Healing Our Pain with Loving-Kindness

A meditation to soothe your inner critic and care for yourself.

Last time, we dipped our toes into a practice that’s best defined as a kind, friendly presence that allows us to connect with pain rather than turn away from it. But that seems counter-intuitive, doesn’t it? Generally, when we come into contact with something painful or scary, our habitual tendency is to push it away, and to try to get away from it out of self-preservation. This is not your fault. This is biology.

We are the ancestors of the nervous animals, so achieving a kind of intimacy with our difficulties doesn’t exactly come naturally. It’s hard for us to imagine that the things we’ve been battling with our whole lives could be sources of awakening. And it’s so easy to judge our experiences, essentially holding it against ourselves that we are the way we are.

Add to that, the many ways to opt out of actually caring for ourselves in our contemporary culture. Maybe we worry we’re being self-indulgent or even come to see ourselves as inconveniences. It’s so easy to slip into judgment.

With compassion practice we open up to this tender space. And when that opening happens, we find there’s actually room for the life that’s right here, right now. So, I ask you to go easy on yourself as we venture into this territory of giving ourselves compassion.

We come by it all so honestly. But let’s explore: What is the real cost of being at war with ourselves, or some part of ourselves? And what does it really feel like when we wage that war? How much are our experiences bringing to us, and how much are we bringing to our experiences?

Consider this: Our response to whatever arises is where we put our attention—that’s what we actually have influence over. We can’t control what arises. We do have some power over where we place our attention.

Many practitioners talk about this in terms of the “second arrow.” That’s when we take something that’s already difficult and multiply that by our resistance to it. And this can be far more painful than the initial feeling itself.

This is the formula: Experience x Resistance = Suffering.

So, how do we hold ourselves with some compassion? “Suffering” is a really big word. In light of all that’s going on in the world, it’s easy to feel like we can dismiss what we’re dealing with personally. But I think we have to include ourselves and whatever difficulties we’re dealing with. The mind is always saying, “Well, at least, you know, at least…”—and you fill in the blank. At least it’s not this, at least it’s not that. I don’t know about you, but I can feel kind of bullied into gratitude when I’m not willing to meet what’s difficult with some compassion. Let’s accept, then, that resistance is normal. Resistance gets to be here, too.

Pain can be in our lives in countless ways—and all of it is difficult. Each one of us has been touched by grief, loss, countless struggles. Those things in and of themselves are difficult for many of us to navigate. But even harder than those things is when we regard what has happened, or is happening, as our fault.

We don’t have to defend our pain or judge ourselves. I see it with my two-year-old son. Sometimes he’s just screaming. Something is just really, really bothering him. It doesn’t matter what it is. I know what he needs. He needs a hug. He needs to be held. He needs care. He needs loving attention.

That’s what we’re going to do in this practice: hold ourselves with that same kind of care. We’re going to allow ourselves to kiss our own wounds the way we would for anyone we care about.

We start with a willingness to have contact with the pain and soften to it, not resist it. We do that by tuning into our body and the sensations that are present. Is there a temperature shift? A throbbing? Is it moving? Is there a centre; are their edges? Are there places that it’s not?

If it becomes overwhelming, we can allow our awareness to go to the part of our experience that’s not activated. We can visit where this pain lives in our bodies, and we can come back to a place of calm if it gets to be too much.

Bringing our curiosity to this is key. Not “why is this happening to me?” or the story we might be building around it, but what is the felt sense of this pain? This is the power of mindfulness—the ability to cultivate a clearer view of what’s coming up and therefore not be blindsided by it or lost in it.

We’re looking for two components in this practice, then: willingness and seeing clearly. Simply put, when we bring compassion home to include ourselves, our job is to honor the hurt. This isn’t easy. In fact, it’s very rare for us to meet ourselves in that place. But if we don’t, we’re losing out on living a considerable portion of our lives.

As we talked about last week, the plan here is to widen our circle of care as we go. We started with those dearest to us; now we’re going focus on ourselves. Next week we will hold neutral people in mind and then we’ll hold everyone, including difficult people. I love the sequence, but sometimes I feel like when I’m practicing, I can be all four of those categories of people. Sometimes I’m an easy person to care about. Sometimes it’s difficult to hold myself with compassion. Sometimes I feel pretty neutral.

