Kristin Neff’s research into self-compassion, combined with my experience of regular sea swimming, has gently rewired my brain. In this blog post, I’ll share how I’ve experienced three elements of self-compassion in the water, and explore how you might embrace these qualities – both on land, and in the water.
In her book, “Self-compassion: the proven power of being kind to yourself”, Neff describes the three elements of self compassion as:
- common humanity
As you may have gleaned from my last blog post, I have found all of these in the sea…
Today, I hope I can give you some ideas about how to navigate your own way there.
In facing this new challenge of stepping into the sea, and trying something new, I slowly learnt how to speak to myself differently – to encourage myself forward, stroke by stroke – with compassion rather than criticism.
In recent years, I’ve been learning how to manage my inner critic on land. With the new awareness that this brought me, I started to notice that my internal voice was much quieter while I was in the sea. But that it would automatically criticise me before and after my swims – for how I looked in my bikini, or how I couldn’t swim very far from the stairs, or how I got scared of the waves and could only think about getting out again, or how I didn’t stay in ‘long enough’ when it was cold… and so on and so on.
This was the constant background noise of my mind: minor gripes about myself – and if I hadn’t started listening for it, and questioning whether these gripes were actually reasonable, or useful – I probably would never have realised how much this was influencing me as I went through my life.
I noticed that I seemed to think that this way of speaking to myself would encourage me to try harder, to go further.
But of course it didn’t work – it just made me feel a bit rubbish.
So instead, I thought of my son and daughter getting into the sea.
And of the friends that I had started to take into the sea with me, one by one, for their own first time trying cold water swimming.
I noticed how I would talk to them to encourage them into the water…
…and it was very different to the way I was talking to myself.
To them I would say “Just try for a moment – if you don’t like it, you can get straight out again,” and I would celebrate every tiny brave step they took.
I would accept them as they were – with no pressure for them to be anything other than that in the moment.
And I noticed that the lovely swimmers that I swam with each morning spoke to each other with encouragement and acceptance.
There was no competition to be better than anyone else, to achieve anything in particular – and no judgement of what anyone else was doing in the water. It was simply a shared pleasure. One in which we could delight in each others’ joy.
What’s more, the water itself is a great teacher of acceptance. That daily swim is always about being with what is, instead of fighting against it. The waves remind us of that constantly.
So I started to play the role of mother or dear friend – to myself. Accepting and encouraging and being kind to myself on this new adventure.
I gave myself permission to do as much or as little as I liked. And I remembered to notice every little brave step that I took, and to pause to celebrate that.
And wonderfully enough – by grounding myself in kindness, I was able to build up the courage to swim a little further, to try front crawl, to try a handstand in the waves, to jump off the steps…
I am happy walking on the beach in my bikini for all to see.
I am proud of the courage I find each time I step into the waves.
I am present to all the joy and beauty in the sea – and in me.
You can start to do this for yourself.
Firstly, by simply listening to what your internal voice is saying to you as you go about your day. Without criticising yourself for criticising yourself (!) – remember that this is simply an observation practice, it’s not another excuse to be mean to yourself…
And as you notice – maybe even writing some of these things down, discussing them with a friend – pause to ask yourself whether these things you say to yourself are reasonable or fair?
Are they something that you would say to a dear friend, to your child, to someone you love? And if not, what might you say instead?
Kristin Neff describes common humanity as the experience of seeing our own humanity and understanding that this connects us to others – it’s an appreciation that we are not the only person suffering or making mistakes, or indeed, criticising ourselves.
When we notice this, we move from isolating ourselves as ‘failures’, towards understanding our tender human-ness, and finding compassion for ourselves. Common humanity allows us to see our vulnerability and imperfections as something that we all experience.
It allows us to feel compassion for ourselves – and for others.
I tell myself – in a moment of suffering, self-criticism or ‘failure’ – that while this moment is hard, and probably makes me feel like I am not good enough, that I am somehow ‘less’ than other people – it’s an experience that actually connects me to others.
It’s the opposite of what it first feels like.
The more I practise this, the easier it becomes. When I hear that voice saying “you’re rubbish at front crawl”, I ask – is that true? reasonable? kind? I give myself some sympathy, and acknowledge that it’s hard to feel rubbish at something – and I remind myself that this is a feeling that lots of people have, especially when they’re learning – as we all are, all of the time…
And as a result, I’m more easily able to feel and move through this experience. I’m more likely to motivate myself to move forward – just as I would a friend.
