chodron said: “My experience with forgiveness is that it sort of comes spontaneously at a certain point and to try to force it it’s not really forgiveness”.

Like boltcutters, forgiveness sets us free from being tied to what someone else did, the first person to feel delight at forgivness is you! You feel release when you choose to release them.

Lockdown survival kit

It is fair to say this is the first time that any of us have lived through a pandemic. As we have kept in touch as a group over the last few months, first by telephone and now online together we have shared with each other how we have managed time apart, time alone, ways to feel safe, connected and manage anxiety amidst the constantly changing landscape of culture, society and social interaction.

Nearly six months in to this new way of doing life is feeling quite wearisome for many as we look at how we settle in and adjust to perhaps a more long term societal change than we would have hoped. While most people would like Lockdown to come to an end, we are aware this time has allowed some of us the space to learn new skills like dancing, meditation and yoga alongside rediscovered activities such as reading, studying, walking and exploring local history, and baking.

In order to get through these challenging and uncertain times we looked at the different things people used in their own survival kits to get them to get through this period. A common thing in survival kits was the entertainment industry and how it provided a welcomed sense of escapism. It was also interesting to note how many people had a shared fondness for mafia movies and TV shows. People found them to be very exciting and were particularly fascinated by the dynamics of how family life and morals are shown. It was the strong emphasis on family and togetherness that was the appeal which perhaps feels quite poignant in a time of separation. Similarly people had been enjoying the radio for it’s feeling of companionship whilst isolated, and the range of topics offered to think about to stimulate thinking.

Outdoor coffee has become a real treat and people have found inner creativity and got more involved in photography and poetry with the extra space and time we all found to discover a little more about ourselves.

Group members, like most people have found new and different ways to stay connected, such as Zoom and WhatsApp. The common theme here shows how extremely important it is to have connection with others. Just knowing that someone cares can make all the difference.

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Mindfulness after the storm

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A couple of nights before the group met last week, residents of Edinburgh and neighbouring parts of Scotland encountered the most dramatic storms we have seen in quite some time.

We met online for a session on mindfulness, firstly defining mindfulness as:

“The awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgementally to things as they are” (Kabat-Zinn).

Group members spoke about their experience of mindfulness, some people commented how that they had sometimes found it hard to get into and hard to relax because of continually worrying. Some had found it useful and wanted to practise more exercises. We discussed how even slowing down the breath can help to calm our threat system.

We considered where our minds had predominantly been this morning before the meeting, whether in the past, present or the future, and where our minds were normally. We agreed that for the most part, being presently minded was most useful to us. Dwelling too much on past events could lead to rumination and low mood. Overthinking the future with all it’s unknown and uncertainties-especially during this pandemic, could create high levels of catastrophising and anxiety.

Being grounded in the present moment allows us to be focused, present and have joy in the moment. Mindfulness then, is acquiring the great but simple art of just noticing where we are, and possibly who we are, right now. Mindfulness also just watches where our mind goes off to, where it may drift and wander. When we are aware of this we can have more control over not being pulled in rumination or catastrophising or worry.

Because of the storm, internet connections were a bit intermittent, so some group members lost momentary connection with the group and had to connect back in again. Maybe this is a parallel with what can happen with mindfulness, where we drift off in thought and perhaps lose contact with our conscious mind for a moment, but then we notice and actively connect back to ourselves in the present moment. This is precisely what mindfulness is, noticing where our mind goes; sometimes it goes away because it needs to attend to something else.

We used an exercise today to practise being aware of our ‘self’ observing our thoughts, feelings, sensations and motivations. Learning to observe these parts allows us to step back and objectively realise that we do not need to be taken over by an emotion or thought process and we can start to take a little more control of our state by increasing this awareness.

It is maybe important to acknowledge that dwelling in the present may sometimes be painful and stressful if we are in crisis. However, a self-compassionate response to our pain with empathy, understanding and caring for what we need in the moment may help us to face rather than avoid difficult times.

It’s like all the chaotic energy firing around in a thunder storm, it needs be discharged to find ground and be earthed. Likewise for us, sometimes the way to calm the storm is to put our feet on the ground and take a few deep breaths and see where we are and what we need right in this moment.

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What we may be

In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Ophelia says “Lord, we know what we are, but not what we may be.” This quote points to future possibilities and potential being unknown. For Ophelia and Hamlet, whose lives were written by someone else, namely Shakespeare, they didn’t get much say over how things turned out for them. However, we can create our own narrative in life. Piero Furrucci took forward a passion, believing that visualisation and imagination can change and determine our situations; that through, love, kindness and creativity, lives may be transformed. In this week’s group we used one of Ferrucci’s visualisation exercises together. The exercise allowed us to meet a part of ourselves (as we all have many parts, for example, the part that wants to go for an early morning walk each day and the part that wants to sleep in). Ferucci’s exercise allowed us to meet a part and find out a bit more about it.

Our group experiences included finding perfectionist parts, and seeing that perhaps things did not always have to be exact. Some found parts that were looking for nurture and care and realised the ways this could be achieved, some realised the part that would like to just relax and be, and others found a hope in future possibilities.

When we find a part of ourselves, and what it might need and start to be kind to it, this will hopefully help us to be less critical towards the parts of ourselves that we feel uncomfortable with and try to avoid. If we find out what the part needs, we can transform that part through our understanding of it.

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More lighthearted jokes from group members!

