Anyone who has attended a meditation or mindfulness course for longer than a few weeks will have encountered a loving kindness, or Metta, practice. Typically, we usually find the self-kindness aspect difficult, noticing that it is relatively easy to send kindness to, or to think kind thoughts about, someone we love and have an easy relationship with, a little harder with someone we know less well, difficult with someone we have a more troubled relationship with, and almost impossible for ourselves.
Many people shrink away from the idea completely at first. Some are embarrassed, some were taught that the feelings of others are more important than our own. We may have been conditioned in childhood to accept our needs not being met, we may be carrying feelings of shame or guilt, or unworthiness, which take some time to resolve.
Gradually though we usually come to a point where we can at least form an intention of kindness towards ourselves and then over months or years develop an attitude of kindness for ourselves.
Self-Care is not self-ish!
Research by Dan Siegel has shown that self-care is integral to emotion regulation. An inability to feel comfortable with the self in a meaningful and supportive way actually causes changes in our brains (through neuroplasticity) which negatively affect our ability to engage in meaningful relationships with others. To have good relationships in our lives we must create mental maps which help us negotiate our way through complex emotions and experiences, if our relationship with ourselves is negative, or even harmful, if we believe we don’t deserve to be looked after, this creates a map which makes it very difficult to be fully open and present with another human being. Instead, we become closed and even distant and can end up causing emotional distress to those we love. Dr. Dan Siegel Home Page - Dr. Dan Siegel (drdansiegel.com)
As Oren Jay Sofer explains, if we can’t care for ourselves adequately how on earth do we learn to care for others? He explains that self-care is crucial for healthy relationships as we learn about compassion, boundaries and being present. He also explains that the problem with self-care only arises if it is unbalanced, if we are so self-interested that we lose our sense of relating, or become self-obsessed or even narcissistic, this is clearly counter-productive, and it is the fear of allowing this to happen that can prevent many of us from starting down the path of self-care in the first place. However, the other extreme – ignoring our own needs, putting everyone else first, having no boundaries, confusing self-care with self-indulgence – is scientifically proven to be problematic not just for ourselves but for those around us. Mindful Communication and Meditation (orenjaysofer.com)
But why does it seem to get harder the more we practice?
The answer is quite simple and akin to our experiences with mind wandering. We begin to focus on the breath, for example, and within seconds the mind has wandered to the shopping list or what happened earlier on that day, and we inevitably become frustrated. We start to question our ability to meditate: “I just don’t have one of those brains that can stay focused that long!” but with time, patience and teaching we learn that minds wander, this is what they do. Mind wandering is even called the ‘Default Mode’ by neuroscientists since this is what the mind defaults to whenever it doesn’t absolutely have to be concentrating on something specific. It has its own network (the Default Mode Network) and there are good evolutionary reasons why the brain defaults to mind wandering. We just happen to know through many thousands of studies that unfortunately the useful functions of mind wandering, which evolved over hundreds of thousands of years, come at an emotional cost, something the survival parts of the brain care little about but which affect our emotional well-being.
So, we gradually come to realise that mind wandering is normal, we accept it and simply return to the chosen focus of the meditation as soon as we notice we have drifted away. Once we let go of the idea that the mind should never wander, it begins to stay focused for longer periods and we notice much more quickly when it does wander.
As Dan Harris reminds us, “There’s a myth about meditation that it’s just about ‘Zenning Out’ and becoming a kind of blank slate with no thoughts or identity whatsoever” whereas in fact we become more in touch with ourselves as we sit with what is here in the moment, with the totality of being. We can at times experience the spaciousness that arises without thought but before long we “dance back into ourselves, and the cycle begins again.” Meditation and Pride — Ten Percent Happier
The initial frustration eventually gives way and meditation appears to become easier. However, suddenly the mind seems to be wandering all over the place again and we are noticing judgmental thinking and extreme self-criticism.
‘Why is it getting harder? I thought I had this sussed!’ At this point some people will give up and assume that the meditation hasn’t worked. This is particularly likely if they have been practicing alone or using an app without access to a supportive group or teacher. They are likely to start by having a break from their meditation practice and then gradually that space gets filled with other activities and before they know it years have elapsed, and meditation is something they ‘used to do’.
