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Mindful Self-Compassion: What Desert Resilience Can Teach Us about Human Resilience

Cryptogamic soil is fascinating: resilient and delicate at once.  It represents so much wonder, a bit like mindful self-compassion.  If you’re unfamiliar, cryptogamic (cryptobiotic) soil is a kind of crust that forms on the surface of exposed soil in very arid places, like southern UT, around Moab, and in New Mexico’s high deserts.  It is one of innumerable ways nature is resilient and therefore a metaphor for the benefits of self-compassion.  


Like the blue green algae, diatoms, golden brown algae, lichens and mosses that make up this crust, cultivating self-compassion can serve as a resilient shield. The varied texture that the cryptobiotic crust forms helps to capture more moisture from the air and conserve the existing moisture below it.  Likewise, relating to oneself with a kind, understanding inner-dialogue as an auto-coach who has got one’s own back, helps to maintain strength (creating an inner environment that believes its own strength and wisely knows how to fortify it) and draws in more strength from the environment.  


When humans trounce through deserts where cryptogamic crusts have formed over decades (if not longer), in a footfall, we can crush this shield of resilience and invite a cycle of erosion.  Self-compassion is a habit, and as habits do, they take time to cultivate.  Fortunately for us, self-compassion cannot be crushed in seconds because rather than being somewhat brittle when perfectionistic, being self-compassionate fosters flexibility of spirit.  With it, one is ready to get up more times than one falls. 


When difficulties arise, the habit of self-compassion allows one to feel difficult emotions (yes, and allows one to practice recognizing that being human means we have difficult emotions and get used to knowing that that is OK) in order to heal the source of them.  “What we can feel, we can heal.” Perhaps an analogy to the soil, is the more humans know that one footfall can wreak havoc on this natural wonder, cryptogamic soil crust, the more we can mindfully and compassionately seek not to tread upon it.  As we gain awareness that it’s OK to own that we have difficult emotions and learn to hold them with compassion, we maintain and grow resilience.


It takes a lot of practice to be able to feel difficult emotions with awareness. Our system is built to avoid it with fight, flight or freezing (workaholism, alcoholism, blaming, shopping, social media, gaming, other simple ways we distract ourselves, and often the ways we admonish ourselves for feeling anything outside the “happy” spectrum). 


 And, amazingly enough–truly it’s a wonder-inducing phenomenon–like kickass soil crust, the more kindly we relate to ourselves, the “tougher” we get because we can hold anger, frustration, stress, etc. better, we can actually turn our awareness to them and feel them. This allows us to respond rather than react–imagine the courage of the few like Nelson Mandela, MLK, and Helen Keller. 


 It doesn’t happen overnight, heck maybe it takes dedicated practice to flourish, like the cryptobiotic soil, and it is worth it. I’m on the path, and loving each moment when “I remember” and my practice pays off.  And I am as passionate about teaching the tools of the mindful self compassion trade, as I am fascinated by resilient soil crust.  Yes, I said that. 


Cryptogamic Soil near El Rito, NM


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