It is one thing to believe in a well-being practice and to espouse it as effective to others, but quite another to feel it working deeply and directly on oneself. This week, learning Hopkins’ My Own Heart poem by heart, I have felt time and again, especially with these first few lines, the medicine of the poem kicking in as soon as I began to recite it, decisively and without delay, restorative, as much as any fast-acting drug might work: insulin, nitroglycerin, beta-blockers, morphine, heroin, poetry.
What am I saying here? That the act of intoning these words mantra-like, over and over again, learning them by heart, taking them into my psyche, allows me to feel almost instantly and proprioceptively the poem’s calming influence. Even at times when I was not aware of needing to be calmed or soothed, it seems to do the job. How can that be?
Hopkins, Jesuit trained, might have intimated divine intervention, the power of De Profundis (out of our depths) prayer, a petitionary genre of talking to God originating in Psalm 130:
Out of the depths have I cried unto thee, O Lord.
Lord, hear my voice:
Let thine ears be attentive
to the voice of my supplications.
This might be the case. But I am probably more wont to believe that this poem-prayer-spell is testimony to the therapeutic power of self-compassion, which in the last couple of decades psychologists and neuroscientists have shown to have impressive healing potential.
How does this work? Building on the research of Richard Davidson, and Jaak Panksepp, key to understanding the power of De Profundis prayers or poems lies in grasping the basic emotional circuitry shared by every mammal from humans to rats.
In this case, we’re particularly interested in the neural pathway that Panksepp calls The Care Circuit, extending from the hypothalamus to the ventral tegmental area (VTA) which is key to generating feel-good neurochemicals like oxytocin and endogenous opioids that have been shown to sooth negative emotions and reduce distress.
We get our first taste of these feel-good drugs as infants, either when self-soothing (with a soft toy, a dummy, or finger-sucking) or when being caressed, cradled, hugged and rocked by our parents or other caregivers. Interestingly, just as we can scare or make ourselves feel angry by dwelling on certain kinds of thoughts and situations, activating our own Fear Circuit or Rage Circuit, even when there is nothing in our environment that is tangibly threatening through autonomous self-compassion can recruit the Care Circuit to produce those feel-good oxytocins and opioids.
As Tim Desmond puts it: “from your brain’s perspective, comforting yourself, is almost identical to being nurtured by someone else”. Before this can become a spontaneous habit of well-being, a certain amount of effort and attention might be required though; as much effort and attention as it takes to learn and repeat a poem or a prayer over the course of a week, or a lifetime. And it is this effort of self-care, in opposition to our punitive super-egos telling us we don’t deserve this care, that makes it a challenge for most of us to “have more have pity on” ourselves, to give ourselves a break.
Hopkins alerts us to this in the first line of the poem, shifting the quantifying determiner “more” from its expected position in front of the noun (“let me have more pity”) to the verb (“more have”) so as to highlight the conscious effort required for self-compassion. Just as it takes a similar kind of application when learning the poem, to keep Hopkin’s “unnatural” prosodic choices in place as we commit his words to memory. With repetition, these new, somewhat contorted forms of language begin to feel as legitimate, if not more legitimate than the habitual phrasing we usually employ. Which is perhaps what happens too if we practice kindness and self-compassion towards ourselves.
Onerous as it can initially feel, self-compassion is a very simple recipe with just 3 ingredients:
1. I KNOW I’M SUFFERING (“With this tormented mind tormenting yet”)
2. I ALSO KNOW THAT I WANT BE HAPPY (“let joy size”)
3. I KNOW I’M NOT ALONE IN THIS QUEST (“Soul, self; come, poor Jackself”)
SO…LET ME BE ESPECIALLY KIND AND CARING TOWARDS MYSELF (My own heart let me more have pity on / … call off thoughts awhile / Elsewhere; leave comfort root-room; let joy size…” etc.)
But like many simple recipes (brownies, tomato sauce, pesto, ice-cream) the difference between mediocre results and something truly excellent is often immediately discernible.
What comes out of this poem is the necessity for what our current healing practitioners, aka science-ratified psychologists, might call Dialogue Based Mindfulness, which is also a key aspect to many therapeutic practices like Schema Therapy or Internal Family Systems.
This essentially requires us to separate the part of us that is suffering, referred to in the poem as “poor Jackself” from the part of us that can offer care and comfort. In the second stanza, we see this dialogue in action with Hopkins compassionately “advising”, guiding, even genially wheedling to some extent his “jaded”, depressed self to call off toxic ruminations and cut himself a little slack.
The wisdom of this dialogue is that Hopkins also seems to be suggesting that we can create a certain kind of terrain for happiness to embed itself (“leave comfort room-room”) just as I’m about to do later in the garden today, weeding and enriching the depleted post-summer sod with nutrients so that I can grow next years bulbs and flowers. We can to some extent orchestrate the conditions for happiness, but there is also the understanding that its advent might be something of a gift: “whose smile / ’s not wrung, see you; unforeseen times rather”.
And yet, when comfort does come, “as skies / Betweenpie mountains – lights a lovely mile” the freshness of Hopkins prosody, that lovely punning portmanteau word “betweenpie” (mountains as pies? pie as in “Pied Beauty“, “glory be to God for dappled things”?) squeezes an extra slug of neuromodulating opioids from our skittish neurons, and we really do feel, physically as well as metaphysically more at ease.
Don’t believe me? Try it for yourself! Take a self-compassion poem that speaks to you, like this one, learn it off by heart and repeat it as often as you need to throughout the day when feeling a bit off. Feedback below in the Comments box if you like.