Stoic Compassion with Meredith Kunz
This month I interview Meredith Alexander Kunz, a writer and editor who has worked in journalism, higher education, and the technology industry. In 2016, she created The Stoic Mom blog (www.thestoicmom.com), exploring the many ways that caregivers and kids can benefit from practicing Stoic life philosophy. She is a contributing editor for The STOIC magazine and has shared her writing, talks, and interviews on the Stoicism Today blog, podcasts, NPR-affiliate radio, and conferences. She earned her bachelor’s degree from Harvard College and master’s degree from Stanford University. Follow her on Twitter @thestoicwoman.
Brittany: Thank you for speaking with me, Meredith! On your blog you cover a wide range of topics related to being a good person and raising good people, and I highly recommend that readers take a look at The Stoic Mom. But in this interview I’d like to specially focus on one of your areas of expertise: compassion. (Check out Meredith's blog posts on compassion here.) This is a topic I’ve been exploring a lot lately, and I think it’s very important to incorporate into our modern versions of Stoicism. So I’m very happy to have this conversation with you.
To start off, would you tell us a bit about your Compassion Cultivation Training at Stanford? How did it change your mindset? What was it like cultivating compassion alongside experienced teachers and meditators?
Meredith: Thanks for inviting me to speak with you, Brittany! I decided to pursue Compassion Cultivation Training in 2016, around the same time that I adopted a Stoic life philosophy. I was seeking new approaches, partly for myself, and partly to share with my family and my community through volunteering. For a long time, I’d been interested in learning about the nature of compassion and the role it could play in making us better people, and in how we could grow this positive part of ourselves. I took part in the Compassion Cultivation Training at Stanford University, which combines approaches rooted in science (from the Stanford School of Medicine) and in meditation/contemplation (affiliated with Buddhists who worked with the Dalai Lama). My teacher was a former Buddhist monk who had spent many years meditating, and he emphasized that part of the practice.
Why compassion? I have always tried to “be there” for other people in my life, but sometimes I felt frustrated that I couldn’t change or help things for people who struggled. I also wanted to learn about how to be “be there” for myself. In the class, I discovered I had low self-compassion, and that was something I wanted to address in myself as well. Both of these elements also motivated me to explore and adopt Stoic practices, too. In the training, we did weekly readings and participated in in-person, live practices and discussions. Our teacher presented scientific evidence about the benefits of compassion and of how we perceive and treat others. He also gave us techniques for growing our compassion and self-compassion through meditation. Students shared experiences that had led us to this training, and how we were working each week to apply the new methods.
People came from all walks of life to participate, but especially medical, mental health, and alternative health professionals. It gave me a window into what they cope with in fields where they are helping people going through trauma and pain. In the context of 2016, I also was in this class during a time in the US when political passions and tensions were rising. This was bubbling over into our training.
Compassion is a very human, generous, and kind approach to other people, the complete opposite of the polarizing and often demonizing rhetoric about others that we have been hearing in the political sphere. That was important to me, too, to see that there are other ways of talking about and thinking about other humans. It helped my mindset immeasurably.
Learning about this in the setting of a medical school also made me see that compassion for others and self-compassion are not just a “nice to have” emotional support. There is actual research evidence showing the value of these approaches for people’s mental and physical health, and their long-term well-being. There are also physical ramifications to the stress and anxiety that happen when we don’t adopt these approaches and when we ignore the negative emotions that well up inside us. So it does matter in a fundamental way.
Brittany: Most readers will probably have pre-existing ideas about what compassion is. But could you take us to square one and explain what it is and why it is important?
Meredith: Compassion is bringing our caring and love to address suffering and pain. That pain may belong to other people or, in the case of self-compassion, to ourselves.
In one of my books by a compassion expert, the authors write: “Compassion may be defined as ‘sensitivity to the pain or suffering of another, coupled with a deep desire to alleviate that suffering.’”
It begins with the realization and acceptance that people do experience pain in life. It emphasizes and strengthens our ability to be near it, sit with it, and be a comfort and support to that person (or to yourself), without constantly trying to solve it. To me, this is a very Stoic approach. When we struggle, we feel alone. A compassion practice combats that in a meaningful way, because it’s about how we can reach out to each other during difficult times. That can bring healing and strength to others, and to ourselves. When people in our lives experience suffering, grief, or depression, we can picture ourselves as a loving flame. Those in pain can come close and can hold their hands up to the fiery warmth. In time this may help, or it may not, but it’s the best we can do under difficult circumstances.
