Recently I reconnected with an old friend over Facetime. We first met over ten years ago when we were both part of the same yoga teacher training. It had been quite a while since we had seen each other. As soon as I saw her face on my iPad I was instantly filled with joy! As we talked, we both shared some of the challenges we had experienced during our years apart, and we enthusiastically spoke of our shared passion for the spiritual side of life.
Our hearts melded as our smiles beamed. It was obvious to both of us how important and mutually beneficial our friendship is. Even after all the years, there was an instant authenticity and genuineness to our exchange. It was a healing reconnection because we both had the courage to drop our “guards”, share our vulnerabilities, and open our hearts to one another.
But being vulnerable isn’t easy. Most of the time we don’t even realize our guard is up. The veneer we present to the world most of the time acts like a barrier that prevents us from truly connecting with others. Without genuine connection we can feel isolated but not know why. Letting down our guard feels odd, uncomfortable, risky. It goes against our natural instinct for self-protection. But what is it we’re unconsciously protecting? Mindfulness meditation helps us answer that question for ourselves.
My sense is that each of us holds a tender, authentic, wounded place inside. It exists as a natural function of living a human life. But, ironically, we need authentic connection with others for that tender place inside to heal. Healing happens within connection, in community with at least one other genuine person we can trust. So, paradoxically, our self-protection mechanism is preventing the very thing we need to be whole. We unconsciously maintain a false “self” or façade when we interact with others as a means of guarding against the vulnerability of exposing our true self (ancient wounds and all). But sadly, this same self-protection instinct prevents from allowing ourselves to be truly seen – the elixir needed to experience the very connection that soothes and heals. How do we build the courage to take a risk, drop our guard, and allow our genuine heart to be reflected back to us? How do we build the inner strength to initiate this important healing process of connection?
“Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.”
― Leonard Cohen
Letting our guard down can be scary. Approaching that line between self-protection and open-heartedness can stir up resistance and pain. We may have developed many habits of mind, body, and behavior that serve to distract us from this pain and keep us far from that state of interconnection that we long for. These habits may keep us tightly closed when all we really want is to open up.
It can be comforting to know that there is a psychological reason why you may sometimes find it hard to open up and connect with others on the level of the heart. Our protective habits and resistance to vulnerability probably once served a very important purpose in our life: survival. But while these automatic and habitual ways of thinking, feeling and interacting may have helped us make it through life’s challenges, chances are your life has changed from what it was long ago when these habits served a necessary function. Mindfulness helps us see more clearly what’s called for now. Sometimes coming up close to our tender wounded heart with a kind inner voice, and a deep sense of compassion for our own suffering, is where we need to begin, even though this brings us to that protective place of resistance. After all, what we feel there at the threshold of our tender heart is real, it’s true, and it needs our kind attention. It takes courage. But there are tried-and-true practices that can help us come to know, and love, the person we are now.
As humans, we have a tendency to resist feeling or expressing our pain. One of the ways to move past that resistance, and into healing, is to recognize our shared humanity. Have you ever stopped to think how similar most of our basic emotions are, and how we all go through similar pains? When we feel inner pain, we tend to assume that it’s somehow “abnormal” – like “this shouldn’t be happening”. This can make us feel like we’ve dropped into a deep hole, alone with our pain, while everyone else up at the surface is living their “normal” happy lives. In reality, when we feel sad, depressed, angry, afraid, we are sharing in the common human experience of suffering. It happens, and is happening, to us all, all the time. By turning toward our inner challenges, we can recognize that this experience (which we’re all trying to pretend doesn’t exist, and which we try to distract ourselves from), is inherently connecting and unifying. We most definitely are not alone when we suffer on our bad days. We are part of the human family. We all want to feel safe, comfortable - that we belong. So, another paradox. By turning toward our tender, wounded heart we open the gate to authenticity and healing connection – to our true selves (as we exist in the here and now) and to others who are experiencing the very same emotions as us.
“Real fearlessness is the product of tenderness. It comes from letting the world tickle your heart, your raw and beautiful heart. You are willing to open up, without resistance or shyness, and face the world. You are willing to share your heart with others.”
― Chogyam Trungpa
So how do we start letting our guard down without feeling like we may get hurt? One of the greatest tools that can help is mindfulness meditation. It is a safe way to practice softening and dissolving that protective shell that prevents full and authentic self-expression.
Our inner barriers have been built up over time. Dismantling them can be a process that, for some, can mean leaning on the guidance of a trained therapist. Others may feel more comfortable learning and practicing on their own, or as part of a meditation group or class.
The first place to start is slowly learning to let go of our ingrained habits of self-judgment and self-criticism. You may have unconsciously been practicing these most of your life. When you first start practicing mindfulness meditation, and learn to observe your own mental thought patterns, it may seem shocking to discover how often these self-critical thoughts pop up. In my own experience, self-judgment can be as obvious as a thought spoken by the “voice in the head:” “Why can’t I keep my attention on my breath as I try to meditate? What’s wrong with me?”. The inner critic can also be more slick and subtle, influencing our feelings, thoughts, and actions through unspoken assumptions that exist under the radar of conscious awareness.
