Recently, a friend interviewed me for an article she was writing about the inner critic and it was satisfying to reflect on how the practices outlined in Dr. Kristin Neff’s book, Self-Compassion, had postively impacted my life. I answered her questions as honestly as I could, describing how I was increasingly aware of moments of self-judgment and wiling to offer myself kindness. However, in the following days I developed pneumonia and didn’t feel like meditating, teaching mindfulness or offering myself compassion.
As I dragged through each days’ tasks, I became less objectively aware of the critical voice in my head and instead began to adopt its judgment as my new mantra: “You’re failing. You’re failing. You’re failing.” All the challenges I was able to see in a balanced way when I was healthy suddenly seemed entirely my fault and completely insurmountable.
Just when I thought I understood self-compassion, new circumstances and information, this time in the form of a lung infection and a kindly stranger, rushed in to alter my understanding once again. So here I’d like to share a comment I made in that interview alongside a different perspective I gained in the throes of self-loathing that followed.
Is being self-compassionate easier said than done? What are some barriers people face when trying to be self-compassionate?
“I’ve found Dr. Kristin Neff’s self-compassion exercises very easy to apply in my daily life and I am happier as a result of these practices. I think the biggest barrier to self-compassion is the belief that if we are nice to ourselves, we won’t ever accomplish anything. Self-judgment creates fear, which can be a huge motivator, but Dr. Neff has proven that self-compassion is actually more effective at motivating us to pursue and achieve our goals.”
Shortly after I made this statement, there I was coughing and putting up a poster for an upcoming meditation workshop with the inner critic insisting that the entire undertaking was futile. Rather than stepping back and recognizing this as a voice of fear, in my weakened state I felt that judgment hardening into an opinion.
Then a squat, untidy, older man approached and began to read my poster.“Ah, meditation. I’ve been meditating for 20 years,” he said smiling impishly. I wasn’t sure if he was being facetious, but I decided to take the bait. “Wow, that’s pretty amazing.” As I looked into his eyes, I realized that he was neither joking nor pestering, but quite likely to be a friendly person. “You know what the longest journey a person will ever make is?” he asked. I stared back at him blankly. “It’s the journey from here,” he said, gesturing to his head, “To here,” he continued, placing a hand over his heart. “And do you know what the hardest part of meditating is?” More blank staring from me. “It’s convincing yourself that you’re worth that journey.” He laughed heartily here, seeming to remember all the days when he really didn’t think that he was worth it.
I could blame the cold medication, but truth be told his words opened a floodgate of emotional relief and I was thankful to be wearing sunglasses. All the hardness of my harsh self-judgment softened in an instant. I don’t know what that statement meant to him, but here is what I heard: believe the kinder quieter voice that wants you to thrive on your own terms. Believe that this compassionate voice is always there, believe that it is right, and create the stillness it needs to be heard every single day. Or maybe he just meant that being self-compassionate can be really fucking difficult. Either way, I think he’s right.
“Using mindfulness we will find that anything we bring our full attention to will begin to open up and reveal worlds we never suspected existed.” Jan Chozen Bays
I don’t know what I have survived on all summer, but the muffin tins have somehow ended up in my toddlers toy chest and the crock pot is dusty. However, all it took was a couple of cool autumn evenings for me to start fantasizing about cornbread and chili and eagerly preparing a feast of filling foods.
That familiar urge to eat rich, hot, homemade food as the fall chill sets in is what Jan Chozen Bays, Zen monk and author, would categorize as cellular hunger. While our lives and minds may feel as busy as ever, our bodies are connected to the seasons and our cells urge us to slow down, stay home and eat well to prepare for the winter. Cellular hunger is just one of seven (yes, 7!) types of hunger that the author describes in delicious detail in her book Mindful Eating.
As Chozen Bays emphasizes, mindful eating is not a diet plan or a quick fix. She writes,“Will you lose or gain weight if you bring mindfulness into cooking and eating? I don’t know. What you could lose is the weight of the mind’s unhappiness with eating and dissatisfaction with food. What you could gain are a simple joy with food and an easy pleasure in eating that are you birthrights as a human being.”
I have spent the past few months paying close attention to my hunger, trying to determine, as Chozen Bays suggests, what part of me is truly hungry at each meal. Is it my belly or is it something more? If I sit just a little bit longer with my hunger, I may notice that my belly is fine but my mouth is bored, craving texture and taste for entertainment. In truth though, what I find more often than not, is that it is my heart that’s hungry. Grilled cheese and a pickle on a stressful day are an enormous comfort that remind me of when I would stay home sick from school with mom.
By paying close attention to the type of hunger we are experiencing in a moment, we create an opportunity to respond thoughtfully to the complex demands of the body, mind and heart. I still eat that grilled cheese on a tough day, but I do so as a conscious act of self-compassion. I keep in mind how the sun, rain, insects, farmers, shop owners and especially my mom have all donated their energy to feed me and I feel nourished. I think about the very building blocks of my food; the carbon, hydrogen and iron and where they originated. Before each meal, Tich Naht Hanh states, “In this food I clearly see the presence of the entire universe supporting me.” It is this feeling of being embedded in a web of interconnection that gives me a lasting sense of being full. In those slow moments, I finally have enough.
If you’d like to learn more about Mindful Eating, you can join me this Sun., Sept. 24th from 4-5:30pm for the Mindful Eating Workshop in Roncesvalles. Email firstname.lastname@example.org to register!
Pregnant with my first child and five days past my ‘official’ due date, it’s hard not to think about how this baby isn’t getting any smaller. A Dr. Seuss-like mantra appeared in my head the other day and I find myself clinging to it when panic about labour sets in. The only way out of this is through. Think less thinks and do more dos. The basic tenant of mindful meditation— to bring a curious attention to present moment experience— has never felt more important to practice. Or more challenging to remember.
Luckily, my relationship to unavoidable pain has evolved over the past nine months and has even developed into an (admittedly fragile) sense of optimism. This change in attitude has largely been due to reading about and practicing mindful pain management throughout my pregnancy.
Brain scientists are discovering that the Buddha was right; pain and suffering are not one and the same, but rather distinct categories of experience. While we may not always be able to eliminate physical pain, through meditation we can learn to regulate the psychological suffering that often makes our experience of pain more acute. The article Buddhism’s Pain Relief explains the fascinating research behind meditation and its impact on our experience of suffering.
The author describes how, with regular practice, mindful meditation techniques like the Body Scan can help us to develop a more balanced perception of our bodies, allowing us to tune in and out of pleasant and unpleasant sensations at will. Here is a link to a guided Body Scan by Tara Brach that I enjoy.
Throughout my pregnancy, I have relied on my growing ability to focus my attention on my body as a whole, rather than narrowing my attention onto my aches and pains. For example, if my back is sore, I imagine that sensation floating in my awareness and investigate it with curiosity, noticing how the feeling changes from moment to moment. Next, I scan the rest of my body. My left foot is warm and cozy. My legs feel light. I feel a pulsing in my hands. My experience of the comfortable parts of my body relaxes me and I am able to confidently return to the site of discomfort and monitor it some more. By repeating this process, I avoid panic and the resulting muscle tension that would worsen my back pain. Even if this technique is only used until that Tylenol (or epidural) kicks in, just knowing that there is an all-natural tool I can rely on decreases my anxiety and my pain.
Labour is an extreme example of no pain, no gain. Besides the fact that suffering doesn’t really rhyme with anything, research suggests that it is an experience that we have some agency over. And we do, in fact, have much to gain by opting out of it. I’ll put this theory to the ultimate test soon and let you know how it goes!