It was week seven of the eight-week course when I had my central emotional and spiritual breakthrough.
Roughly 16 of us were lying on the floor with eyes closed, trying to recall a moment from our lives about which we felt angry or bitter but not too angry or bitter, something like a three or four on an anger/bitterness scale of 1-10.
For some inexplicable reason, what popped into my head was the time I had collected a girlfriend from the airport after she had been overseas for several weeks and she was crying uncontrollably because she had fallen over at baggage claim and skinned her knee.
The crying seemed never to stop. The half-hour trip home passed in silence apart from her loud sobs and my occasional, steadily diminishing attempts to get her to say something. I felt sympathetic at first, then increasingly angry. We hadn't seen each other in weeks! I was trying to convince myself it was good to have her home and all she could do was cry about her sore knee.
I lay there on the floor, among 15 or so strangers, all of who were remembering their own anger and bitterness. Our teacher asked us: "What's behind the anger?"
My great, ongoing internal battle is between my desire to be heard and the feeling that I don't have anything worthwhile to say. I have too often passed large portions of social occasions and hospitality jobs in toilet cubicles, hating myself.
When I was in my early 20s my boss had once said to me, "Do you ever have anything to say that isn't completely insipid?" and after I looked up "insipid" in the dictionary I realised I probably didn't. Soon afterwards, I bought Edward de Bono's book How You Can Be More Interesting, but its strictures made me neurotic about my insipidity and I became increasingly unable to say anything at all.
When I had been in that car with my then-girlfriend, she had been neither listening nor talking. My anger at that was a reaction to the fact I found the vortex of silence existentially terrifying — I guess everything comes back eventually to the fear of death.
The idea of remembering all this negative emotion while in a meditative state was to understand how best to deal with it. "Bathe in your own kindness," the teacher said. "Can you give that to yourself?"
I bathed and the kindness felt warm and buoyant and as I basked in it, the realisation struck with the force of epiphany that I had become a writer to prevent myself from disappearing.
The realisation felt so immense and the kindness so warm as I lay on the carpet at the front of an annex off a beautiful sun-dappled courtyard behind a church in the Newmarket end of Remuera, that I found my awareness of the physical existence of my body vanishing and being replaced by something like pure energy. I sincerely felt I might lift off the ground.
For the course's previous six weeks, I had not contributed anything to the group discussion, not a single thing but, after the meditation on anger, I was bursting with the news of what had just happened inside me. I was ready to share it, was going to share it, had to share it. My voice would be heard.
While somebody else spoke, I readied myself, mentally rehearsing the beats of my story. I was thinking about speaking next but somebody else got in before me. They finished and as I was waiting for my voice to emerge, feeling my anxiety rising, the teacher spoke. When she finished, she said it was time for a break.
I couldn't believe it. "You missed your chance, loser!" I thought. "Big surprise! Of course you missed your chance! Pathetic! You'll never change. Oh, and hey! What about that epiphany? Cool breakthrough, bro!"
Outside in the courtyard in the early evening sunshine, I tried to look thoughtful while I sat by myself on a bench under a tree and berated myself furiously.
Research has shown self-compassion to be linked with lower levels of self-criticism; lower levels of depression and anxiety; higher levels of emotional intelligence, wisdom, personal initiative, curiosity, intellectual flexibility, life satisfaction; and feelings of social connectedness. People with greater self-compassion have been shown to use the pronoun "we" more than "I" and to speak more often of friends, family and other social connections.
Partners of self-compassionate people describe them as more emotionally connected, accepting and autonomy-supporting while being less detached, controlling, and verbally or physically aggressive than those with less self-compassion. Self-compassion is associated with greater relationship satisfaction.
People with higher levels of self-compassion also procrastinate less and have better immune function than others.
The leader in the self-compassion field is Kristin Neff, an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin, who has authored or co-authored more than 30 papers on the subject, and wrote the book Self-Compassion in 2011. Together with colleague Christopher Germer of Harvard, Neff developed an eight week mindful self-compassion (MSC) course intended to foster greater self-compassion in participants and in 2012 they published the first research into its effects in The Journal of Clinical Psychology, the results of which they summed up thus:
"MSC participants demonstrated a significant increase in self-compassion, mindfulness, compassion for 23 others and life satisfaction, while decreasing in depression, anxiety, stress, and emotional avoidance. All gains in outcomes were maintained at the six-month and one-year follow-ups."
Following these positive results, Neff and Germer began training others in how to deliver the same eight-week programme. One of their first students was Anna Friis and one of Friis' students was now me.
Friis's own doctoral research at the University of Auckland, published two years ago, used the same MSC course on a group of diabetes patients and demonstrated significant reductions not just in their levels of depression and distress but also in their blood sugar levels, making MSC the first mindfulness-based training to demonstrate physical as well as mental health benefits.
