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My new spiritual practice: Is self-compassion really appropriate for Christians?

Tuesday May 30 2017

My new spiritual practice: Is self-compassion really appropriate for Christians?

Some Pharisees are trying to trick Jesus, and they bring a woman to him. They caught her in the act of committing adultery, and they ask Jesus about stoning her. Jesus says that only a sinless person can condemn her, and the crowd of accusers slips away. Jesus and the woman are left alone. He says to her, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again” (John 8:11).

Jesus does not condemn a woman who has broken God’s law and human laws. Yet, at the same time, he calls her to be her best self in the future. We get into trouble because of the challenge of balancing these two components of his answer. Many of us were influenced by parents and teachers who were motivated to help us be our best selves, but they did it by shaming us and criticizing us.

As a result, we think that in order to grow into the people we want to be and were meant to be, we need to shame and criticize ourselves. Yet Jesus doesn’t do that. In The Life of the Beloved, Henri Nouwen argues that “self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us the ‘Beloved'.”[1] Jesus calls us to be our best selves in a way that is rooted in belovedness, not self-condemnation. Jesus treats us gently, as precious, beloved friends, yet calls us to growth.

We often think that treating ourselves gently is a form of self-indulgence, and self-compassion can work that way if it is not coupled with a commitment to excellence, health and holiness.

For the past four weeks I’ve been writing about my new spiritual practice: separating thoughts from feelings, feeling the feelings and letting the thoughts go if they are not healthy. In order to feel the feelings, I’ve been using a process with acronym, RAIN. Advocates for RAIN call it a form of self-compassion. Here I want to address the question of the appropriateness of this practice for Christians, using an illustration from my own life right now.

One of the major stressors in my life is our upcoming move from New Zealand, where we have lived for ten years, to Seattle, where we lived for 30 years before we came to NZ. I have moments of fear about getting all the details done on time for the move. I have moments of anxiety related to new patterns of relationships after we arrive. I feel sad about leaving this beautiful place and the friends we have made. I tend to overeat when stressed, so I feel angry at myself when I eat too much. So, I’m experiencing fear, anxiety, sadness and anger, as well as excitement about seeing our beloved granddaughter, family and friends more often.

God led us to plan this move, and I want to honor God in the process. Yet I have moments when I’m a mess of unruly thoughts and feelings.

I’m going to imagine that I hear the voice of Jesus saying, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.” What would that look like in this situation? Here are my ideas:

1. I must not let the voice of condemnation overwhelm me. In fact, I must turn away from that voice as much as possible. Of course I’m feeling a mix of sadness, fear, anxiety and excitement. Of course I feel stressed, which always makes eating well hard for me. RAIN helps me feel those feelings but not wallow in them. RAIN helps me feel them but also let them go, and then I focus on letting the negative thoughts go as well.

2. I must allow Jesus to help me live in as healthy a manner as possible, as free from sin as possible. That means I do several things: I try to talk and pray about my trust in God for the move. I try to soak up the great things about New Zealand before we leave, and I thank God for them. I try to honor and thank people who have cared for me here. I work on eating as well as I can. I try to serve God in each day, being faithful to the work and people he has called me to in that day.

3. When I fail to trust, enjoy, thank, and eat well, I must ask God for forgiveness and start again. I try to avoid self-condemnation because God has forgiven me in Christ. 

This process I’ve described in my three steps is what I consider to be self-compassion in the light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I see it as honoring God much more than the cycle of self-condemnation that so many Christians fall into. I see it as freeing me to think about, and focus my actions on, things that matter to God (more on that next week). So, yes, self-compassion can be consistent with the Gospel.

Posts in this series on my new spiritual practice:
Separating thoughts from feelings       
Feeling the feelings using the RAIN process        
Coping with feelings that want to dominate         
Dealing with “demonic” thoughts         

(Next week: A Christian perspective on thoughts. Illustration by Dave Baab. If you’d like to get an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column.)

[1] Henri Houwen, The Life of the Beloved: Spiritual Living in a Secular World (New York: Crossroad, 2002), 32.

My new spiritual practice: Dealing with “demonic” thoughts

Tuesday May 23 2017

My new spiritual practice: Dealing with “demonic” thoughts

I’ve been writing about what I’ve learned from counseling in the past year. My counselor suggested separating thoughts from feelings, which I described in the first post of this series. In the second post and third post, I described how I'm learning to feel the feelings. In this post, I’ll talk about thoughts.