Fun is an important part of our well-being

“Don’t buy anything with velcro, it’s a total rip off!”
“Hedgehogs eh? Why don’t they just share the hedge?!” 
“I’m not doing this stay at home thing for the good of my health you know!”
“Don’t buy a spider from the pet shop, you can get one cheaper from the web!”
“So without telling her, I swapped our bed for a trampoline, my wife hit the roof!”
“Today I built an electric fence around my house, my neighbour is dead against it!”
“I Wish I could get a job cleaning Mirrors, it’s just something I can see myself doing!” 
“Russian dolls eh? They’re so full of themselves!” 
I bought my friends an elephant for their room. They said “Thank you” I said ” Don’t mention it”!
“There’s no real training if you’re a bin man … you just have to pick up things as you go along!”
“I just wrote a song about a tortilla…well its more of a rap really!” 
“People are making apocalypse jokes…like there’s no tomorrow!” 

Enjoying Nature During Lockdown

In last week’s meeting online we discussed where we had been for walks during lockdown and what we had discovered or rediscovered and enjoyed during this time. Some had stayed quite close to home and in doing so discovered a great deal more about their locality than they had previously noticed. People had found new pathways, historical sites and places which brought peace and pleasure. Those who had ventured a little further had seen some more unusual wildlife, whilst others had become familiar with the birds which visited their garden. Wherever we had been it seemed that everyone had a bigger awareness of natural spaces and places of peacefulness.

Walking and getting out into nature are good for us in a myriad of ways. Physically walking increases heart rate, decreases blood pressure, boosts immunity, strengthens bones and aids sleep. Socially, walking allows us to have connection with our fellow human beings as we say hello, point to a beautiful sunset, comment on the wind or say hello to a waggy tailed dog. Group members commented that during lockdown people were more likely to say hello to each other on their daily walks, and hoped that this would be a feature that continues as restrictions are eased. Walking with another person facilitates open conversation and a mutual appreciation of the landscape and allows a physical rhythm of walking together. Walking is good for our mental health, it improves mood due to the release of endorphins.

If we are unable to physically go out walking, looking a picture of a calming natural scene reduces stress. Activities like looking at pictures, looking out of a window, going for a drive in nice scenery or virtual tours, sitting in a garden or growing flowers in a window box or feeding the birds are all beneficial.

Walking is also good for our brain health, as we walk and navigate we increase brain activity in different brain regions which helps us to problem solve and get creative.

Black Lives Matter Discussion

As a local group meeting in Edinburgh, separated by Lockdown, we have been delighted these last few weeks to connect again online. This has challenged some to the very edges of their technological abilities but we are very pleased with our achievements to have everyone up and running online. Well done!

Facing a computer screen with a myriad of buttons can be quite daunting when you don’t know what worldwide implications lie at the end of it. Pressing ‘send’, ‘post’, ‘agree’, ‘buy’, ‘leave’ can all hold a bit of anxiety.

Last week we took time to consider the impact of the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement which has been very significant during this time. Group members spoke of their rising awareness of racism in society, both explicit and implicit and expressed feelings of sadness and of anger upon learning more about the everyday injustices and suffering which people face in our society based on skin colour.

People spoke about the efforts they had gone to to find out more about people’s stories and experiences, and some had taken on the task of examining and becoming aware of unconscious biases passed down through family or society. We agreed that awareness and education are key, and just listening to how it is for people.

Ultimately we wish to see a world which does not divide itself according to race or colour, or for that matter, gender, age or sexuality, or football team or religion!

What is it going to be like coming out of lockdown?

We acknowledged there could be a lot of anxiety going into lockdown, time was required to settle in and readjust. And, maybe after a while we got used to the safety, the quiet and the spaciousness, or maybe not. As restrictions begin to ease, what may be facing us and what can help our transition?

Are there going to be new social politics to navigate? How do we feel when people get closer than 2 metres or start meeting up in large groups? During lockdown some people have felt very anxious about the behaviours of others, while for some the guidelines have felt too restrictive and have chosen not to follow them.

Perhaps we carry apprehension about how other people will behave as restrictions lift, or maybe we are ready to flick the switch and go out and hug the world again, or somewhere in between? How will we respond to other people’s behaviour and etiquette? The truth is that we can only be responsible for the way we behave and cannot control the behaviours of others no matter the injustice we may feel.

The hope is we can all learn from our lockdown experiences and have even more of an appreciation for our world and fellow human beings.

Acceptance and kindness are perhaps the way forward

Thinking of Places We Love to be together, while space is between us

This week through poetry we are considering a feature of Lockdown where we are together by telephone or online but we are missing our physical spaces where we meet together. The following poems remind us that we are still emotionally connected even though we are physically separated.

‘Places We Love’ by Ivan V. Lalic (extract)

Places we love exist only through us,
Space destroyed is only illusion in the constancy of time,
Places we love we can never leave,
Places we love together, together, together,
And is this room really a room or an embrace,
And what is beneath the window: a street or years?
And the window is only the imprint left by
The first rain we understood, returning endlessly,
And this wall does not define the room,
And this door leads into an afternoon
Which outlives it, forever peopled
With your casual movements as you stepped,
Like fire into copper, into my only memory;
When you go, space closes over like water behind you,
Do not look back: there is nothing outside you,
Space is only time visible in a different way,
Places we love we can never leave.

Scottish poet and former Makar, Liz Lochhead has written a poem specifically about Lockdown. It is called The Spaces Between.

To hear Liz explain the background to writing this poem and read her poem you can download the Radio 4 podcast here.