Reflections from Breathworks teacher Katherine Michaelis' on her Mindfulness MSc. Thesis
Feldman and Kuyken (2011) describe compassion as:
"an orientation of mind that recognizes pain and the universality of pain in human experience and the capacity to meet that pain with kindness, empathy, equanimity and patience".
I am a Breathworks teacher. When I teach the compassion part of the Breathworks Mindfulness for Stress (MfS) course I have noticed that some participants struggle to engage with the practices, and occasionally find them upsetting. When I first tried these practices myself, as a MfS course participant, I found them tricky. Now, though, they are part of my daily practice and through them I feel I’ve become much kinder both to myself and to others. I draw on them all the time; recently they helped me to care for my mum who had Alzheimer’s.
When I undertook a Mindfulness MSc with Aberdeen University I chose to research how participants experienced compassion training on a Breathworks MfS course. I wanted to gain a deep, rich understanding of participants’ experiences and what these experiences meant to them. I hoped to benefit my teaching and the experiences of course participants and perhaps to benefit other teachers and participants. I began my research by doing a literature review and I found that although compassion training is very beneficial, leading to increased well-being and lower levels of psychological distress, it is also quite common for people to find compassion training difficult and even upsetting at first.
I chose a qualitative approach for my research, which let me capture participants’ experiences and thoughts about compassion training during classes and from interviews conducted some weeks after the training ended. 6 participants of a Breathworks MfS course took part in my research.
My findings revealed that all the participants valued the compassion training highly; they felt it addressed their needs for greater self-compassion, it benefitted their relationships with themselves and with others and it improved their wellbeing. One participant discussed how she had become kinder to herself:
“I don’t put myself down, I don’t yell at myself, ‘Oh you stupid person.’”
Another discussed how she benefited from practicing loving kindness for work colleagues she found difficult,
“the next day it’s so much easier to talk to them. I can then go and be nice to the person.”
Two participants talked about how kindness practices helped them manage health conditions. One said practicing kindness to herself helped her recover more quickly from depression. Another was recovering from an operation and said the practices were, “helping her to feel better, more reassured and calm,” and that self-compassion, “supports her through the day really.”
Some participants initially had negative experiences of kindness meditations but these experiences changed over time and became more positive. One said she had been skeptical about the benefits of kindness practices and had felt irritated, frustrated, and impatient when she first did them; however, after a week of practice she reported liking the sun imagery practice. Another participant had initially felt pressured during self-kindness practices; striving to achieve happiness, but this attitude had softened over time. One participant became tearful and felt unable to wish herself well when she began. In her interview she said the phrase “may I be safe” had triggered difficult feelings from a childhood in which she had “never felt safe”. She had persisted with the practices and 8 weeks after the course ended she described how she was using compassion practice to calm herself.
Some participants had customised their compassion practices and felt this helped them to gain benefits. One participant, who was a Christian, had mentally changed the sun image into the Son of God, which made more sense to her,
“As Christians, he is within and outside… the sun, it didn’t have the same effect, where as the Son of God did.”
Another practiced self-compassion when unsettling physical feelings arose by placing her hand on areas of discomfort and using the breath to soothe her. This made her feel, “much calmer and better”.
Learning in a group brought insights into difficulties experienced by others, which helped participants gain self-acceptance, self-compassion and compassion. One participant said, “if you feel that other people are struggling, it’s OK to struggle too and therefore you can be a bit kinder to yourself because you are not judging yourself for feeling crap, you’re saying I am human, this is fine, other people feel like this, I’ll get through this."
However one participant had initially felt intimidated in the group because two other participants, who were counselors, had said they were attending the course to gain skills to use with clients. She felt better when she realised that the counselors also experienced difficulties.
Some participants said that I, as the teacher, had helped group dynamics by giving the sense that we were all in the group together, “teacher included” and by demonstrating kindness towards people who were struggling. However, one participant had felt picked on when I went round the group asking individuals about their experiences.
Most participants said the teaching of Gilbert’s "Three Circles" model; three broad emotional systems corresponding to: The ‘Red Circle’ of Threat, the ‘Blue Circle’ of reward-seeking, and the ‘Green Circle’ of Soothing, Caring, and Contentment:
The home practice of finding ways into the green circle zone had helped them access soothing, nurturing behaviours; they spoke extensively about how they were accessing it in their lives. One participant also said this teaching had taken away the guilt of “feeling all those things in the red circle.” However, two participants had not connected with this teaching. One said that this was because she had identified so strongly with the threat system that she had missed the soothing system.
It was heartening to find that all participants had continued with their compassion practice and were gaining benefits 4 to 8 weeks after the course had ended.
It is not possible to generalise from this kind of study; every group is different and every person will have a different experience of compassion training. However, my findings resonated with the literature and with my previous observations, and I have made some changes to how I teach the Breathworks MfS course. In week one I now encourage participants to share specifically personal wellbeing benefits that they hope to gain from the course, to foster a sense of common humanity, and I now invite participants to share their experiences rather than go around the group in turn so no one feels put on the spot. I encourage participants to customise the kindness practices if they wish, for example I suggest the use of the hand on the heart area to help access warm feelings and I discuss the use of alternative phrases in the loving-kindness meditation. When teaching Gilbert’s theory, I ask participants to share ways in which they already access the “Green Circle” to help them connect with this emotional system. I try to manage expectations and cultivate helpful attitudes for kindness meditations by talking about these before I lead any meditations. I am hopeful that this will help reduce possible striving and feelings of failure. In case of painful emotions arising in the kindness practices, I remind participants of how to work with difficulty and discuss how they can support themselves if they feel overwhelmed; I try to do this lightly so as not to create an expectation of difficulty. I am also alert to any difficulties participants may have and offer opportunities to talk outside class.
Doing the research was a great experience, I feel I have learned lots and I’m really grateful to the study participants who were so helpful and so open in sharing their experiences.
If you have any questions or want to read my full thesis (18,000 words) then do please get in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Find out more about the Breathworks Mindfulness for Stress course here.