Loving your Neighbour As Yourself & Mindful Self-Compassion

One of Jesus’ most important psychological statements is often the most ignored and misunderstood. In Mark 12:33 Jesus says, ‘love your neighbour as yourself.’ The love we are called to is modelled on God’s love, and he is compassionate, ‘The LORD is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love’ (Psalm 145:8). Jesus offers a coherent psychology in his teaching, and so a foundational Christian psychological statement, ‘loving your neighbour as yourself,’ can be interlinked with Jesus command about not judging, ‘Do not judge, and you will not be judged’ (Luke 6:37). It can also be linked to the importance of a self-examination that is clear seeing, ‘How can you say to your brother, 'Brother, let me take the speck out of your eye,' when you yourself fail to see the plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye’ (Luke 6:42, my italics).

Together these statements create an integrated view of life that recognizes our interconnectedness as human beings, the importance of self-compassion in order to be truly able to love our neighbours, and a clear seeing of our own internal life uncoloured by distorted judgement. Too often, Christians have regarded these ideas with suspicion. I often hear Christians saying, ‘But Shaun, if we don’t judge other people and tell them what’s wrong with them, how will they change?’

Jesus’ teaching shares similar elements with a construct from Buddhist psychology that is deeply influencing Western psychology – self-compassion. Psychologist Kristen D. Neff defines self-compassion as ‘being touched by one’s own suffering, generating the desire to alleviate one’s suffering and treat oneself with understanding and concern.’[1] She suggests three interacting components in self-compassion, ‘self-kindness versus self-judgement, a sense of common humanity versus isolation, and mindfulness versus over-identification when confronting painful self-relevant thoughts and emotions.’[2] In two important developments within the world of therapy Paul Gilbert with others has developed compassion-focused therapy (CFT), and Neff has developed Mindful Self-Compassion (MSC).[3] CFT is being used to treat ‘eating disorders, bipolar disorder, depression, shame and other psychological conditions.’[4] Neff has developed MSC to work with the general public as well as some clinical populations.[5]
There is an overlap between mindfulness and compassion, although mindfulness-based therapies spend most of their focus on developing mindfulness – in MSC the focus is more on teaching the skills of self-compassion.[6] In mindfulness-based therapies the focus of the mindfulness is on the experience, in MSC it is on the experiencer (the self).[7]
 
Jesus also emphasizes loving-kindness to self, points out our common humanity with our neighbour and puts forward a form of mindfulness in his advocacy of a clear seeing of our own thoughts and feelings. It can also be said that he recognizes the importance of giving compassion to others, self-compassion, and presumably receiving it from another who perceives us as their neighbour. Jesus also suggests that this can form part of our identity, in Luke 6:36 he says, ‘You must be compassionate, just as your Father is compassionate.’ This compassion is different to self-esteem, and Neff distinguishes her idea of self-compassion from self-esteem, as she says – ‘self-esteem is often based on self-enhancement and downward social comparisions and can lead to prejudice, ego-defensive anger and narcissism.’[8]
 
Paul Gilbert and Neff recognize these same elements, that we see in Jesus’ teaching, when they define compassion, ‘When used as a psychotherapy, the cultivation of compassion has different components according to whom it is directed. These are the capacity to experience compassion for others, compassion from others and self-compassion.’[9]
 
However, self-compassion is also often misunderstood, feared and viewed with suspicion within general culture, often out of people’s awareness. I was surprised recently when I realised I was afraid to enter into happiness, in case it was taken away from me. There are different reasons for this, and Gilbert explains one of them, ‘they see compassion as a weakness or indulgence…’[10]
 
But also our formative experiences growing up play a big part in how we are as adults, ‘Now, of course, any therapist will tell you that if people come from traumatic backgrounds, where they have been abused, bullied, or neglected, it is only natural that anything that begins to stimulate a feeling of ‘connectedness’ is going to be problematic.’[11]
 
The following question outlines the problem from the perspective of attachment theory:
 -- We are biologically set up to want to form loving relationships and attachments (initially with our parents) and to be calmed and soothed by them. However, what happens if this system is activated but then the people who are supposed to provide you with love and support, don’t, or even worse, they actually harm or threaten you?[12]
 
What happens is something that should be welcomed, compassion from another, is feared, ‘It’s when these forms of neglect become regular, persistent or intense, that our body memory is coded with the idea that ‘getting close to people will hurt me.’[13] It also means that we can learn not to trust self-compassion.
 
Jesus’ command to love our self as our neighbour takes on even more significance in the light of this research. There are other reasons for bringing this command centre-stage and rediscovering the importance of self-compassion. Our relationship with our own self in terms of health can be undermined or enhanced, depending on our own self-compassion, as Gilbert points out, ‘It has long been known that self-dislike and self-criticism are significant vulnerability factors for depression  whereas developing affiliative and compassionate feelings and attitudes towards oneself are associated with well-being and coping.’[14] There is compelling evidence for this.
 
But there are other reasons and more evidence for developing self-compassion. In various mindfulness approaches there are befriending or compassion meditations. These again have their roots in Buddhist tradition of metta, or loving-kindness meditations. These would include compassion for oneself, a stranger and even someone we find difficult. They are used in MSC.
 
