Mindfulness is great. Mostly. But being aware of your thoughts can be downright painful, especially when they’re full of self-judgement. Self-compassion can help.
Let me back up: I’m a meditator. I’ve been practicing off and on since 2007. The tradition I practice in is called Theravada Buddhism, which I encountered in northeast Thailand when I studied abroad there in college. One branch of Theravada Buddhism is Vipassana, which now has a robust U.S. following under the brand Insight Meditation, thanks to the efforts of expert American teachers including, Jack Kornfield, Sharon Salzberg, Joseph Goldstein, and Tara Brach.
In the insight meditation tradition, one common mindfulness practice is mental noting. It goes like this: Be still and focus on something neutral like your breath. When your mind inevitably wanders, observe that with a short label, and return to your breath. For instance, I should add flax seeds to the grocery list becomes “planning.” I should spend more time one-on-one with each of my kids becomes “judging.” I’m terrible at writing headlines becomes “judging.”
Recently, this noting practice landed me in a painful mental loop. Because after a string of “judging,” “judging,” “judging,” it’s only natural for me to think: I’m so judgmental. Which, of course, gets noted with “judging,” again. Argh!
At the same time, inspired by the work of psychologist Kristin Neff, PhD, I’ve been contemplating the usefulness of self-compassion — and its relative absence in my internal monologue.
In Neff’s terrific episode of Ten Percent Happier with Dan Harris, she makes a number of compelling points. One is that if you’re berating yourself to avoid complacency and do better, you’ve got it all wrong. After all, do kids rise to the occasion more when you’ve criticized and shamed them or when you give constructive support?
Neff’s insight struck a chord, but I felt stuck about how to incorporate it. Frankly, self-compassion feels fake. I just don’t trust kindness to myself.
On the other hand, while self-compassion is akin to writing with the wrong hand, compassion is more like breathing (most of the time). I care about animals. I care about people. I care about the planet. When someone or something suffers — is…