"There's a crack in everything. That's where the light gets in."
- Leonard Cohen
"Life sucks!" OK, it isn't the most elegant way of putting it, but sometimes this might really express how we feel. The Buddha had a different way of saying it. He called it "The First Noble Truth", the noble truth that points to the unsatisfactoriness of existence. But this is not definitive of ALL there is. The Buddha's third noble truth states that there is an end to suffering. To get from step one to three requires an understanding of the cause of our distress and that doesn't always happen as quickly as we would like it to.
In our fast food culture, we want results immediately, but this isn't how quality happens, whether it's with food, a relationship or a life. Just knowing that something better is possible doesn't mean it's going to automatically happen or that we can will it to manifest. Sometimes we just have to hang out in the messy middle, pause and wait for the murkiness to clear. This is not what we want to hear and the last thing we want to do. No better time to bring out our self-compassion mantra. We start with ourselves because this is what is needed before we can effectively reach out to others.
You can make up a self- compassion mantra using your own words, but it needs four parts. First, the acknowledgment of pain, i.e. "This is tough right now", or "This hurts", or "I'm struggling". Along with whatever words we choose to acknowledge the pain that is present, we need to feel it in our bodies. Where does it hurt? Does it change, vibrate, pound or just weigh like a ton of bricks on your chest?
Secondly, welcome yourself to the human club: "Life is like this sometimes", "I'm not the only one who struggles with this", or "Life as a sensitive being is not easy". By saying this, you are not dismissing the pain or trying to rise above it. You are expanding your perspective so that you see that it's not all about ME (which is what makes the story so painful in the first place).
The third step is to invite in compassion. By opening to a loving, accepting space around the object, it no longer seems so all-encompassing. We begin to see that experience is a series of waves within a vast ocean. As we rest in this ocean of compassion, the feeling of drowning in the water can shift to one of being held and supported. However, in order to let in something new, we have to let go of something old. If we continue to hold onto our habits of fearful or anxious thinking, our mind will continue to obsess and feel stressed. Breathing slowly and deeply, our bodies can start to relax and our mind/heart can release into the place of our true belonging.
The last part of the compassion mantra is a short phrase that adds a comforting touch, i.e. "This too will pass." "I've been here before and made it through" or simply, "It will be okay." It's important not to jump to this phrase without going through the previous steps. That would be another fast food approach, also known as "spiritual by-passing". It's not about rosy platitudes or magic balms. We have to embrace the messy middle, ride the rumble and not opt for a convenient escape into our preferred coping strategy.
The result of doing this practice is transformative. Instead of reinforcing old habits of avoidance, complaining, self-pitying, judging others or bemoaning the world situation, we come face to face with what is happening in our direct experience both on a somatic/feeling level and on the level of thought and language. We acknowledge the pain, admit that this territory is part of being alive and open to what is bigger and more true than the stories we tell ourselves. We lean into the suffering in order to move through it - however long it takes - with compassion!
Send in your mantras and let's share them with each other.
Ayya Dhammadhira is a Buddhist monastic trained in the Thai Forest Tradition in lineage of Ajahn Chah. She spent eleven years at Amaravati and Chithurst Buddhist Monasteries in England from 2001-2012. In 2012, she took the higher ordination as a bhikkhuni in Los Angeles, CA. As an alms mendicant bhikkhuni living outside the support structure of a monastery, Ayya Dhammadhira relies on the ongoing support of individuals like you to continue her practice and service in community.