But in the sea, I’ve found another form of common humanity – something altogether greater – something closer to awe. You might call it a sensation of ‘oneness’ – the experience of being at one with nature and the world around me. There is common humanity in this too – and there is a connection that goes beyond humanity – one that embraces all of nature.
The sea takes me out of myself – and puts humanity, and the whole world, back in.
When you find yourself lost in self-criticism, or a difficult emotional moment where you feel like the only one who is messing up – try taking a moment to pause and remind yourself that this is part of being human, you are not alone – and in fact, these difficulties, challenging emotions and struggles are what connect us to each other.
And if you want to extend that feeling of common humanity towards one-ness, a sense of belonging in the widest and most awe-inspiring sense – go look at the sea.
As I shared in my previous post, I’ve discovered that I can access a state of mindfulness in the sea in a way that I hadn’t been able to do on land.
The water engages all my senses, and clears my mind. It allows me to simply be with what is in front of me – within me. With myself as water.
It is familiar, and yet always new. All-consuming and yet heart-opening. It is both calming and thrilling.
Neff’s description of mindfulness below echoes the balanced flowing physical and mental state that I experience in the sea.
“Mindfulness is a non-judgmental, receptive mind state in which one observes thoughts and feelings as they are, without trying to suppress or deny them. We cannot ignore our pain and feel compassion for it at the same time. At the same time, mindfulness requires that we not be “over-identified” with thoughts and feelings, so that we are caught up and swept away by negative reactivity.” Kristin Neff
In the water, we observe the sea as it moves constantly around us – it’s vital for our survival that we do. We soften into accepting what the sea offers us, while also retaining enough control over ourselves to move through it.
Each moment is new. Nothing can be held for long.
And so, each time I swim, the sea reminds me how to simply be present.
Learning to be present in the moment of perceiving the incoming wave – allows me to access this state on land: opening my eyes to the sky, the budding magnolias, the beauty of a passing stranger’s joy. I can listen to birdsong or music in the same way I listen to the waves. I can taste dark chocolate, rich tomato sauce or hot buttered crumpets with the same sensitivity that I can taste the salt and seaweed in the sea.
Mindfulness allows me to feel the touch of my daughter’s soft hand on my skin, or the bliss of slipping into fresh sheets as if I were stepping into a shiver of cold water.
It reminds me to stay present with an ache in my muscles as I stretch, a moment of fear passing through my chest, a swell in my heart at my son’s smile.
It compliments the qualities of self kindness, and common humanity – allowing me to stay present, without judgement, and with an awareness of my connection to others.
In this way, the sea has given me one of the greatest gifts you can ever receive – to notice and be with the fullness of human experience.
“…happiness is not dependent on circumstances being exactly as we want them to be, or on ourselves being exactly as we’d like to be. Rather, happiness stems from loving ourselves and our lives exactly as they are, knowing that joy and pain, strength and weakness, glory and failure are all essential to the full human experience.” Kristin Neff
You don’t need to start sea swimming to experience mindfulness – although if you find meditation hard, and you love the sea, I’d highly recommend it!
To practice mindfulness in this moment, wherever you are, you could simply ask yourself, what can I hear, see, smell, taste or touch in this moment? What sensations do I feel in my body right now? What emotions am I feeling?
You could take a few minutes to look at a short film of the sea, or even a photo. You could listen to the sound of waves. Simply soaking up the sensations as they come.
You could take a few deep grounding breaths, and pull yourself a Sea Soul Blessing card, and pause to mull on the meaning of this for a moment.
We’re so used to being constantly distracted – by our phones, our loved ones, by all of the visual stimulation that is constantly around us. So naturally, mindfulness can feel a little tricky at first. But the more we do it, the easier it becomes – just like getting into the sea.
All of these precious journeys into the sea, that have taught me self kindness, common humanity and mindfulness, have shaped both the Sea Soul Blessings and Sea Soul Sessions – creating tools that can support you on your own journey towards self compassion and mindfulness, no longer alone in our struggles.
As you practice quieting your mind, the blessings connect you to the magic of the sea, and to your own intuition, encouraging acceptance, personal reflection and growth. You can find out more about them here.
In each Sea Soul Session, I’m able to offer some one to one guidance on this journey, helping you to move towards a deeper self compassion practice, using the connection that we all have with the sea.
We are all connected. We are all worthy of self compassion. We can all access greater kindness towards ourselves. And it can have an incredibly positive impact on our lives.