Compassionate Self-Care

These are selected excerpts from a talk given by Stephen Robbins Schwartz during a gathering in Valley Cottage, New York.

Compassionate self-care is a path of kindness and respect for ourselves. It offers a way of relating to our internal experience which is not pushed, coerced, or manipulated. In this path there are no categorical labels, no demands, no success or failure. There isn’t anything to achieve, get to, or make. No ideal state of consciousness is proposed which is any better than the one we find ourselves in right now. We allow ourselves to feel just what we are feeling, to breathe consciously, and to stay attentive to the body. We don’t let ourselves become confused by thoughts which suggest to us what our feelings mean.

Breathing is a gift to the body and to the being in and around the body. We don’t have to earn our life breath; it is given to us freely.

The breath is the principal metaphor for the process of compassionate self-care because it represents the truth of relationship, ecology, spirituality, devotion, and prayer. We are not independent. We are interdependent.

The inner work of compassionate self-care involves distinguishing between rhythmic and arrhythmic processes. Through this work, we return our life to the great rhythms of giving and receiving and respectfully let go of that which is arrhythmic. Breathing is a simple rhythm. The heart beats in another rhythm. The blood moves through the veins in yet another rhythm. The nervous system is filled with energetic pulsations. As we move deeper and deeper into the processes of the body, we find an array of rhythms and movements that are gifts to us. The moment one of the many rhythms of our life is disrupted, we can feel it. We become less clear, less balanced, and less grounded.

The feeling life is not a conceptual experience. Feelings are not ideas, but subtle physical experiences. They take place in the body. They are not inherently meaningful in the way they seem to be when we apply our thoughts and beliefs to them. Feelings are part of the rhythm, the giving and receiving, the nourishment, and the interdependent ecology of our experience here.

We are in this body, this exotic life form, on this puzzling planet, assuming that we understand what the consciously felt energetic fluctuations called feelings actually mean. Mystery is the predominant quality of our human experience. We don’t know very much. We can’t know very much and yet there is so much here, so much to receive and so much to give.

In order to discover the sacred possibility of our human embodiment, we must learn how to turn to ourselves and be with our experience in a way that truly honors our life here. This requires learning how to honor and bring dignity to each aspect of our life. We must learn what it means to attend to ourselves with absolute respect, even though we don’t really understand what we are, who we are, or where we are going.

The conditioned mind is making constant demands for closure and conceptual understanding. It lobs labels and names at our delicate experience, many of which suggest that there is something wrong, that we are undignified, ugly, or weak in various areas of our life. The path of compassionate self-care offers an antidote to the mind’s demands.


We honor the body because it is more than what it looks like. This body is not simply the physical appearance that we can see and touch. Within the body and surrounding it, there is an energetic field which cannot usually be seen by the naked eye.

The great and central opening of the human body is located in the domain of the heart. The front of the body — the heart and the area around the heart — is a portal, a subtle passageway which is responsible for our feeling life. It is through this opening that we experience courage, inspiration, love, and the creative act itself.

Turning the attention to the body is the beginning of the process of compassionate self-care. We allow whatever feeling experience we are having there to become part of the rhythms of the body. We don’t make demands on our feelings. We simply give them the space they need. We attend, allow, and respect. This is self-care.

Thoughts about feelings are a conditioned response to something we do not understand. The actuality of the feeling cannot be defined. It can only be received and allowed. We breathe, we feel, and we allow. How much time is spent each day arguing with this organic process? How much time is spent trying to force back and push away something that we think is not right about ourselves? How much time is lost disrespecting the sacred presence which inhabits and radiates from the physical form because we misunderstand the beautiful mystery of our existence here?

The feeling life is not a conceptual experience. Feelings are not ideas, but subtle physical experiences. They take place in the body.

The capacity of the conditioned mind to hate the present is very great. It suggests that life would be better if we were different from how we are now or that some state exists which is superior to the one we find ourselves in at this moment. It belittles and berates, compares and justifies. We should never underestimate the degree to which the mind holds on to its beliefs in wrongness and shame.