Self-compassion, as defined by Neff, comprises three elements: being kind to yourself when things are painful (self-kindness), accepting your pain and suffering without judgment (mindfulness) and recognising that you are not alone in your suffering (common humanity).
Reduced to its simplest aspect: in your moments of suffering or challenge, self-compassion involves talking to yourself as you would talk to a friend rather than the pathetic loser and fraud you know yourself to be.
As Friis says, "It's simple, but it's not easy."
A couple of weeks after the course had finished, I went to visit Friis at her home in Grey Lynn.
I asked: "How can I bring this kind of learning, this self compassion, to bear on my writing, especially given the thought, the nagging thought, that I do only do it because I want the attention and I want people to sort of see me and recognise me and if I lose that then I don't want to write anymore and then what do I do with my life? I've devoted too much time to it to go and do something else."
She made a buzzing noise as if to indicate that my thoughts were spinning wildly out of control, then said she thought there was a "generosity in the vulnerability" I bring to my work that might help others feel like they're not alone in their life struggles. "You're opening a window for people, validating the experience of being human, and it's quite courageous in this environment, isn't it?"
"Not really," I thought.
"Yeah," I said. "I mean, it is, I think, some-times, in my happier moments with what I do. And sometimes I think it's a bit cowardly."
"Oh!" she said. "Out comes the self-judger, giving you a boot!"
I never would have identified that thought as negative if she hadn't done it for me, even though I had just taken an eight-week course in which I had been trained to do exactly that.
"Oh, that's a mean one too," she said: "A coward."
"When I said it, it just felt neutral," I told her. "I said it in a neutral kind of way maybe with a bit of a laugh, but the actual thought itself was destructive."
"The intent was destructive," she said. "I think that's why when we do the session on self-criticism, the voice can be [she modulates her voice to be ironically gentle and soothing] 'Oh, aren't you a coward?' Smile and smile and still be a villain."
I said: "There's actually a part of me that thinks, 'Do I actually believe it's cowardly or was I saying that to you because I think it's how we're supposed to present?"
"Oh," she said, 'That's the self-critic again, isn't it? What would the kind part of you say to yourself? If there was another chair here with someone that for you embodied unconditional kind regard, what would that part of you say to you?"
To pose that question was simple, but to respond to it was not easy. "Um," I began, "What would it say? That you're — that I'm — writing to ... cope ... because I've developed a skill at it and that I do it to cope or to ... not cope but to kind of thrive, because it gives me a meaning in life ...
She jumped in: "Thrive!" she said, warmly, supportively, "Gives you meaning. Gives you purpose. Gives you value. Helps other people open windows in their mind, helps other people discover what it means to be human."
I took a while before responding because I hadn't said all of that and I wasn't 100 per cent sure I had even thought it.
"I can feel the resistance in me to all that," I said.
"Just stay with it," she said. "This is the practice, this is the practice, this is the life-giving practice, bringing compassion to the resistance. That resistance, which served you in some way, up until now. You learned to be a particular way in response to your particular world. It's not your fault.
"If you want to thrive and flourish and fully be happy, that's the practice, reorienting towards that part of you, the part of you that naturally wants that for your beloved children. Would you call them cowardly because they painted a picture of themselves and brought it home to show you? Would you say, 'How cowardly of you'? It almost makes you sick thinking about it doesn't it? It's such a horrific, cruel thing."
At the end of week eight, the final session, everybody had to share stories about their experience on the course. I told the story I had wanted to tell the week before. I may have spoken for only a couple of minutes or for 15.
I genuinely could not tell because time dissolved. I was captivated.
At one point, I talked about the first article I had published following my decision, in my mid-30s, that I was going to write for a living. That article was about people who produce zines, self-published, frequently quite weird, little collections of writings, drawings and other creative stuff that almost nobody reads. The central character of that story was a talented young zine-maker called Stacey. The last line of the story ran: "Like all of us, Stacey just wants her voice to be heard."
When I had finished talking, Friis took a few seconds, looked at me warmly, kindly, put her hand over her heart and said, "Thank you. I hear your voice."
Just before we left for the night, Friis started to prepare us for what she called, "Session nine" — the rest of our lives. Develop a regular practice, she suggested, a formal practice an informal practice, a regular place to practice. Use the guided meditations she said.
"May you go well," she said. "May you go well," she repeated. And the course was done.
I couldn't stop thinking: "Was my story the best?"
We stacked our chairs at the back of the room and filed out the door, where Friis stood and hugged us all individually. When I reached her, she embraced me and looked me in the eye and said, "What a beautiful story."
That's all I'd wanted to hear.