Boy, was I tired last night. In the course of the evening, I may not have been my usual good-natured self. Maybe. I eventually recognized that I was off track, and apologized for being crabby. But as I lay in bed trying to fall asleep, my mind began to review my actions over the last few hours. The critique was pretty harsh! By the end of it, I had myself convinced that I was a bad mom and a nasty person overall. Wow. No one has ever talked to me like that, so why does my own mind think it’s ok?
I regularly practice a lovingkindness meditation. The first step is to offer compassion to oneself before moving on to other people. I feel the impact of the practice in my life, feeling empathy for challenging people instead of anger or frustration. I’m less likely to judge others so harshly, but somehow my self-compassion is lagging behind. Perhaps this is the hardest part of the practice for many of us. I taught lovingkindness meditation to one patient, only to have her explain that she could never imagine saying those words to herself, because she doesn’t deserve them. There are days that I struggle with that same belief, especially if I’ve been battling difficult emotions.
In her book “Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation” Sharon Salzberg addresses this very issue. She recommends trying two modifications of the lovingkindness meditation to remind ourselves that we are deserving of the same compassion we extend to others. The first is to focus on our positive actions by taking time during meditation to remember something good we did that day. The second variation involves changing the way we describe our challenging emotions. She suggests viewing them as “painful” instead of bad. This subtle change removes the judgment that these emotions are wrong or shameful in some way. Then when we experience the pain, we can surround it with compassionate understanding, knowing we didn’t choose to feel this way.
I can look back at last night and recognize that I wasn’t a total failure. I did recognize the effect my emotions were having on my thoughts and behavior. I also made a conscious effort to change them, and apologize for any hurt I may have caused. I can’t stop painful emotions from arising, but I can see them for what they are: a reason to stop and pay attention. With continued practice, I will notice these states earlier. Then I can choose to act in accordance with my true values, rather than a passing wave of emotion. In the meantime, I will learn to speak to myself in the same way I would to anyone who is suffering: with compassion.
Our thoughts become the words we say. Our words influence the actions we take, and our actions show the world what kind of character we possess. Now I certainly don’t choose every thought that comes into my mind. Sometimes I’m downright shocked by the things that pop up! But, once a thought appears, I get to choose what happens next.
I like to think of the thoughts as seeds, and I am the master gardener. Bad thoughts are the weeds in my garden. If I recognize them early enough, I can discard those seeds before they are even planted. Should a bad thought take root and sprout, I have to act quickly. They have a tendency to multiply and take over everything! But I can’t actually pluck a thought out of my mind like a weed. Instead, my goal becomes to feed and water all the varieties of good plants in my patch of soil. What we nourish will flourish, as the saying goes.
While I can’t control the thoughts that come up, I can control whether I give them my energy and attention. The nasty weeds of judgment, self-criticism and jealousy can be ignored, left to dry up and wither away. Instead, I will shine my focus on the positive thoughts: those filled with kindness, compassion and goodwill. The more attention I give them, the more they expand and fill my mind. Eventually there is no room for the negative. Good thoughts lead to kind words which trigger helpful actions. And a strong and deep-rooted character will grow.
I see a lot of people who want to make changes. They have an idea of what the end result will look like, but struggle with the process itself. I offer a lot of suggestions, and my therapist colleagues do the same. What we all agree on, is that regular effort is required to see a difference. There is no other way. Now I’m not saying that it will take hours every day, but it will take a daily (or almost daily) commitment to the process. In mental health treatments that don’t rely on medication, this may mean journaling, or observing and challenging negative thoughts and behaviors. It should also include a regular meditation practice.
Studies have shown that meditation can create real changes in the structure of the brain, connecting and strengthening areas associated with focus, self-regulation and well-being. But these physical differences didn’t occur after one meditation session, or after one session every week or two. They occurred after daily practice for eight or more weeks. I know it’s a challenge to find time for one more thing in a busy schedule, but many programs designed to reduce stress or improve the mood ask participants to meditate between 20 and 60 minutes a day. It may take a lot of effort to stick to it, but those that do will see noticeable improvements in just 8 weeks. Check out the studies on Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) for some real examples.
I have been a firm believer in starting small and building up. I thought more people would commit to 5 minutes of meditation a day than 20-60. But I’m starting to rethink this. Small changes may occur with 5 minutes, but those changes may not be enough to motivate continued practice. Maybe it’s better to challenge people from the beginning, with the simple truth: Meditation will help, but you must commit to the practice to see the results. Start sitting every day for 20 minutes, at a regular time, so it becomes part of a routine. Make it a priority. Know that it will take effort and some days the practice will seem extremely challenging. But keep in mind that study after study shows that your commitment will be worth it.
You know the old adage “Patience is a virtue”? Well, it has never been one of my strengths, and it seems to run short in a lot of other people, too. Patience means things like delaying gratification or waiting one’s turn, things that aren’t in pace with our lives in a First World society. We have been conditioned to expect an immediate response, from our internet downloads to communication at work. We want it Now.
This conditioning seems to promote further impatience. If there are delays, our expectations aren’t being met and the tendency is to leap automatically to frustration. Why is this line so long? Why am I stuck in traffic? Why is it taking 4 seconds for this website to open? If I’m not present, my thoughts will carry me down this path, and my mood will quickly follow. Imagine the last time you felt impatient. Perhaps you noticed tight shoulders, a tense jaw and a pit in your stomach? These are some of the same physical symptoms we get when we’re under stress. This time, however, the stress is self-imposed.
When I am impatient, I am wishing things were different than they are. My thoughts are creating tension around something I can’t change: the present moment. This is the opposite of mindfulness, and a sure way to create distress. In my own practice (meaning real life), I am learning to be more aware of those impatient thoughts and feelings, so I can choose a different reaction. I take a couple of deep breaths, and focus my attention on the feeling of my abdomen rising and falling. I feel the earth supporting my feet or the chair cradling my back, all the sensations of this particular point in time. After all, being patient is really just being mindful of each and every moment, even the ones spent waiting in line at the post office or stuck in traffic. If I am present, there is no wish for something different, because this moment is just as it should be. And so is the next one. That is true patience.