The Generous Heart: The Gift of Self-Compassion- Francis Weller

“You can search throughout the entire universe for someone who is more deserving of your love and affection than you are yourself, and that person is not to be found anywhere. You, yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection.” – Buddha


 At the heart of every spiritual tradition, we find the teaching of compassion. Through the gate of compassion, we are invited to enter the wider conversation with all life. Compassion binds us with all things through the shared encounter with suffering. Compassion: From the Latin, com patti, “to suffer with.” It is through our shared experience with loss, sorrow, and pain that we deepen our connection with one another and enter the commons of the soul. 

But how are we with self-compassion? Too often our caring is reserved for those outside of ourselves, as though we have not earned the right for kindness. We struggle with judgments and resist offering gestures of mercy to ourselves. Yet, every one of us knows loss and defeat, loneliness, and failure. We hurt and harm others, are hurt and harmed by others; we close our hearts to the world and often choose self-protection as a way of life. 

Bringing compassion to our suffering is an act of generosity. It helps us remember that we, too, are part of this breathing, pulsing world and worthy of compassion. We are reminded that, by the mere fact of our being here, we qualify for the soothing waters of compassion. We can then come out of our sheltered world of self-scrutiny and make our way back into the fuller embrace of our belonging. 

When I work with groups on the topic of self-compassion, I often begin by describing our time together as a project in “non-self-improvement.” So often our efforts at change in our lives mask subtle and not so subtle acts of self-hatred. We attack portions of our life with a vengeance, fully believing that our weakness or inadequacy, our neediness or our failures are the reasons for our suffering and if only we could be free of them, then we would enter into a state of perfection; all would be well. Our obsession with perfection is itself a strategy that we cling to, to overcome our feelings of being outside the wall of welcome. 

Giving up our muscular agendas of self-improvement is an act of kindness. It says that by befriending our life, we deepen our capacity to welcome what is, what comes, whoever arrives at the interior door of our soul’s house. We do not often get to decide who or what shows up to the “guest house,” as Rumi says, but we can cultivate an atmosphere of curiosity and receptivity. Self-compassion gradually becomes one of the basic elements of maturation. We slowly relinquish the harsh program of ridding ourselves of our outcast brothers and sisters for the sake of fitting in; we simply set another place at the table. 

This is not to say that we do not seek change. At a recent gathering, a man said to me, “I noticed that you don’t talk about progress in your work.” I said, “No. I don’t see the soul moving in a linear way, from Point A to Point B. Sometimes it moves downward or sideways, sometimes it regresses and at other times it holds still and does not move. Progress is one of our culture’s most cherished fictions, but it can do great harm when applied to the life of the soul. As soon as we are not moving forward or progressing, we feel something is wrong and that we are failing, so we redouble our efforts. What self-compassion offers us is the space and breath to listen and take notice of how our soul is moving in this moment; what it is asking us to pay attention to at this time.” 

He then asked if I was okay with having goals. I said, “Well, I’m not real comfortable with goals either, but if I had to use that language, I would say that the goal of this work is to extend the level of participation of the soul as widely and deeply as possible. One of the deepest sources of depression for the soul is a diminished range of participation in our life. To be fully alive; that would be the goal.” This is the change we truly long for. 

The foundations of self-compassion arise from the fertile ground of belonging. Belonging confers a feeling of worth and value, which in turn filters into our whole being as a blessing. This gently translates into a relationship with oneself that is respectful and caring. Herein lies our problem: For many of us, the experience of belonging has been fractured and frustrated. We often feel as though we are living outside the warmth of a recognizable welcome. In this state of exile and loneliness, we feel unworthy of compassion or kindness. I have heard countless times in my practice someone saying, “I feel unlovable.” It is particularly challenging to cultivate a feeling of compassion for oneself in an atmosphere of self-judgment and hatred. 