I observe two major categories of thoughts that don’t help me in any way:

1. Catastrophic thoughts about the future. “What if this happens?” “What if that happens?”

2. Judgmental thoughts about myself. “What’s wrong with me that I don’t I trust God more?” “What kind of a person would eat cookies for comfort instead of coping with her emotions in a more healthy way?”

My counselor called these kinds of thoughts “demonic,” and for me that’s accurate. The thoughts predict a future that might or might not happen, a future I have no control over. The thoughts express judgment for myself and show no compassion.

The thoughts mask feelings. I find that if I go through the RAIN process that I described in the previous two blog posts, it takes some effort to figure out what feelings lie behind the thoughts. Once I identify the feelings and walk through the four steps of RAIN, some of the demonic thoughts simply go away. They were functioning as cover-ups for painful feelings. They were enabling me to avoid feeling those feelings, an avoidance technique that was just as bad, or even worse, than the thing I was avoiding.

When the RAIN process simply dissolves the thoughts, it feels like a miracle. However, sometimes the thoughts remain or come right back after I do RAIN. Sometimes I find there are more feelings lying behind the thoughts, and a second round of RAIN, focused on different feelings, helps. But sometimes even then, the counterproductive thoughts remain.

In that case, I have a number of strategies:

1. Name the choice out loud.

“Do you want to keep thinking these thoughts or do you want to trust God with the future? I want to trust God with the future.”

“Do you want to continue to judge yourself, or do you want to have the kind of compassion on yourself that God has for you? I want to have compassion on myself because God has compassion for me.”

2. Pray the serenity prayer. I do it using my breath, three or four breaths for each line.

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.

Sometimes I add another line, “Grant me the serenity to leave in the future the things that belong in the future.”

3. Pray the Jesus prayer with variations. Again, I use my breath, one breath for each phrase.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God,
have mercy on me, a sinner.

Lord Jesus Christ, Prince of Peace,
have mercy on me, grant me your peace.

Lord Jesus Christ, Light of the World, Bright Morning Star,
Light to my path, Lamp to my feet,
have mercy on me, guide my steps.

4. Imagine myself handing my thoughts to Jesus. I picture myself standing with Jesus beside a beautiful river, the river of God’s love. I hand my thoughts to Jesus and he throws them in the river, where they disappear into the hugeness of God’s love.

5. Pray a scripture. I find Psalm 139 and Ephesians 3:14-19 to be helpful.

This process I’ve been describing – separating thoughts from feelings, feeling the feelings in a spirit of self-compassion, then dealing with any remaining thoughts by using a variety of spiritual practices – is helping me cope with stress so much better. This is a gift of healing that comes from God, parallel to the miraculous healings in the Gospels.

The purpose of this gift is so that I can trust, honor, love and serve God more fully. It’s a further step of my life belonging to the Triune God.

(Next week: Is self-compassion really appropriate for Christians? Illustration by Dave Baab. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column.)

My new spiritual practice: Coping with feelings that want to dominate

Wednesday May 17 2017

My new spiritual practice: Coping with feelings that want to dominate

I’ve written the last two weeks about a new spiritual practice that I have been engaging in for the past year: separating thoughts from feelings, letting the thoughts go and feeling the feelings. Last week I wrote about the RAIN acronym that helps me feel my feelings. I argued that this is a Christian spiritual practice because it helps me bring my feelings into God’s presence, as modeled in the Psalms. It helps me love and serve God more fully because I am less distracted by negative thoughts and feelings.

In this post I want to talk more about the third step of the RAIN process: investigate the feeling or feelings. Part of that investigation involves figuring out where in my body the feeling has the most impact. That helps me grow in identifying feelings more easily.

Another part of investigating involves trying to figure out if there is something I need to do right now in response to the feelings. Since many of my negative feelings involve fears for the future, occasionally I can see that something specific can be done right now which will help me feel less anxious. Most often, though, there is nothing that I can actually do right now. This is quite enlightening, because if there’s nothing concrete I can do right now, then all I can do is pray and relinquish the situation into God’s hands.

A third part of investigating feelings involves asking the feelings what they want. This takes some practice. Our feelings do have a voice, and we can learn to listen to that voice.

