Working on self compassion

Hogetsu Baerndal, a meditation teacher and trainee Buddhist chaplain, ran a FuelRCA workshop in early June on self-compassion. Fuel editor Hannah Black reports back

Pursuing a career in art and design often involves working in a self-directed way, in competitive and financially difficult environments. This puts a lot of pressure on many areas of life. Working alone or according to your own brief means you have to be disciplined not only about deadlines, but also about the infrastructure of your life: mealtimes, exercise, holidays, breaks and so on. The art and design context also often collapses personal and professional boundaries, so that our friends are also our colleagues, or vice versa. 

Added to all of this, art and design work often requires inventiveness and concentration for which we have to find time to research, think and reflect, time that is often hard to approach in a structured or moderate way. With a practice that requires you to lose yourself, to make small disruptions in time and space, how can you keep hold of yourself at the same time? 

In recent years, the model of self-compassion has been proposed as an alternative to the idea of 'self-esteem'. While self-esteem requires us to have a positive image of ourselves as individuals, self-compassion encourages us to see ourselves as part of a whole. When we see others struggling with a busy schedule or an overwhelming deadline, we are often able to extend understanding and compassion towards them. Advocates of self-compassion suggest that we give the same understanding and compassion to ourselves.

This can often begin at the physical level. Are you breathing properly, does your studio or desk set-up suit your body, are you eating the right things for you, seeing friends who relax you, and managing to find time for play and calm as well as work? (Perhaps you might want to be able to be playful and calm in your work, too.)  

Hogetsu Baerndal, a yoga teacher and trainee Buddhist chaplain who has been working with RCA chaplain Andrew Willson, came in to tell us more about self compassion. She took us through a breathing exercise designed to help us feel more calm and focused. This was very simple: we sat in a relaxed position, closed our eyes, and counted our breath for 10 minutes, noticing how we felt as we did so. Some people felt relaxed, others tired, or bored, or anxious, and so on. Hogetsu explained that the point wasn't to have a particular feeling but to notice your feelings without judging them, as if they were cars passing on a bridge.  

If you have trouble sitting still, Hogetsu recommended trying out other forms of meditation, such as yoga or chanting. And if you're so busy and stressed out that you can't even find 10 minutes spare, she recommended finding fragments of your daily routine where you focus your attention, breathe and relax – perhaps while in the shower, travelling to your studio, or even making a cup of tea. Routine and repetition are important aspects of meditation, but they don't have to be strict monastic schedules. You can start with the smallest things.

Those of us who work in art and design can get hung up on "being the best". Hogetsu pointed out that this means defining ourselves through others' lacks. But self-compassion helps us see that we are part of a group, whether a community of practice or a family or so on, not just an isolated individual who can triumph through comparisons with others. 

At the heart of self compassion is just the idea that life can be difficult and you can find ways within yourself to deal with this difficulty and even to thrive in bad circumstances, without doing so at the expense of other people. However, as a recent piece by Oliver Burkeman reminds us, many great artists, writers, philosophers and designers have had disastrous working practices, annoyed everyone around them and made themselves ill, in order to produce important work. They were not very self-compassionate – but, on the other hand, nor were they crippled by self doubt. 

You need to find your own image of what it might mean to be compassionate towards yourself; perhaps staying up all night working on what you love the most can be, at times, just as self-compassionate as finding the time to do yoga. As Hogetsu pointed out, what the practice of self compassion attempts to teach and allow you to work with is a greater awareness of the materiality of your life, and your contact with the world. In times of stress and uncertainty, you might not be able to predict or control what will happen in a year's time, but you can get better at paying attention to how you feel right now.

More about the Chaplaincy at the RCA