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  • Dr. Matt Davis

Mindfulness Meditation and Self-Compassion, or "Stop being so upset that you’re upset"

Mindfulness meditation is an effective practice to promote relaxation, decrease stress, and assuage anxiety. Mindfulness is defined as “the psychological process of bringing one's attention to experiences occurring in the present moment, which one can develop through the practice of meditation and through other training” (thanks Wikipedia). There are a ton of benefits to having a mindfulness meditation practice including reductions in anxiety, enhanced focus, and improving the psychological aspects of living with chronic pain. But what they don’t tell you is how hard it can be. Not only can making meditation fit into your busy life be a challenge, but the actual practice is not easy! Especially at the beginning. I’d like to use the example of mindfulness meditation to highlight the concept of self-compassion, which is defined as “extending compassion to one's self in instances of perceived inadequacy, failure, or general suffering” (Wikipedia for the win).

When I first started practicing mindfulness meditation I thought I must be doing something wrong, because I was so bad at it. I tried not to think about any distractions and keep focused on my breathing, but thoughts kept popping into my head, I got distracted by whatever minute things were happening around me, and I got frustrated that I sucked at meditating! What I wish someone would have told me when I started is that EVERYONE SUCKS at meditating when they first start. Learning to have a still and quiet mind is a learned skill that takes practice. I wasn’t good at soccer when I first started playing (and now I’m just bad because I’m old). I had to practice. I spent hours playing in my house (I can still hear my mom’s voice, “NO KICKING BALLS IN THE HOUSE!!”), my front yard, with friends in the neighborhood, at my cousins’ house, at school, and anywhere I could.

I’m currently reading The Away Game by Sebastian Abbot, a book about what soccer scouts look for to tell them which preteen kids may have what it takes to make it to the professional level. Research has shown that kids with more than 10,000 hours of experience playing pick up games have built up a memory database of game situations from the thousands of hours of experience they have, which allows them to make informed, split-second decisions in games that set them apart from other players. None of these kids had those skills when they first started. It took practice and a lot of failures for them to learn how to adapt to the millions of possibilities that happen on the field in any given moment.

I eventually learned that mindful meditation is a learned skill, just like most other things in life, and that getting upset with myself for how bad I was wasn’t helpful for my meditation practice, or my well-being for that matter. I learned to stop criticizing myself and judging myself for the times my mind did wander. And this allowed me to return my focus to my breathing more easily and actually get better at meditating. I wasn’t so distracted by my own self-criticism and judgment, and I was able to let other distractions go more easily. Other times I actually enjoyed going down some rabbit trails in my mind before I eventually turned my attention back to my breathing.

That’s another thing no one told me, that those soccer-obsessed kids knew naturally--for them, playing soccer was fun. They weren’t logging hours because they knew that’s what it took to make it to FC Barcelona--they did it because they loved it. When I stopped judging my thoughts and started having compassion and understanding for my difficulties with meditating, was also when I started noticing things that I enjoyed about it. No one is going to do something regularly that they find difficult or tedious. Having compassion for myself around my difficulties with meditation allowed me to embrace and enjoy some of the things that I initially judged as ‘wrong.’

In my line of work as a psychologist I come across a lot of people who are struggling with many difficult things. And often, I notice that they are not happy with themselves for even having those struggles. They feel angry with themselves for having anxiety or depression, for not being able to get over it, and for letting the symptoms affect their lives. I often tell the people I work with that it’s hard enough to go through anxiety and depression, much less feel ashamed or guilty for just having it in the first place. I try to encourage others to refrain from criticizing themselves or judging the situation that they are in, which is often the first step to acceptance--of themselves and their situation. And acceptance often lays the foundation for things to change. After all, if we don’t accept the way things are, we will have a hard time changing them.

Whether it’s a meditation practice, learning something new, battling mental health difficulties or addictions, or whatever else it is, try to be as compassionate and understanding with yourself as you would with a friend who is going through something similar. Extend yourself the same care and concern that you would to another, rather than being your own worst critic. Be nice to yourself. And breathe.

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