For the last 3 months I’ve been on a retreat of sorts. Not your usual “check in to a retreat center and be with yourself” retreat, but an “at home noticing and tending regularly” kind of retreat. Bringing together what I understand 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’ve developed a way of being in retreat that works with my daily life so that I don’t need to remove myself to a retreat center to learn more about myself and find places of soothing.
My 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 am I feeling? What do I need? What can I do (to respond to my need)?
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, and then move on with my day. I take a break from this when I am in a social situation.
Over a number of weeks, I’ve 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 rest of the time I’m engaged in some kind of rewarding activity (15%) or some kind of self-connecting activity (10%).
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 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 to get more value out of them.
When there is no specific need in the moment, it’s a good idea to be engaged in something meaningful that is aligned with our strengths and values because our survival bias might tend to navigate us toward feeling stress in the absence of anything better to do. What I’ve learned about engagement/flow is that the more we can be in this state, the greater our sense of wellbeing. If we focus more on a goal of more engagement rather than more explicit happiness, the goal becomes a bit more accessible. And 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.
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 might have thought that I was unhappy 50% of the time, but in fact it’s only about 15%, which challenges my beliefs about myself, gives me better perspective on my state of wellbeing, and gives me more hope for longterm changes toward more happiness and engagement and less unhappiness. Even over the course of my practice in these three months, I’ve 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, and to encourage the intention of retreat – to be more aware of what we are feeling, to connect with ourselves courageously more and more, and, depending on what we need, to respond in a way that alleviates suffering or encourages savoring of pleasant experiences.
I’m offering guidance through this kind of retreat process online if you’re interested. On April 27 we’ll spend 3 hours connecting via video conference to practice together. I’ll offer a structure for this retreat to support community members in trying this out for themselves. I’m very interested to see what our group experience is like. You can find out more here.
I hope I see you there!
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