We can bring this same attitude to ourselves to increase our resilience and inner strength, and to bolster ourselves when we make mistakes or have setbacks.
Brittany: Many Stoics are interested in Buddhist techniques for developing compassion, but I also think there is space for a homegrown version of Stoic compassion. The problem is that this area has not been sufficiently explored. Do you see any areas of Stoicism that would support the development of compassion? Do you think it’s an optional part of Stoicism or a necessary one?
Meredith: To me, compassion is a necessary part of Stoic practice. The Stoics I have read did not believe in separating yourself out from other humans. Instead, you live in relation to others, and have obligations and duties towards them. This necessarily means that you will encounter others’ pain. When it comes to how we respond to that, I think Epictetus helps us to understand the difference between emotional empathy and the kind of compassion that we were taught to cultivate in my training.
I go back to this quote:
Whenever you see someone in tears, distraught because they are parted from a child, or have met with some material loss, be careful lest the impression move you to believe that their circumstances are truly bad. Have ready the reflection that they are not upset by what happened—because other people are no upset when the same thing happens to them—but by their own view of the matter. Nevertheless, you should not disdain to sympathize with them, at least with comforting words, or even to the extent of sharing outwardly in their grief. But do not commiserate with your whole heart and soul.
- Epictetus, Handbook, Chapter 16
I learned in studying compassion that while it is possible to drain yourself psychologically through an excess of empathy, compassion is bottomless and, potentially, very healing. I liked Epictetus’ framing here, that we could comfort with words, and share outwardly in another’s grief, but still preserve our heart and soul.
The issue is that with a traditional definition of empathy, you try to put yourself “in the other person’s shoes.” If that person is consumed with grief and sorrow, or other very powerful emotions, you find yourself experiencing those same feelings. You may even overidentify, feel overwhelmed, and be completely exhausted and experience what some call empathy fatigue. That’s OK in the very short term, but if it continues over a long time, that suffering can become your own suffering. It can turn into difficult emotions that you can’t solve. Ultimately, you can’t relieve the other person’s pain and it is up to that person to cope. As Stoics, we understand this; it’s embedded in the dichotomy of control.
As compassionate people, our goal, instead, is to be present, be available, be caring and kind and comforting—but not to take on the other person’s emotions nor to try to fix them. Being compassionate is always available to us.
Brittany: What techniques do you find most useful for cultivating compassion in your personal practice? For someone who has never tried these before, where would you recommend that a beginner start?
Meredith: I think this post summarizes some of the best techniques for compassion meditations. A great place to start is with the loving-kindness meditation. One of my books points out that the Dalai Lama has said loving-kindness is “the wish that all sentient beings may be happy.” It’s an English translation of the Pali term “metta,” which can also be translated as “friendliness.” Compassion experts also say that this practice is “dose dependent”—the more you do it, the more powerful it can be. It can increase joy, and decrease anxiety.
One of the interesting things that my teacher pointed out is that in some cultures, and in earlier times, people have found it easier to start their compassionate thinking and their loving-kindness meditation with themselves: “May I be happy.” But in modern Western cultures, they may find it easier to start with someone else: “May you be happy” or “May the world be at peace.”
You can experiment with your own approaches and what feels comfortable to you as you get started. It’s really about centering the love and growing that flame of compassion inside of you, so that you can also bring it to others around you in your concentric “circles of concern” (as the Stoics put it). So while it begins inside of you, it radiates outward in all you do. I love this idea.
There are more advance forms of cultivating compassion that involve taking in the suffering of others, processing it, and expelling it out. This is a form of meditation called Tonglen. It’s considered important to do other practices first, because this one can conjure up negative emotions if the practitioner is not prepared.
Brittany: I really love your exploration of self-compassion (as presented by psychologist Kristen Neff) and Stoicism. First of all, thank you for sharing your own personal struggle with self-criticism. I think this is something many of us can relate to, and it’s inspiring to see someone confronting it candidly and developing ways to overcome self-criticism. Could you share more about the value of self-compassion?