The way to overcome the counterforce of self-hate is to bless and respect our own experience. This self-care work is based on the principle of nonresistance, ahimsa. We don’t fight our experience. We don’t commit violence against the sacred presence of life as it has manifested within us.

Our day-to-day experience doesn’t have to be a battle, an argument, or a war. We turn toward our feeling life, offering it all the space it needs. We offer rhythm and space to every experience — good, bad, or indifferent. We return our consciousness to the rhythms of the body and allow ourselves to breathe.

As vertical beings, our very form allows us to face the world in an open and vulnerable way. We not only have eyes to see, ears to hear, skin to touch, mouth and tongue to taste, nose to smell; we also have the frontal opening, the frontal membrane, so that we can receive the energetic nourishment which pours toward us all the time.

When we turn our attention to the heart and locate our conscious identity there, we begin to understand and feel gratitude for the very interdependence that we so often try to reject. Everything is given to us. Our purpose is to receive, transform, and give back. Such is the beautiful possibility of the frontal membrane, the vertical position, and the radiant field in which our body lives.

Attention is conscious space. It is not thought. When we bring our attention to any part of the body, we are offering that part a special kind of spaciousness. When we bring our attention to our feelings, no matter how difficult they may seem to be, we are giving them a conscious space in which to expand and transform themselves organically.

What difference does it make what we’ve told ourselves all these years? What difference does it make how we’ve characterized ourselves, what we’ve believed about who we are? Here is a moment in which we can transcend all our cruel and distorted beliefs. Turning with care to our own life, coming to the heart, allows us to begin outshining those arbitrary ideas which have confined us for so long.

We know what we have said to ourselves and others about our resentments and our hurts. We know what the story is. We have run it through the mind over and over again. And this is all right. But now instead, even for just a moment or two, we turn with care toward ourselves so that we may attend to the wound — not to the story about how the wound came to be there. We enter our experience directly.

It is not wrong to hurt. The hurt is an opening, a door. It is not a cause for shame or a reminder of our ugliness. It is simply a wounded passageway in a radiant space. And healing does not require harsh words, tension, humiliation, or the stinging sneers of regret. It requires only that we attend to it with care.

Our hurt is a wound in love’s body. And even though we have been taught to turn away from that which hurts — to run, to make fun of ourselves, to break it, to get rid of it — none of that really works. Pain can’t be transformed through self-hate.

We might look at the ocean on a sunny day and notice the wind, the waves, and the whitecaps. Even though we know that each wave, each ripple, is unique, we may also be aware that the waves and all their movements are simple modulations of one great stillness. Waves appear and disappear in rhythmic fluctuations, but in the end, the waves and the ocean are the same. Our individuality, our unique qualities, are like waves — one thing appearing in different ways. From the sea we come, in the sea we live, and to the sea we must return.

Self-care means that we offer the space of our attention and the rhythm of our breath to every feeling that we perceive. We are feeling beings. We are rhythmic beings. We are beings who dwell in spaciousness. And in this human body, we are also beings of warmth. The body is warm. Warmth and space and rhythm permeate our life here. When we fight against our feelings by applying the arrhythmic vehicle of thought, attempting to hold them back, they do not appear to be warm; they seem cold, or neutral at best.

As we open to our feelings and breathe with them, we can begin to discover the warmth which lies within. Even those feelings we’ve labeled as dark and difficult are like hardened seeds with a warm and nourishing core. Deep inside every feeling is warmth. Warm energies meet the warm body and are conducted through warmth toward expression and return.

It’s true that he hurt us, she left us. It’s true that he or she died. It’s true that we did not live up to someone’s expectations for us or they did not live up to ours. It’s true, perhaps, that we are ill or that the bank account is not filled in the way we want it to be. But all that can subside for a moment when we come back to the hurt, if hurt is there. We return our attention to the breath to find the space at the source of all things. Into this space we go, and from this space we return. That is what it means to be born again. It’s not what we believe. It’s not what scripture we read. It’s not the moral code we subscribe to. It’s the washing we receive as we stay with the body and breathe, as we enter into the silence so that we may cast off the old clothes — the resentments, the regrets, the self-hate — and sit for a while in the mystery. Then we return again, cleansed.

Back to main page for Stephen Schwartz.