Cultivating a Kind Mind: From Self-Judgment to Self-Compassion

The best advice I received when learning to meditate was “Be kind to yourself.” This was challenging, since my mind drifted (a thousand times!) during meditation practice. How could I be kind to this frustrating, unruly, disobedient mind? Through mindfulness practice we become aware of the nearly constant chatter of the mind, observing how it seems to replay certain thought patterns over and over, and seeing how this activity ends up driving much of our day-to-day experience.

When we sit down to meditate, with the intention of simply following the rise and fall of our own breath, we see how busy the mind really is. This is totally normal and something most people encounter when they first try to meditate. However, struggling against, or trying to control, the busy mind is futile. Rather, in mindfulness we cultivate an interior environment of patience. Just as we would create an environment of safety and kindness while teaching something new to someone else, mindfulness asks that you do the same with your own busy mind. But most of us aren’t so kind to ourselves. Why is that?

One of the reasons I began to study and practice mindfulness meditation is that I longed to feel at ease in my own skin. Others seemed to have this quality, and I wondered why it seemed so elusive. I’ve learned that the degree to which we experience this ease depends, in part, on the strength of attachment bonds developed early in life. The strength of these bonds affects the formation of our “internal working model” of “self” in relation to others – who we can trust, and whether we see ourselves as worthy of love. Research shows that people with insecure attachment bonds have less compassion for themselves than those who feel securely attached. In early childhood what we perceive as our reflection in the eyes of others, especially our primary caregivers, becomes a dominant influence on how we see and treat ourselves.

But there is good news. Internal patterns of self-judgment and inner criticism, just like the brain itself, are changeable! We can cultivate inner kindness and compassion for ourselves through the practice of mindfulness. Studies show that people who are able to pay attention to their present moment experience not only have greater emotional balance; they also have a greater ability to respond rather than react to difficult or unpleasant situations.

Kristen Neff, PhD, author of Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind notes, “Self-kindness, by definition, means that we stop the constant self-judgment and disparaging internal commentary that most of us have come to see as normal. It requires us to understand our foibles and failures instead of condemning them. It entails clearly seeing the extent to which we harm ourselves through relentless self-criticism, and ending our internal war.”

Mindfulness is a means through which we can notice, be present with, and befriend the inner critic – during our meditation practice and in daily life – for example, when we make a mistake or fail in some way. Mindfulness practice trains us to be aware in the moment when we’re allowing the inner critic to dominate our inner landscape. With mindful self-awareness we have a choice in the moment – we don’t have to automatically believe the inner commentary! We create the conditions for the arising of what’s been called the “sacred pause” – that moment when we can actually stop in the midst of reactivity and adopt a kinder, more understanding view toward ourselves– just like we would do for someone else who was hurting.

Mindfulness in Your Daily Life

Pick one routine activity you do every day. For example, brushing your teeth, washing your hair, drinking your morning coffee, or walking from your car to work. Make it your practice to do this activity mindfully for at least one week. Let your senses be wide open as you gently hold your attention on your present moment experience – the buzz of your toothbrush, the sensation of shampoo and warm water against your scalp, or the feel of each foot touching the ground as you walk. When your mind is pulled away from your immediate physical experience – for example, thinking about what you need to do when you get to work – simply note this in a kind and friendly way, and gently bring your attention back to your present moment experience. You’re building your muscle of paying attention to the present – the only moment where change is possible.

Hugging Practice

Physical touch releases Oxytocin – “the hormone of love and bonding”. Increased levels of Oxytocin boost feelings of trust, calm, safety, generosity, and connectedness and also strengthen the ability to feel warmth and compassion for ourselves. Oxytocin reduces fear and anxiety and can counteract the increased blood pressure and cortisol associated with stress. Kristen Neff recommends this practice when you notice you’re feeling tense, upset, sad, or self-critical: “try giving yourself a warm hug, tenderly stroking your arm or face, or gently rocking your body.” It seems a bit silly at first, but your body doesn’t know that. “What’s important,” she says, “is that you make a clear gesture that conveys feelings of love, care, and tenderness.” If others are around, fold your arms in a non-obvious way, gently squeezing yourself in a comforting manner. You can also imagine hugging yourself if you can’t make the actual physical gesture. Notice how your body feels after receiving the hug. Does it feel warmer, softer, calmer? You’ve just tapped into your body’s Oxytocin system and changed your biochemical experience.

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