This article was originally posted on April 17, 2019, then edited and updated on September 8, 2020.
For 3 months early in 2019 I tried out a protocol for a self-retreat. Not your usual “check in to a retreat center and be with yourself” retreat, but an “at home checking in regularly” kind of retreat. Bringing together what I understood about the need for regular awareness of my experience within a self-compassion practice, the influence of neurochemicals on my sense of happiness, and the power of connecting with myself in times of stress, I developed a way of being in retreat that worked with my daily life so that I didn’t need to remove myself to a retreat center to learn more about myself and find places of soothing.
This protocol has now become part of my daily practice. The process involves keeping a record of my stress and soothing responses every 15 minutes. I initially thought I’d become bored with myself, checking in every 15 minutes, but after practicing this for a while I found that there was a growing sense of connection and keeping myself company when I did this. Every 15 minutes I record my responses to these three questions: What do I feel? What do I need? What can I do (to respond to my need)? These three questions are called the Somatic Self-Compassion Touchstone Questions and in a Somatic Self-Compassion practice we return to these questions as regularly as we can.
One of the challenges of practice is remembering to do it, so this process is a way to remember. I set a timer on my phone to go off every 15 minutes and pause for a moment when the timer goes off, record my responses to these three questions, respond with a self-compassion practice when I’m feeling stress or by savoring when I’m feeling happy or neutral, and then move on with my day.
Stress levels through the day
Over a number of weeks doing this practice, I discovered some interesting things:
- I’m not suffering as much as I thought I was – my records suggest that about 15% of the time I’m experiencing some kind of stress.
- The majority of the time I’m in a state of engagement or flow – about 60% of my time is spent in this neutral state where I’m not feeling stress nor am I feeling noteworthy feelings of happiness.
- The balance of the time I’m engaged in some kind of rewarding activity (15%) or some kind of self-connecting activity (10%).
The effect of neurochemicals
What I’ve learned about our neurochemicals is that we’re not actually designed to be in a happy state all of the time – we’re designed to respond to needs which are either to protect ourselves from stress or move toward things that fulfill a need and make us happy. What that means for self-compassion practice is that we can practice self-soothing in times of stress and we can savor the times of happiness or lack of stress to get more value from them. For my practice, this means that I can savor my experience about 85% of the time when there are no dominant neurochemicals in my system and I’m feeling neutral, or the neurochemicals of oxytocin, dopamine, serotonin, or endorphin are dominant. I can also tend to myself about 15% of the time when cortisol is the dominant neurochemical I’m working with.
When there is no specific need to tend to in the moment, it’s a good idea to be engaged in something meaningful that is aligned with our strengths and values. When we are not engaged, our survival bias might tend to navigate our thoughts toward looking out for threats to our happiness in the absence of anything better to do. What I’ve learned about engagement or flow is that the more we can be in this state, the greater our sense of wellbeing. I’ve found that having a goal of achieving more engagement is more accessible than a goal of achieving more explicit happiness. When we can “settle” for neutral engagement rather than thinking there is something wrong with us for not being happier, then we’re starting to find that middle way that Buddhism talks about. And there is one school of thought that suggests that we experience little trickles of dopamine when we are in flow, as we are achieving little “wins” in every moment that we are successfully moving through a task.
The effect of the survival bias
What I’ve learned about the survival bias (also known as the negativity bias) is that it lead me to believe that I was less happy than I actually am. I thought that I was unhappy about 50% of the time, but in fact it’s only about 15%, which challenges my beliefs about myself, offers a different perspective on my state of wellbeing, and gives me more hope for longterm changes toward more happiness and engagement. Even over the course of my practice in those three months in 2019, I found a decrease in stress from about 30% of the time to 15% of the time – obviously these are not statistically rigorous numbers, but they suggest to me that the practice of simply noticing my state of being more in the day lead me to feeling more connected to myself and less unhappy. I have been keeping myself company more and more and abandoning myself less and less.
Given how useful this practice has been for my own self-compassion work, I’m happy to share this process with the community. My hope is that this kind of practice is accessible for those of us who don’t resonate with sitting in meditation on retreat for extended periods of time. This kind of retreat gives us the chance to go about our every day activities with the intention of a mindfulness retreat – to be more aware of what we are feeling, to connect with ourselves courageously more and more, and to respond to ourselves in a way that alleviates suffering or encourages savoring.
I’m offering guidance through this kind of retreat process online if you’re interested. If you’d like to express interest in a 3-hour online retreat following the format I’ve described above, please email email@example.com. I’ll hold these retreats whenever I can.
You can also try out a short version of this practice in the audio meditation, Three Somatic Self-Compassion Touchstone Questions Practice.
I hope I see you there!
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