Sometimes my feelings just want to be acknowledged. “Oh, okay,” I say in response as if I’m talking to the part of me that’s having the feeling. “You’re there. I’ve been ignoring you. I hear you and see you.”

More often, though, my feelings want to dominate. They are saying something like, “You’re scared about X. You’re right to be scared. Something awful could happen! Fear is the right response! It’s awful! It’s terrible! Be afraid every moment!”

A few years ago I learned a mind-body technique called the Lightning Process. The first step is to say no to the thing we don’t want to do or think. So when I hear my feelings saying they want to dominate, I simply say, “No, I don’t want that.”

The second part of the Lightning Process involves asking a question: “Do you want that, or do you want something else?” The “something else” needs to be spelled out clearly. So here are two of the questions I ask, along with my response, when I’m on the investigate step of RAIN. Saying the response in our minds, or even saying it out loud, is very significant because it shapes our brains.

Do you want fear to dominate, or do you want to see your fear as only one part of your life? I want to see it as one part of my life, and I want to be aware that I experience many other joyful emotions over the course of every day.

Do you want sadness to overwhelm you, or do you want to let Jesus come alongside you and experience his comfort? I want to let Jesus come alongside me. I want to experience his comfort and peace. I want to know he feels every emotion with me. I want to know I’m not alone and that Jesus bears my burdens.

The “N” step of RAIN, non-identify, is very helpful in dealing with feelings that want to dominate. Saying, even saying out loud, that feelings are like weather and this one is transient, not permanent, is helpful. Equally helpful is naming other positive emotions that have been present that day, no matter how fleeting. Naming tiny moments of joy or thankfulness will help those moments increase.

The challenge with RAIN is remembering to use it when negative thoughts are swirling in my brain or when I feel a strong desire to eat when I’m not particularly hungry. It’s so easy to let the thoughts or the desire for food to dominate. They lead me away from God’s peace. RAIN has helped me grow in experiencing God’s peace so I can love and serve God more fully.

(Next week: dealing with “demonic” thoughts. Illustration by Dave Baab. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column.)

My new spiritual practice: Feeling the feelings

Wednesday May 10 2017

My new spiritual practice: Feeling the feelings

When I’m stressed about something, my feelings get buried under my thoughts. Some of those thoughts center around questions about the future: “What if this happens? What if that happens?” Other thoughts are about the feelings: “You shouldn’t be feeling these negative feelings. You should be trusting God.”

I wrote last week about advice from my therapist about separating thoughts from feelings. Some months ago he suggested that I practice self-compassion as a way to cope with negative feelings, and I’ve had a wonderful year learning more about what self-compassion looks like and why God would desire it for me.

The form of self-compassion that I have found helpful is summarized in the acronym RAIN:

  • Recognize feelings
  • Acknowledge them
  • Investigate them
  • Non-identify with them

1. Recognize. It takes a bit of effort to figure out what I’m feeling because the thoughts swirling around my brain are so vivid and powerful. When I feel my negative thoughts careening out of control, I’m learning to stop and try to discern the feelings that lie behind the thoughts. Most often those feelings are fear or sadness, but I also sometimes feel anger, hopelessness and frustration.

2. Acknowledge. After recognizing the emotion, I sit with it for several breaths. I focus on my breathing and let myself feel whatever it is.

3. Investigate. I try to identify where the emotion is located in my body, because this helps identify emotions the next time they happen. I also try to figure out what the emotion wants. Sometimes it wants to dominate my life. Sometimes it just wants to be acknowledged.

4. Non-identify. When the feeling wants to dominate, it wants to be pervasive. It wants me to identify myself with that feeling. When I non-identify with the feeling, I might think about feelings as weather. They come and go. Living on an island nation like New Zealand, where the weather frequently shifts quite dramatically, helps illustrate this. Or I might focus on other feelings I’ve had that day – such as contentment, joy, happiness, or gratitude, no matter how fleeting – to demonstrate to my brain that this strong negative feeling is only a part of me, a part that needs to be acknowledged, but a part that does not define me.

Some versions of RAIN use “nurture” or “nourish” as the last step. I find “non-identify” more concrete, and I also find that non-indentifying is a powerful form of self nurture.