I encourage you to reflect on when you feel you need love the most. For me, it’s particularly when I mess up. And when we don’t feel like we can meet ourselves, isn’t that when we really see what kind of lovers we are? Is it conditional—is it as long as I act right? What we want to do here is widen the berth of where we’re willing to meet ourselves.

I want to re-emphasize here: It’s important not to use any part of the practice to judge ourselves. What we’re trying to do is give ourselves a pardon. This is how we can meet ourselves where we feel most unmet.

I find it helpful to note what’s arising as I’m doing this compassion practice. It helps me to see better what my relationship is to that pain. This also helps me to see this as something that’s passing through my awareness. It’s not who I am. I find that distinction very helpful.

To put it another way, we’re trying not to take any of this personally. We realize we can practice with just about anything if we’re not taking it personally. Whether it’s stress, frustration, pain: nothing has to be outside our care. Maybe we feel like we’ve been through too much pain, or not enough—it doesn’t really matter why we’re in pain, just that we can acknowledge that there is stuff that is painful.

Remember, too, that we’re inviting spaciousness around this pain we’re finding. The pain is not the only thing happening here. This is the alchemy of presence. It helps us approach the very difficulties that we’ve been desperately trying to avoid so that they can become the sources of our awakening, of our wisdom, of equanimity.

OK, let’s stop reading the menu and eat some of the food.

Directing Compassion Towards Ourselves

Watch the Video:

Listen to the Audio:

Directing Compassion Towards Ourselves

  • 16:53

Follow the Practice:

  1. Allow your awareness to turn inward. Soften the gaze. Soften the body.
  2. Let’s set the intention to just meet ourselves, and whatever arises, with warmth and affection. Again, I’ll offer a poem. These are the words of Bob Sharples: “Don’t meditate to fix yourself, to heal yourself, to improve yourself or redeem yourself. Rather do it as an act of love, of deep, warm friendship with yourself. In this way, there is no longer any need for the subtle aggression of self-improvement or the endless guilt of not doing enough. It offers the possibility of an end to the ceaseless round of trying so hard that wraps so many people’s lives in knots. Instead now there’s a meditation as an act of love.”
  3. Now imagine the person you were holding in compassion last week is now turning toward you with their compassionate gaze. First, reconnect with that felt sense of compassion you have for them: that you truly want to see them free from suffering. And let’s reconnect with those phrases that make the most sense to you: I care about your difficulties. May you be held in compassion. May your heart be at peace. That same person you held in mind last week is now acknowledging what’s hard for you. That same person is offering you the same tenderness, the same well wishes, that you offered them. They care about your difficulties. May you be held in compassion. May your heart be at peace.
  4. Allow yourself to take in their compassionate wishes as much as possible. Allow them to touch your heart.
  5. Now try to direct that same compassion to yourself. I care about my difficulties. May I be held in compassion. May my heart be at peace. You may find that what arises is what gets in the way for each of us. Again, this is not an excuse to judge ourselves or our experience. It’s clear where the love is needed. It needs to be applied to these barriers between us and this life. I care about my difficulties. May I be held in compassion. May my heart be at peace.
  6. Gently hold whatever it is that’s arising. Take time to get in the habit of planting these seeds of compassion.

Be on the lookout for where compassion arises in your life, in the day to day. Locate where compassion arises naturally and where it could use some cultivation. Try spending some time each day reflecting on your heart’s intention in this practice.


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About the author

Vinny Ferraro

Vinny Ferraro has been a practitioner of insight meditation (vipassanā) since the early 1990s. He is a co-Founder of the Dharma Punx and co-Guiding Teacher of Against the Stream Buddhist Meditation Society. He is also a nationally recognized leader in designing and implementing interventions for at-risk adolescents and is currently Senior Trainer for Mindful Schools. In 1987, he began leading groups in drug rehabilitation centers, juvenile halls, and halfway houses. In 2001, he began teaching for Challenge Day, a nationally recognized, social & emotional learning program, eventually becoming their Director of Training and leading workshops for over 110,000 youth on four continents. Vinny is also a board member and former Training Director of the Mind Body Awareness Project and is the principal author of MBA’s mindfulness-based curriculum for incarcerated youth. Vinny has received national media coverage for his work with adults and youth; his work is the subject of the MTV series “If You Really Knew Me…”