But the truth is that the mind never started wandering more, we just got better at noticing how often it wanders, and we noticed it more quickly so that it seems as though we are getting worse at meditating when in fact, we are improving our attentional control – the noticing and returning.
Similarly, we can get good at sending ourselves loving kindness, using affirmations and reminding ourselves to do our mindful practices, exercise and eat healthy food etc. but, as we deepen our self-compassion practice, we notice more and more ways we neglect our needs or fall into self-sabotage or even self-harm. Some of our habitual behaviours and thoughts are so ingrained, so a part of who we have become over time, that we don’t notice at first how self-destructive and critical we are. And they are often very subtle, for example:
Making do (I really need a hot drink, but I don’t want to be a bother, so I’ll just make do with water)
Putting off (I’m really hungry / tired but such and such needs doing so I’ll just do that first…)
Rationalising (so and so probably knows better than I do what will be best, so I’ll just go along with that)
How can we change such ingrained thinking?
First we need to recognise that it is happening and that it is normal, this way we can gather the information we need about our thinking without judging ourselves harshly. Then, as Neff and Germer recommend, we practice ‘fierce self-compasssion’ – after the soothing hand on the heart we place the fist on the heart which asserts the inner truth ‘No, this is not right for me just now.’ We use our will to determine the change we want to experience and override the habitual thinking.
One method that has worked well for me is to ask myself a series of questions based on the 7 mindful attitudes:
Am I being patient with myself as I develop self-care in a way that works for me?
Can I let go of unrealistic expectations (e.g. ‘I’ve been practicing mindfulness now for x amount of weeks / months / years / decades so I should be really good at self-care now)
Do I accept my mistakes non-judgmentally and use these to learn from?
Am I striving for some imagined state of mindful bliss where I am in harmony of every aspect of my being all the time and only ever make supportive and healthy decisions in all areas of my life?
Do I trust that with practice I will learn new ways of caring for myself and can I bring my beginner’s mind to this process so that I can learn and discover with a joyful curiosity, celebrating my ‘successes’ and using my ‘mistakes’ as opportunities?
Finding what works for you
The important lesson I think is to try some different approaches, give them a good go and work out what kind of practice is most supportive for you at this particular time. There is no ‘one practice fits all’ so treat your self-care as an exciting journey of discovery!
Below is a gentle self-care meditation of mine that you may want to try:
Begin with a compassionate breath – follow the cycle of breathing in and out through your nose a few times. As you breathe in think ‘kind intention’ and as you breathe out think ‘kind action’.
When you are ready deepen your attention to how you are feeling right now, remembering that there is not right or wrong way to feel, you are how you are right now. As you recognise what is here see if you can identify what it is you need that will allow any uncomfortable feelings to soften. For example you may need patience or acceptance to allow whatever is here to be here without judgement.
Now begin to breathe in the quality you have identified, maybe thinking the words, ‘I am breathing in patience for myself’ for example. As you breathe out, ‘I am letting go of harsh self-judgment / being overly critical of myself’. Allow the right words to come to you.
Now imagine that the phrases, words or feelings you associate with self-criticism are a heavy weight you have been dragging behind you for years. As you continue to breathe in and out, focusing on the words you have chosen, the rope or chain binding you to this heavy weight gradually begins to fray, until eventually it breaks and the weight simply falls away.
Taking a deeper breath just imagine walking away from this weight. Feel yourself becoming lighter, free from this burden of unrealistic expectations and with each footstep you are feeling a sense of friendliness towards yourself in a way you might feel for a good friend or someone you care about. You are able to recognise that you make mistakes but there is a sense of acceptance and allowance. You are a human being, and you are doing the best you can.
You may want to repeat this practice for a few consecutive days to really feel its benefit, and then return to it whenever you notice harsh judging reappearing.
Research shows that we are much more likely to learn and grow from a place of self-compassion than self-criticism, so we ultimately can improve those areas we want to improve much more quickly with a little kindness.
Have a great summer and enjoy some self-care whenever possible!