As you develop your mindfulness meditation practice, you gradually improve your ability to notice those moments when self-judgment and self-criticism are pulling the strings of your life. And once you’re aware that a mental pattern is present (that’s mindfulness), then you can work with it on the spot.
The inner critic operates from a warped sense of trying to help us be “better” when we make a mistake. (“I should be a better meditator, friend, parent, human being”; “Why did I say something so stupid?”) There’s an assumption that if we beat ourselves up enough when we do or say something we wish we hadn’t, that it will hurt so much that we won’t do it again and we’ll “improve”. But it doesn’t work like that! Instead, self-judgment makes us feel worse – often at a time when what we need most is comfort, care, and compassion.
Extending kindness to ourselves can feel downright alien. Most of us have simply not been taught to be kind to ourselves – especially when we’ve made a mistake. We’re so used to living with that inner critic that self-judgment has become a norm for most of us. We would never speak to others the way we speak to ourselves!
So, when you detect the influence of the inner critic, notice how self-judgment makes you feel - in your body, mind, and heart. It’s usually not a good feeling – perhaps you notice the sensations of tightness, constriction, or tension. Perhaps it’s a familiar sense of heaviness in the heart. Mindfulness is what helps you step out of a repetitive habit pattern of thinking or feeling in order to simply notice how that habit is making you feel. As you notice the sensations of self-criticism, you can consciously decide to start calling up the antidote: self-compassion. Mindfulness meditation builds the skills that help you do this on the spot.
For most of us, self-compassion doesn’t come naturally. The good news is that it can be learned! When you practice it as part of your daily meditation routine, and on the spot as needed, you naturally start gaining insight into how destructive the mental habit of self-judgment is, and you develop the new habit of replacing it with self-kindness instead.
To learn how to overcome that self-critical voice, I teach my meditation students to imagine the most encouraging, supportive influence in their life – a teacher, coach, friend, parent or grandparent – and to adopt that kind of an inner voice to guide themselves as they learn the new skill of practicing meditation. I call this the “inner coach”.
An inner environment of encouragement and support allows you to feel safe enough to try something new and actually learn from it. The inner critic, on the other hand, keeps you in your comfort zone of the familiar (even if that zone has, over time, become anything but comfortable!) It tells you things like: “Don’t try anything new. Don’t chance being your authentic self. You won’t be good at it anyway - and you might get hurt.” Over time, many of us have internalized this voice which is why we so often feel stuck inside a never-ending holding pattern.
Luckily, working with the inner critic is absolutely possible. It takes training, time, and patience – but these are the positive mental qualities you build when you devote a little time each day to a mindfulness meditation practice. By learning to direct your mental attention to just what’s happening now, that harsh inner voice naturally begins to quiet down. The wall around your tender heart gradually comes down, so that you can feel your emotions more fully – both the pleasant and the unpleasant ones – all of which make up a textured, whole, and connected human life. And the most important skill you develop in this whole process of dismantling the inner critic and feeling your tender heart is that you realize, from your own experience, that you can be with your feelings – even tough ones like fear and sadness – and survive whole and intact. This generates fearlessness. With fearlessness you begin to live life genuinely, and the impulse to protect yourself from authentic connection falls away. You begin to understand that you can feel your feelings and you won’t die. In fact, you’ll begin to truly live.
As you continue to practice mindfulness and self-compassion, you get good at recognizing the presence of the inner critic, noticing how it feels, and directing kindness and compassion toward yourself when you’re going through a difficult time or have made a mistake. You realize that you are worthy of kindness – especially during these times.
Over time you may find yourself experiencing what my dear friend and I did as we reconnected after so many years. The wall around your heart disappears and love is flowing freely in and out.
To help you get a sense of the power of self-compassion - through your own direct experience - below is a short self-compassion exercise developed by Kristen Neff, PhD, co-founder of the Center for Mindful Self-Compassion:
Think of a situation in your life that is difficult, that is causing you stress. Call the situation to mind, and see if you can actually feel the stress and emotional discomfort in your body.
Now, say to yourself:
That’s mindfulness. Other options include:
That’s common humanity. Other options include:
Now, put your hands over your heart, feel the warmth of your hands and the gentle touch of your hands on your chest. Or adopt another form of soothing touch that feels right to you.
Say to yourself:
You can also ask yourself, “What do I need to hear right now to express kindness to myself?” Is there a phrase that speaks to you in your particular situation, such as:
This practice can be used any time of day or night, and will help you remember to evoke the three aspects of self-compassion when you need it most.
Many people find that it helps to do this kind of inner work along with others who are also interested in learning and practicing mindfulness and self-compassion. Sharing the challenges and breakthroughs that become possible through regular, sustained practice can even become one of the opportunities to open up.
If you would like to explore mindfulness so you can start feeling more self-compassion, register for my free webinar “Learn 3 Quick Mindfulness Practices for Stress Relief.”
If you’re ready to join me for a formal course of training in mindfulness meditation, register for the next series of my 6-week live online course Mindfulness for Stress Relief.
Madeline Ebelini is a former stressed out lawyer turned certified mindfulness instructor with a mission of helping people reduce stress through teaching them practical and effective mindfulness techniques. She teaches the 5-star reviewed online course Mindfulness For Stress Relief, and leads a weekly live online meditation group Remember to Breathe.
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