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  • Mara Elwood

Mindfulness Vs. Compassion?

As I try and build my teaching up in the big city of Auckland I have come across some resistance from people to promote Mindful Self-Compassion. Sometimes this is because I am approaching people that teach more Mindfulness based programs such as MBSR or Mindfulness Works, and they feel that I would be “stealing” their clients. Other times I have approached yoga teachers, or spaces that host that type of wellbeing programming, and they respond with, “Oh, no thanks, we already have Mindfulness being taught in our own programs.” Again with the undertone of, you are the competition, why would we want to help you fill your classes? So I launch into my explanation of how MSC is actually not a Mindfulness program, but a Compassion program, and that I have no intention of “stealing” clients. In fact, I appreciate when my participants have had training in a Mindfulness based program before they attend MSC. Unfortunately, even that has limited results as I am still seen as “competition”.


Mindfulness does have a very important role in MSC because if we are not aware enough to notice when we are suffering, we can’t respond with compassion. Mindfulness also helps to anchor us, so that we can engage with the emotionally difficult exercises without becoming unmoored and overwhelmed. Mindfulness is very good for turning inwards and locating our felt experience in our bodies without judging or resisting. Mindfulness creates the space to respond with kindness and warmth, or fierce compassion, whatever we need in this particular instance of struggle.


Mindfulness and self-compassion work closely together. Kristin Neff and Chris Germer say; “We need mindfulness to be self-compassionate, and self-compassion gives us the sense of safety needed to be mindful.” There is a balance needed in cultivating both Mindfulness and Compassion with wisdom and skill. Mindfulness training (such as MBSR, MBCT, etc.) usually holds implicit in it the wisdom of compassionate response, whereas Mindfulness is very explicitly cultivated. Compassion training (MSC, CCT, etc.) hold implicit the Mindfulness needed to notice suffering, and Compassion is explicitly cultivated in response.


Chris Germer says, “When we struggle, we give ourselves compassion not to feel better, but because we feel bad.” This is the ultimate paradox that is difficult to grasp, because we have always been taught that struggle and suffering is bad and we need to make it go away to feel better. The reality is that sometimes there is an easy fix, but most times, trying to fight the difficulties we encounter in our human lives, actually increases the suffering. Even when applying a “quick fix” that struggle often repeats until we have learnt from it what we need. If we are opening mindfully to a struggle and the acceptance of the suffering and compassionate response to be gentle with ourselves, or stand up for ourselves without resisting the struggle is not available to us, because our training has been mostly mindfulness and not compassion, we are missing something.

From the teacher handbook for MSC I put together the following chart that I send out to my participants after the one session that focuses on Mindfulness in the MSC program;



I remind them that both Mindfulness and Compassion work together; Mindfulness to bring awareness to compassionate response in case it starts to become a hidden form of resistance, and Compassion to give a safe space to opening to suffering mindfully.


So I am wondering, can we work together as Mindfulness and Compassion based teachers to offer intentional cultivation of both these practices instead of feeling competition between programs? Neither type of program seems completely balanced, and bringing them together in partnership would make sense to me. For now I will practice self-compassion when a Mindfulness teacher says, “no thanks” and refuses to pass on my details, and I will continue to open mindfully to new opportunities for growth of MSC programs.