A few months ago, I set out to bake a cake for my dad’s birthday. A Victoria Sponge with a twist – Homemade Apple Jam! The jam was made, and all I had to do was bake a simple vanilla sponge.
But ohhhh no. I decided to do a little experiment. Maybe I’ll veganise a Mary Berry recipe? Surely you can’t go wrong with a Mary Berry…
Perhaps I changed too many variables at once… Perhaps instead of relying on the old marge and flour technique in my not so forgiving sandwich tins I should have lined them with greaseproof… Perhaps I should have let the cakes cool for longer before I coaxed them out of their tins…
But where’s the fun in that?
I personally love it when I turn a cake tin over and half the cake remains in the tin while the rest tumbles out, disintegrating into about seven large pieces and countless tiny crumbs. It really gives me a sense of pride and achievement. Makes me feel like a jolly good baker.
True to form, my initial reaction was to blame myself. Rubbish baker, why are you so stupid, what’s so hard about making a spongecake, etc.
However, what is slowly, hopefully, becoming my instinct crept in – to practise self compassion.
Compassionate Mindfulness has been an important practice for me for the last couple of years. As a result of my recurrent depression diagnosis two years ago, my dad started reading books upon books about depression. One ‘Overcoming Depression‘ by Prof. Paul Gilbert particularly stood out. A professor of Psychology, having suffered with depression himself, Gilbert writes about the evolution and causes of depression, ways of coping, developing our relationship with ourselves, and all with the method of mindful compassion.
I liked this book, as it was written by a medical professional, but had a spiritual edge. As helpful as religion and spirituality can be for some people, I haven’t been able to take much comfort in faith or belief in a deity or the concept of a created world, destiny, etc. I do however, love science. Evolutionary biology, psychology, medicine, physics… For some people, not every phenomenon in the universe is sufficiently explained by it, but I find that cold hard science, as some people refer to it, explains enough. I lapped up Paul Gilbert’s explanation of depression in terms of evolution, and as difficult as it is to deal with, I find the randomness of mutation and evolution fascinating and perhaps even more marvellous than the idea that things were created. For the complexity that is the universe to be the result of a number of random occurences, I find incredible. But anyway, I digress…
The now fashionable ‘compassionate mindfulness’ is essentially a repackaging of ancient Buddhist wisdom, which is sometimes referred to as a science. Long before particle physics, Buddhist philosophers theorised that everything is the universe is one and of the same, just different forms of the same thing. We now know that everything is ‘just’ varying arrangements of matter and antimatter. I’m digressing again. Back to compassionate mindfulness. The jist is that your brain is a fallible human brain, and as much as you would like to be able to have complete control over your mind, and be able to meditate and reach a higher consciousness for 20 hours a day, it may not always be possible. And that’s ok. Have compassion. If something you try doesn’t work, forgive yourself and forgive the world. Have compassion for others and accept their mistakes. Recognise thoughts for what they are – thoughts, electric impulses across synapses, fleeting, changing, thoughts. Not facts. They do not necessarily represent the world, nor do they necessarily represent you, or the holder or ‘observer’ of the thoughts. They can be influenced by your actions or your emotions, which in turn can be influenced by thoughts and by each other. This is also true for other people, so have compassion for them, as you do not know what thoughts, emotions or actions are affecting them. Practise being mindful. Your aim is not complete mind emptiness on day 1. The goal is awareness. Being present. Being mindful is to fill your mind with whatever you are doing/thinking. If you are eating, eat. If you are watching TV, watch TV. If you are sad, be sad. Don’t try to avoid certain emotions because they will always show themselves somehow. If you do though, forgive yourself. It’s a habit. You can’t change overnight. Just realise that you tried to avoid it, and get back to feeling it.
So that’s just a bit about compassionate mindfulness. As with many achievements of the ‘West’, it is a re-branded version of ancient Eastern thought. However, if it gets more people to try it, that’s great. This isn’t a competition for who realised how to be happy first. The main thing is that we have this tool and this knowledge and we can use it to make ourselves and the world better. With compassion and awareness.
Recognising that humans make mistakes is important. We will fall. But that’s how we learn to pick ourselves up (thanks, Batman films). Even if we learn nothing, if we just trip over our own feet and tumble, arms flailing, to the ground… Well, we’re only human.