What is very important is the neuroscientific evidence that supports how these meditations change the structure and activity of the brain for the better. Summarizing research by Barbara Fredrickson at the University of North Carolina with those who had just done seven weeks of loving-kindness meditation, Christopher Germer says the meditation:
-- significantly increased positive emotions (such as love, joy, gratitude, hope, amusement, awe), as well as a range of personal resources such as mindfulness, problem-solving ability, savouring the future, environmental mastery, self-acceptance, purpose in life, social support received, positive relations with others, and physical health.[15]

Of course, loving-kindness and compassion play a central part in Christianity as well. As I looked at these metta meditations I was struck by their similarity to the prayer of Ananias of Damascus for Saul of Tarsus. What we have failed to do, as Christians, is develop meditations out of such stories and passages which focus on compassion, although as Andrew Newberg points out in his book How God Changes Your Brain, ‘meditating on any form of love, including God’s love, appears to strengthen the same neurological circuits that allow us to feel compassion for others.’[16] Research also shows intentionally cultivating self-compassion stimulates parts of the brain associated with compassion more generally.’[17]
 
In chapter nine of the Book of Acts in the New Testament, Saul has his famous Damascus Road experience. He is on his way to Damascus to arrest followers of The Way (Christians) when he is arrested by the risen Lord Jesus Christ.
 
Temporarily blinded, Saul is led into Damascus. A man there called Ananias has a vision from God who asks him to go and pray a prayer of blessing on Saul which will restore his sight and fill him with the compassionate presence of God, the Holy Spirit.
 
Ananias questions the wisdom of praying for a stranger and an enemy, but God encourages him out of the way of fear into the way of love. It is clear that the prayer of Ananias has a significant impact on Saul. When Saul talks about his encounter with Jesus, which includes the prayer of Ananias when scales fell from his eyes and he is filled with the Holy Spirit, he says he has had three important experiences.
-- ‘Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me’ (Philippians 3:12). The word here for ‘took hold’ is literally ‘arrested’. On the road to Damascus the love of Christ took hold of him.
 
When the scales fell from his eyes he ‘saw the light’. In 2 Corinthians 4:6 he says:
-- For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.
 
This reference to light shining out of darkness goes back to Genesis 1:3 where God said, ‘Let there be light.’ So Saul was taken hold of by the love of Christ, and the light of the love of God shone in his heart. He then says in 1 Timothy 1:13–14:
 
Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief. The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.
 
The compassionate mercy, grace and love of God were poured into Paul like an overwhelming river.
 
I felt in part that these experiences were because of Ananias’ prayer of befriending and compassion. So I have put them in prayer form that we can pray first for ourselves, then for a stranger, for our family and friends, then for an enemy, and finally for ourselves again. Of course, Jesus himself asks us to be compassionate towards strangers and to love our enemies (Matthew 10:42, Luke 6:27). Praying these phrases in a repeated way make them a compassion meditation.

These are the prayers:
-- May the love of Christ take hold of me;
-- May the light of Christ shine in my heart;
-- May the love of Christ flow through me like a river.
 
and then:
-- May the love of Christ take hold of him/her;
-- May the light of Christ shine in his/her heart;
-- May the love of Christ flow through him/her like a river.
 
Change is laid down in our neural pathways by a succession of fresh experiences of love. In our prayer of blessing and befriending, something real happens. It enables face-to-face meetings to be more holistically relational. It also enables us to face within ourselves parts of ourselves that we don’t like, or that we think God might not like. It also enables us to face those whom we find difficult or who might be angry with us, or even hate us. This is also a mindful meditation in that we are focusing on reality, turning towards difficulty and not over-identifying with our negative emotions but recognizing them and letting them go.
 
As Christian communities we need to practice compassion and teach self-compassion, we need to engage with mindfulness. We need to inform people about compassion-based therapies like CFT and MSC, as well as mindfulness-based therapies like Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT). We need to train in such therapies, and mine the rich resources on compassion and mindfulness within the Christian tradition to create new therapies and meditations. At the heart of Jesus’ teaching is an emphasis on love and compassion, he is not a fear-based teacher. Love matters, and love does, literally, change us – for the better.
 

References

 

[1] Kristin D. Neff, and Christopher K. Germer, “A Pilot Study and Randomized Controlled Trial of the Mindful Self-Compassion Program,” Journal of Clinical Psychology 69, no. 1 (January 2013): 28-44, accessed February 24, 2015, http://dx.doi.org/10.1002/jclp.21923.
[2] Neff, 28.
[3] Neff, 30.
[4] Neff, 30.
[5] Neff, 30.
[6] Neff, 30.
[7] Neff, 29.
[8] Neff, 31, see J.M. Twenge and W.K. Campbell, The Narcissims Epidemic (NY: Free Press, 2009).
[9] Paul Gilbert et al, “Fears of Compassion in a Depressed Population Implication for Psychotherapy,” Journal of Depression & Anxiety 2, no. 3 (2014): accessed March 2, 2015, http://dx.doi.org/10.4172/2167-1044.S2-003, 1.
[10] Gilbert et al, 2.
[11] Paul Gilbert and Choden, Mindful Compassion (London: Robinson, 2013), 156.
[12] Gilbert, 160.
[13] Gilbert, 161.
[14] Gilbert et al, 2.
[15] Christopher K. Germer, the mindful path to self-compassion (New York: The Guilford Press, 2009), 143.
[16] Andrew Newberg and Mark Robert Waldman, How God Changes Your Brain (New York: Ballantine Books, 2010), 53.
[17] Neff, 39.
 

Shaun Lambert, 27/03/2015