by Amrit Daryanani, PhD
The time was 15th century Japan, during the Muromachi period. The arts were flourishing, and unique minimalist aesthetics were emerging that would come to define cultural norms valuing simplicity and connections with nature. The place was a grand palace in the capital city Heian-kyo, which would later become Kyoto. The person was a powerful shogun who was widely known as a patron of the arts. The event itself was mundane; a tea bowl was dropped and broken. But this was no ordinary tea bowl. It was a special object, a prized piece of art that was much valued for its beauty. The destruction of such an object was a disaster.
The shogun was dismayed.
The tea bowl was sent to local artisans for repair. In due time it was mended in the traditional manner utilizing iron staples. When it was returned, the shogun was even more dismayed. Even though its functionality had been restored, the beauty of the vessel had been destroyed by the crudeness of the repairs. Not willing to accept the loss of such a treasured object, the shogun sent the bowl on a journey to the finest artisans he could find, requesting that it be restored to its original beauty.
When the tea bowl eventually returned, the shogun was awed. The broken places and pieces had been mended with gold. This new version of the bowl was stunning, and was far more beautiful than the original had been. And so the art form of kintsugi was born. Kintsugi translates as “joined with gold.”
This beautiful tradition has a great deal to offer us during these days of the pandemic. We are all coping with new norms and new sets of worries that did not exist a mere year ago. And all of us are being asked to cope with brokenness in some form, whether the brokenness is close to home or touches us through the pain being experienced in our broader society.
The power to confront pain with beauty is a tremendous gift that we can offer to ourselves and bring to our world. And one of the most powerful forms of beauty in action is the activity of compassion. Kristin Neff, noted American psychologist and professor of psychology of the University of Texas, Austin, has long focused her research efforts on self-compassion. Her work invites us to look deeply at the nature of suffering and healing using the self as the starting point of practice. It also invites us to engage ourselves with clarity; self-compassion is not about indulgence, pandering to the ego, or falling into self-pity. It is about learning to relate to ourselves with warmth and kindness as we engage with our own internal suffering and pain. Such engagement requires that we explore the boundaries of our own suffering in a thoughtful manner, turning to, rather than running from, painful emotions. When we do this we have the opportunity to deepen our understanding of ourselves and tap into places of inner strength rather than engaging in self-soothing behaviors that may be unhealthy at best or destructive at worst.
The relationship with kintsugi is clear. Unless we touch the edges of that which is broken, and take a full account of how this impacts the whole, how could we ever reimagine the vessel and apply gold to that which is damaged? If we are to be a goldsmith, we must know the internal canvas that is our very being, even if that exploration takes us into difficult or painful places. We must venture there if we are to bring the healing light of gold.
From a scientific view, the practice of self-compassion offers tremendous benefits. Harvard Medical School reports that individuals who practice self-compassion have lower levels of both anxiety and depression. Becoming familiar with negative emotions allows us to befriend them and manage them rather than to succumb to them. From this interior exploration, we learn to create the inner conditions for well-being and strength. This is especially notable during our current times, as the pandemic is producing elevated numbers of individuals struggling with mental health or substance abuse challenges. In June of 2020, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) conducted a study indicating that 40% of American adults were suffering from a disorder of anxiety, depression, trauma, or substance abuse related to the pandemic. These numbers in turn have led to calls for an increased public health response to issues pertaining to mental health and addiction.
In the school setting, the practice of self-compassion can take many forms. For younger students, classroom lessons centered around kindness can include sections asking how we might be kind to ourselves and understanding of ourselves. Such lessons begin the cognitive process of helping students look inward. This in turn allows students to examine their own thoughts and feelings, and to begin to take ownership of them. This sets the stage for metacognition, a psychological term that refers to our ability to think about our own thinking and emotional regulation processes. Older students can be introduced to this concept through advisory or wellness programming that focuses on emotional awareness and that invites students to spend time actively working with their own emotional processes. For older students especially, introducing the need to actively find balance in one’s life can be transformative.
The philosophy of kintsugi is helpful as an overarching attitude regarding mistakes, whether they be errors of omission or commission. To be able to meet a mistake with an attitude of compassion rather than castigation and self-criticism is an approach that allows us to engage with error with warmth, curiosity, and creativity rather than guilt and shame. School is an ideal place to cultivate this attitude as the learning process itself involves errors and mistakes, and the opportunity for recovery. A mistake that has been made is not simply about giving a wrong answer when the mistake has the potential to lead to a new discovery or a better process of doing work. When considering mistakes that have been made in the realm of the social and emotional, this attitude provides a foundation that invites authentic engagement and healing.
Self-compassion is certainly one approach that offers hope during these troubled times. As a skill-set it can be learned, and as a personal philosophy it can be transformative. Self-compassion practice both reveals and heals the human heart. And, when we hold ourselves with love and respect, practicing compassion for the self, we also deepen our connection with others in both their joy and their suffering. Over time, it ultimately gives us the strength and the wisdom to extend compassion beyond the self to the world around us, bringing gold along for the journey ahead.
Contact information: Amrit Daryanani, PhD firstname.lastname@example.org