Meredith: Self-compassion is something I’ve struggled with for many years. I grew up in a competitive school environment, and I put a lot of pressure on myself to excel. I cared so much about my academic goals that I often ignored my emotional life. Back then, I used negative self-talk to motivate myself to keep working hard, and the voices in my head were super harsh.
When I took a self-compassion assessment during the compassion training, I was shocked by how low my results were. That’s when I realized I had to find a new approach. I knew I wanted to learn to be more self-compassion for myself, and for my relationships. The idea of “being hard on myself” was deeply engrained, and I was amazed that the self-compassion concept specifically addressed that habit of thought and held the promise of kicking it to the curb.
I love the work of Kristin Neff, and of her frequent collaborator, Christopher Germer, on mindful self-compassion. I had the good fortune to attend a weekend workshop they put together where I learned a lot of their research-based methods. I also strongly recommend their workbook, The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook.
Kristin Neff is an academic researcher in psychology who has focused on self-compassion and who also teaches and writes for the general public. Christopher Germer, a psychotherapist and lecturer on psychiatry, also teaches meditation.
If you look into their work, you’ll see how it resonates with Stoic ideas. Neff explains that self-compassion consists of three components: self-kindness, mindfulness, and common humanity. Self-kindness is the conscious decision to view yourself with kindness, rather than ignoring your pain or being self-critical. When people’s expectations are not met, she says, they tend to feel stress and frustration, and may launch into self-criticism. But when we accept the reality of our situation, with less judgment and with more equanimity, level-headedness is possible. This is a very Stoic concept! Mindfulness focuses on noticing your thoughts, emotional reactions, and sensations in the moment without judgment. Common humanity means that all humans have vulnerabilities, deal with frustrations and disappointments, and are imperfect. This helps us gain more compassion towards ourselves and others, fostering pro-social connections. If you’re concerned that not being hard on yourself will make you a slacker (like I was), Neff cites research about motivation showing that people who are kind to themselves about their mistakes and failures—people who have self-compassion—actually do better. They are more likely to set new goals for themselves rather than dwelling on their disappointments and frustrations. They demonstrate healthier behaviors and stick to their health-related goals, such as quitting smoking, exercising, working towards weight loss. Self-critics are more likely to be anxious and depressed, and they harbor a fear of failure because they view mistakes as unacceptable. Been there, done that.
Self-compassion, on the other hand, gives kids and adults the “emotional resources” they need to pick themselves up and try again. The self-compassionate people Neff has studied can accept mistakes and acknowledge them with equanimity. Instead of ruminating, they move on, keep going, and make their best efforts. Sounds very Stoic to me; I think Marcus Aurelius would definitely agree.
Brittany: How does self-compassion help our relationships?
Meredith: Neff and Germer point out that many people worry that self-compassion is “selfish.” They associate caring about one’s self to being self-centered. But that’s not accurate at all. In fact, maintaining self-compassion makes us better people to be around, more resilient, more willing to help and work with others.
They point to research showing that self-compassionate people have “happier and more satisfying romantic relationships.” They are viewed as more nonjudgmental and more accepting of their partners, and instead of trying to change the other person, they are more willing to respect that person’s opinion and talk over problems. They give the other more freedom and autonomy, too.
Isn’t that interesting? Those who lack self-compassion, on the other hand, are described as more controlling and critical, inflexible and self-centered. Neff and Germer point out that
to have the type of close, connected relationships we really want with others, we first need to feel close and connected to ourselves. By being supportive towards ourselves in times of struggle, we gain the emotional resources needed to care for our significant others. When we meet our own needs for love and acceptance, we can place fewer demands on our partners, allowing them to be more fully themselves. Cultivating self-compassion is far from selfish. It gives us the resilience we need to build and sustain happy relationships in our lives.
This was revelatory for me, because I realized that a side-effect of my self-criticism was actually that it made me more critical and demanding of others, including my own family. By developing my own respect for and caring for myself, I could honor my inner daemon, my spark of reason and Logos in a Stoic sense. I could get closer to my own guiding spirit. And as I have practiced both self-compassion and Stoicism, I have found my relationships have gotten better, stronger, and more positive overall.