Why is feeling feelings a Christian spiritual practice? The Psalms demonstrate that all emotions can be brought into God’s presence. How can we do that if we don’t know what we’re feeling? God made us, knows us, and calls us to love and serve him. How can we do that with our whole beings if our feelings are driving us into counterproductive thoughts and behavior? My swirling negative thoughts truly are demonic, and I’m much better able to let them go if I acknowledge the feelings that lie behind them.

This process of feeling the feelings, called self-compassion by some people, extends the same kind of compassion to myself that God asks me to extend to others. Why would God want me to show compassion for others but not for myself?

Living under the burden of stress makes it harder for me to love and serve God. This gift of self-compassion through the RAIN process enables me to love and serve God more fully because I am not preoccupied with my swirling thoughts and feelings. Christian spiritual practices help us walk with Jesus and help us grow in faithfulness, and this process helps me do that.

If you’d like to read more about self-compassion and the RAIN process, these two sites have been helpful to me. Click here and here.

(Next week: how to cope with emotions that want to dominate our lives. Illustration by Dave Baab. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column.)

My new spiritual practice: Separating thoughts from feelings

Thursday May 4 2017

My new spiritual practice: Separating thoughts from feelings

A year ago I was feeling stressed by several things, so I started seeing a therapist twice a month. My times with him have been very helpful, and in these next few blog posts, I want to reflect on what I’ve learned. In fact, I want to argue that what I’ve learned is actually a spiritual practice.

Last year I could tell I was stressed because of the thoughts swirling in my head: What if this happens? What if that happens? How will I cope? Why am I not trusting God more with these things that are stressing me? What’s wrong with me that I’m not coping with stress better? Why am I spending so much time thinking about negative future outcomes?

These thoughts – and the variety of feelings that accompanied them – would swirl around in my head off and on during the day and especially during wakeful periods at night. I was steadily gaining weight without being aware of overeating. The only way I could explain the weight gain was to see that the spinning thoughts and feelings were creating stress within my body, and I was soothing the stress with a bit of extra food every day.

I would try to stop the swirling thoughts and feelings, but I had no success in doing that. Then I felt guilty for not being able to focus my thoughts and feelings on something more positive. I felt continuously guilty for not trusting God more.

After listening to me talk for several months about these thoughts and feelings, my therapist, John, suggested that I learn to separate the thoughts from the feelings. No one had ever suggested this to me, and I now see this as a spiritual practice, a choice that needs to be made over and over. In this series of blog posts, I’ll tease out what that looks like in practice.

What’s the difference between thoughts and feelings? Feelings are a normal, healthy part of daily life. Of course I would feel scared, sad, and angry from time to time because of challenges in my life. Everyone does.

But the catastrophic thoughts – What if this happens? What if that happens? How will I cope? What’s wrong with me that I’m responding this way? – are demonic, according to John. They are literally demons that pursue and enslave me. They damage my life.

John suggested dealing with the thoughts like a person would deal with distractions during meditation or contemplative prayer. Imagine them as leaves floating down a river. Let them go. But the feelings are to be felt.

John gave me suggestions for dealing with the feelings, and I’ll write about that for the next two weeks. On the fourth week of this series, I’ll write about dealing with the thoughts.

Always before, I saw coping with my swirling thoughts and feelings as a black or white thing: either I’m disciplining my mind to have positive emotions and thoughts, or I’m being honest and feeling/thinking about the negative stuff. The choice was optimism or honesty. And I wasn’t able to pull off very much optimism!

Now I have a different perspective. I see that “honesty” is not the right word to describe catastrophic thoughts about the future. My thoughts focus on things that haven’t happened yet, so they cannot be honest or dishonest. Catastrophic thoughts are simply unhelpful and dysfunctional, which makes them demonic. And indeed, they do demonstrate lack of trust in God.

However, “honesty” is the right word to use to describe the process of acknowledging feelings. When I feel sad, scared, or angry about things in my life, I need to know what to do with those feelings. Those feelings are indeed present. They are a part of me. I find that as I learn more about how to feel them, I am more able to bring those feelings into God’s presence and experience God’s peace and hope.

(Next week: Feeling the feelings and why I view that as a Christian spiritual practice. Illustration by Dave Baab. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column.)

One year ago on this blog:  "Sabbath Keeping a decade later: What I do on the Sabbath."