Nearly everywhere I go to teach, there is an ongoing call for some dressing to heal the wounds around belonging. Fortunately, most every one of us has been able to forge some friendships, small circles of welcome, even if we feel they are provisional. This can be enough to help stimulate the practice of self-compassion. One of the working definitions that I am playing with is that self-compassion is the “internalized village.” Pause for a moment and think about how we tend to respond to a friend who is suffering. Usually, we feel an immediate opening in our hearts of caring and sympathy towards their pain. We do not typically recoil in judgment or condemnation, and yet, that is often how we respond to our own moments of pain. Imagine instead, that these dear people in our lives are dwelling inside of us, that the little village in our world has been taken into our hearts. Now, when suffering arises, our interior friend can say to us, “Be gentle. Be kind. Be compassionate with this suffering part of your life.” It is soothing to imagine the village residing inside our chest. Perhaps the Golden Rule needs an addendum: “Do unto yourself as you would do unto others.” This pilgrimage of friendship towards our own life is essential to any move we wish to make into the larger and more fulfilling life that awaits us. 

Self-compassion is a fierce and challenging practice. Every day we are asked to sit with pieces of our interior world that lie outside of what we find acceptable and welcome. We must explore our learned responses to our places of suffering and actively engage these pieces of soul life. We have often treated these parts of ourselves with indifference, if not outright contempt. I recently invited a group of men to share in a ritual where we turned towards these outcast parts of our lives with compassion and apology. The ritual was deceptively simple. We placed five large stones on the ground near the base of an immense ancient oak. As I drummed and we all sang, men approached the stones and knelt on the ground and slowly lifted one of them off the ground. In their minds and imaginations, they were seeing an outcast brother lying under the stone. He had been weighed down under it and unable to stand upright again until this gesture of kindness was offered. Men wept as they lifted the stone off of these parts of themselves and slowly welcomed the fragments of life these brothers carried for them. It was beautiful and healing. 

Lifting the stones off the backs of these parts of our lives may help to restore what poet David Whyte calls a state of innocence. I cautiously use this term as well, not to insinuate some childlike state of purity, but to suggest that through self-compassion, we are offered the possibility of new beginnings. No part of us releases in a state of judgment. The overly critical mind creates a state of contraction, whereas compassion softens and makes possible a state of beginning, a fresh and unshaped ripeness. Rebecca del Rio offers this poem as an invitation to renewal and beginnings: 

Prescription for the Disillusioned

Come new to this
day. Remove the rigid
overcoat of experience,
the notion of knowing,
the beliefs that cloud
your vision.

Leave behind the stories
of your life. Spit out the
sour taste of unmet expectation.
Let the stale scent of what-ifs
waft back into the swamp
of your useless fears.

Arrive curious, without the armor
of certainty, the plans and planned
results of the life you’ve imagined.
Live the life that chooses you, new
every breath, every blink of

your astonished eyes.[1]

Self-compassion is not an event, but an ongoing daily practice. It is the root practice for our inner life and also for our relational lives. I remember giving many talks on shame and sharing how we want to be in loving relationships, while simultaneously hating ourselves. Our ability to receive love is proportional to our capacity to welcome all of who we are. Self-compassion is a skill that needs to be exercised and developed regularly in order for us to remain open and available to life. It is the gift of a generous heart. 

[1]  Rebecca del Rio’s beautiful poem is used with the author’s permission.


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Francis Weller, MFT, is a psychotherapist, writer, and soul activist. Author of The Wild Edge of Sorrow: Rituals of Renewal and the Sacred Work of Grief, The Threshold Between Loss and Revelation, (with Rashani Réa) and In the Absence of the Ordinary: Essays in a Time of Uncertainty, he has introduced the healing work of ritual to thousands of people. He founded and directs WisdomBridge, an organization that offers educational programs that seek to integrate the wisdom from indigenous cultures with the insights and knowledge gathered from Western poetic, psychological and spiritual traditions.

Francis’ writings have appeared in anthologies and journals exploring the confluence between psyche, nature, and culture, including “The Sun” magazine, the “Utne Reader”, “Kosmos Journal”, and “Ruminate”. Francis is currently on staff at Commonweal Cancer Help Program, co-leading their week-long retreats with Michael Lerner. He is currently completing his fourth book, The Alchemy of Initiation: Soul Work and the Art of Ripening.

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