Brittany: In a post called What We’re Teaching Kids About Self-Esteem Needs Work, you suggest that teaching kids self-compassion is a much healthier alternative to teaching self-esteem. I really like your point that self-esteem “is often about comparing our own achievements, skills, and talents with other people’s and talking ourselves into believing that we are a lot better than they are.” Can you say more about how self-compassion can help us to avoid the comparison trap and maintain a healthy relationship with ourselves?
Meredith: This is a really interesting topic, and one that needs more attention. Neff writes that she spent two postdoctoral years training with a leading self-esteem researcher. She saw many downsides of self-esteem as a concept. For instance, it encourages kids to feel “special and above average.” But that could lead to increased narcissism, or the need to compare themselves to others—creating competition.
She also points out that self-esteem is contingent. This, to me, is the worst element of it. It’s dependent on how we do. So for example, if we base our self-esteem on the idea that we are “good at math” and then we get a poor math grade on this week’s test, immediately we feel defeated and not good enough. We are instantly “a failure” in the thing that was propping up our sense of self-worth. That’s not healthy for our self-image, makes us self-critical, and teaches us to avoid situations where we might fail.
Self-compassion, instead, rests on knowing that we are imperfect and will sometimes fail (like all people), but that we are still inherently good and valuable as human beings. We can learn to “be there” for ourselves when things are hard, knowing that we are doing the best that we can at that particular moment. We can notice what’s bothering us, and step in to give ourselves support. It’s a super important lesson for kids to learn resilience and gain positive self-worth.
Brittany: You have also taught compassion to teens and pre-teens. Can you share your approach and strategies? Is this something that other parents and teachers could do with their own children?
Meredith: Compassion and self-compassion are critical for kids. Our children are constantly confronted with competition, judgment, and having to do stuff they don’t want to do with people they don’t necessarily enjoy. They need a lot of this!
One of the great things I found in compassion training is about trying to see the good in others and in myself. Can we give people the benefit of the doubt? Kids can understand this and sometimes apply it better than we can. I’ve noticed that in particular, one of my daughters is very good at this. Even when I’m driving and she’s in the car hearing me rant about a “terrible driver” she says, “Mom, he might be going to visit his sick mother in the hospital. Don’t be so angry.” That’s compassion.
A central message of Stoicism is that we ought to adjust our expectations, and this is very important in compassionate thinking. We need a dose of reality. Our endless wishes—which run very deep in our competitive culture—can cause us pain when they don’t come true. This is a source of suffering that we can alleviate with compassion. We, and our kids, have to remind ourselves that things often don’t go as expected, aren’t quite right, or are downright disappointing. Bringing a spirit of compassion helps. We are not entitled to it all: a spot on the baseball team, a place to sit at the cool lunch table, the latest video game release, etc. And even if we strive for the things we really want, we may miss. Another message: Even if we get everything we want, it won’t necessarily satisfy us—and, after all, we could lose them, or they might not be as cool as we thought they’d be.
So I ask my kids, and the kids I volunteer teach, to look at their own intentions, and to get in touch with their inner sense of themselves. To begin with loving-kindness, on some level, for themselves and others, knowing that they and most other people they encounter are just trying their best in a difficult world. Did you try hard? Did you show kindness? Were you brave?
Side note here: I like to go back to the Stoic virtues when I think of positive things kids can think about themselves. You did what you could… so be kind to yourself, use your self-compassion to remind yourself you are good enough, you are lovable, you do have so many great attributes. It’s not the “getting and spending” that will make you happy. It’s the way you live, the attitude you bring, the relationship you cultivate. And compassion makes all of this better.
Brittany: Any other thoughts about Stoicism and compassion you would like to share with readers?
Meredith: Compassion is so powerful. It may sound like a cliché at first. But in fact, bringing a loving heart along with the knowledge that you have the courage to support others by just being there—without fixing them—is quite amazing. It is liberating to you and to your loved ones. You can let go of the guilt for not being able to solve another person’s problems, while embracing the positive emotions and virtues that you can share with that person—or with yourself!
A huge thank you to Meredith Kunz for her beautiful insights into Stoicism and compassion! You can read more of Meredith's work at The Stoic Mom, or listen to her interviews with Jonathan Bastian on KCRW.