Cultivating mindful self-compassion through meditation is a transformative practice for coping better with chronic pain, and its related emotional stress. Read on to find out how to show yourself some much-needed love through self-compassion mindfulness.
What is compassion? It’s the natural response of love and kindness we feel towards a person who is suffering. Compassion is like a close friend who walks alongside you while you go through a difficult time. In compassion meditation you focus on being kind to the person who is experiencing suffering, rather than on the suffering itself.
Self-compassion means learning to befriend yourself. Researcher Kristin Neff (2011) has identified three elements of self-compassion—self-kindness, mindfulness, and common humanity. Self-kindness means reacting with warmth and understanding to your own flaws and mistakes. By adopting this attitude, you treat yourself like a friend experiencing a setback, rather than a critic evaluating a performance.
Mindfulness in self-compassion involves accepting the temporary and changing nature of your own thoughts and feelings. You are acknowledging that they come and go like clouds in the sky. When you remind yourself that your thoughts and feelings are shared by other people who experience similar situations, you connect your experiences with common humanity. Saying to yourself, “I’m only human, just like everyone else,” instead of feeling alone in the world with your misfortunes, offers relief and comfort.
The Science of Compassion Meditation for Chronic Pain Management
Cultivating self-compassion can help reduce pain, improve mental wellbeing, and increase your confidence in your ability to manage your pain, according to several studies.
Compassion meditation can reduce chronic low back pain, according to a pilot trial (Carson et al., 2005). Compared to standard care, individuals who took part in the eight week compassion meditation program had lower levels of pain, distress, anger and tension.
Similarly, participants in the nine week compassion meditation course reported a moderate reduction in their pain severity (Chapin et al., 2014), which is in line with reductions of pain ratings reported for studies of cognitive behavioural therapy. Importantly, participants, and their caregivers, also reported a decrease in negative emotional states, like anger, by the end of the program.
In 2012, a study found that people with musculoskeletal pain who reported increased feelings of self-compassion also experienced higher levels of positive mental states and confidence in their ability to cope with pain (Wren et al., 2012). Although more research is needed, compassion meditation is a promising practice for pain management.
How To Practice Self-Compassion Meditation
When you practice compassion meditation it is based on a Buddhist practice called “loving-kindness meditation.” The basic purpose of loving-kindness is to learn to meet your everyday life experiences with compassion and understanding.
In loving-kindness meditation, the focus of awareness is the silent repetition of specific phrases in your mind (rather than your breath). Mentally repeat the phrases, pausing in between to breathe, while focusing on your heart region, or putting your hand over your chest. Repeat this process several times. If you feel a struggle with any of the lines, substitute your own wording. I have adapted the classic phrasing for life with chronic illness.
- May I be safe – (a wish for safety in the first line because being free from danger is a prerequisite for well-being)
- May I be peaceful – (a wish for equanimity in the midst of the unpredictability of chronic illness)
- May I embody love and kindness – (this is a wish to be compassionate to our bodies, even if they suffer, and ourselves)
- May I live with ease – (a wish for daily grace in our lives, a lessening of our burdens and struggles)
If you have trouble believing you deserve compassion, try this modification on the practice: visualize a pet, child, or person you easily care for. Begin saying the loving-kindness phrases for them– May you be safe… Now, visualize yourself with the pet or person and say the phrases for you both – May we be safe… Finally, say the phrases of loving-kindness for yourself – May I be safe…
During the meditation you might sometimes feel care and kindness towards yourself. At other times you may feel neutral, or resistant. Loving-kindness meditation is about developing an overall attitude of goodwill towards yourself, not to generate good feelings in the moment. Think of saying the phrases in meditation as planting a seed to cultivate future compassion towards yourself. Self-compassion mindfulness meditation is about befriending yourself. This allows you to meet your pain or emotional distress with awareness, kindness, and love.
Carson, J. W., Keefe, F. J., Lynch, T. R., Carson, K. M., Goli, V., Fras, A. M., & Thorp, S. R. (2005). Loving-Kindness Meditation for Chronic Low Back Pain: Results From a Pilot Trial. Journal of Holistic Nursing, 23(3), 287–304. https://doi.org/10.1177/0898010105277651
Chapin, H.L., Darnall, B.D., Seppala, E.M., (2014). Pilot study of a compassion meditation intervention in chronic pain. Journal of Compassionate Health Care, 1(4),1-14. https://doi.org/10.1186/s40639-014-0004-x
Neff, K., 2011. Self-compassion. New York, NY: William Morrow.
Wren, A. A., Somers, T. J., Wright, M. A., Goetz, M. C., Leary, M. R., Fras, A. M., Huh, B. K., Rogers, L. L., & Keefe, F. J. (2012). Self-compassion in patients with persistent musculoskeletal pain: relationship of self-compassion to adjustment to persistent pain. Journal of Pain and Symptom Management, 43(4), 759-770. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jpainsymman.2011.04.014
For additional pain management tools review the Mayv Program app. It features a collection of evidence-based courses designed to show you how to manage chronic pain naturally through the power of mindfulness. Try the foundation course for free.