Even though you can’t fail at meditating, meditating is all about failure. What I mean is this: Since you have this goal of focusing on the breath (or the sense of the whole body or whatever you’ve chosen) and since focused attention is, as the psychologist Steven Stosny says, “the most easily exhaustible and metabolically expensive of mental resources,” much of the time you will fail to meet your goal. The benefit of this continual let-down is that you will (I hope) learn to be kind to yourself, something many of us need as much or more than we need a quieter mind.
Self-compassion is the current phrase the field of psychology uses to describe speaking to yourself with kindness. Kristin Neff, perhaps the leading contemporary researcher on this subject says that self-compassion “requires . . that we be gentle and understanding with ourselves rather than harshly self-critical. . It is actively comforting. . . It means we allow ourselves to be emotionally moved by our own pain, stopping to say, ‘This is really difficult for you right now.'”
If we are kind to ourselves when we have erred in some minor or major way we may release little bits of oxytocin, “the hormone of love and bonding.” In the book Self-Compassion which sums up her years of research, Neff reports “Oxytocin is released when parents interact with their young children, or when someone gives or receives a soft, tender caress.” On the opposite hand, when we are filled with self-criticism “our increased cortisol levels deplete various neurotransmitters involved in the ability to experience pleasure.”
It is a gift, then, to fail at meditating because each time the chattering mind takes over you have a new opportunity say to yourself with kindness, “Oh little mind, come on back.” And since so much of anxious mental chatter is self-criticism, self-compassion will also help the mind (or mind-body-nervous system that is you) to calm.
For modern Americans who are plagued by never-enough and always-someone-better, self-compassion is as surprising and important a part of meditation as following the breath.
Of course, as with everything I say in these blogs, self-compassion is easier to talk about than to achieve. Nevertheless, if I can get better at it so can you.
For more on what self-compassion is and isn’t, tune in next month.