Review by Lisa Mayland
On Tuesday 16th February TCF members assembled online to hear Sangeeta Mahajan's second talk entitled My Champion, Me. Let's Talk Self-Compassion. Hosted by The Compassionate Friends, Sangeeta spoke about her personal grief journey and her amazing serenity and calm wisdom were instantly evident. How can it be only six years since she lost her beloved 20 -year- old son Saagar to suicide?
Describing the horrific and cataclysmic shock of losing her son she spoke of how instantly everything that she was and had been came into question. Her role as mother, doctor, friend, wife was now utterly threatened. The guilt and self-recrimination were total, not just things she perceived herself to have not done before Saagar's suicide but indeed every decision she had made about him since he was born. It did not matter that others were trying to comfort and support her, she thought it was all her fault, and, as she said "You are always with yourself" 24 hours a day and the self-torture is unremitting. I think this resonated with many of the audience who commented that they are still struggling with this guilt many years on.
Gradually Sangeeta began to be aware of the difference between her attitude to herself, and that shown by others to her. She saw that the compassion shown by others constituted a sensitivity to others' feelings and a commitment to doing something to deviate another's suffering. She realised that her recovery depended on being able to do this to herself. She began asking herself "Am I a friend to me?".
She gave us a practical exercise to do, describing a time when she had left her house unlocked and she had arrived back to find thousands of pounds worth of belongings had been stolen. Firstly she asked us to write down what we would have said to Sangeeta, and everyone replied with positive and supportive comments. She then asked us to write down what we would have said to ourselves if it happened to us. It was astounding how critical, dismissive and unkind we were. What a powerful way of exposing our inner critical voice!
Sangeeta quoted the Buddha's saying that when we suffer misfortune two arrows fly our way. The first, the actual event, hits us without warning and we are unable to avoid it. The second arrow is more insidious, it is the self-torture and blame we mete out to ourselves because of the first arrow. We do not have to accept the second arrow because this time we have a choice. She says that there are three pillars of Self Compassion that can help us to deflect the second arrow, these being the very framework of our recovery and journey to peace. This resonated so clearly for me and it felt almost joyful to hear them described:
Self-kindness This is the bedrock of physical compassion. Just as you would rock a crying baby, holding, stroking, soothing, this self-kindness speaks to our inner child, maybe our five-year-old self, reassuring and loving, promoting endorphins and oxytocin that calms and protects. As others have probably tried to do this for us, we can do it for ourselves. Our bereavements have created such a brittle and harsh space within us, self kindness is something that can soften and lighten our souls. There were comments from the audience about how difficult it is to go from self-blame to self-approbation, and Sangeeta said it needs practice but does become much easier with time.
Common Humanity This is the antidote to the disconnectedness we can feel from the world and our history. If we realise that everyone suffers in some way we should reach out to others, knowing that we have a common and nurturing bond. This is part of self-compassion. Our mind causes pain by judging others as we judge ourselves. We need to break down the barriers that stop us from engaging because a lack of connection is judgement.
Mindfulness This gives us the ability to slow down and go into ourselves. This can be done via meditation or just sitting quietly, chasing away thoughts and centering on our hearts. This allows our parasympathetic system to soothe and calm us, to allow us to become more connected to ourselves and to connect to others. Sangeeta emphasises how important it is to stay with ourselves, even when the pain is intense, and that to experience it and observe it stops us from judging. Incredibly she says that in this way we do not have to see our pain as bad. It just is, and by being fully present we feel part of a greater universal whole.
Sangeeta not only spoke with incredible poise and dignity but seemed to be really living her truth. Despite the excruciating pain of her loss, she demonstrated a calm commitment towards self-compassion and to those around her. She said that compassion is not complete if it does not include yourself. She then referred to the title of her talk and said that the three elements described above help you towards being your own champion. A champion is someone who not only supports but fights for their cause, and this is what we should do for ourselves while connecting with others. She gave the analogy of a strong enduring tree outside her window, always present in all weathers, surrounded by different people and animals, ever connected to other trees via a network of underground roots.
I think everyone was both hugely moved and educated by Sangeeta's talk. Her wisdom and strength and perception were outstanding. At the end many people asked how, being stuck in pain and guilt they could suddenly become more self-compassionate. Sangeeta replied that focusing on the heart rather than the head, always being kind and supportive to ourselves and others is a habit that needs dedicated practice, but ultimately our pain is universal, and knowing that we are part of a greater whole and we are linked helps us.
Sangeeta represents a beacon of light and hope to those of us on our bereavement journey and I think we all benefited hugely from listening to her.