My friend Erin – another yoga studio owner and mindfulness coach – and I were debating what mindfulness entails. My definition is paying attention with curiosity (hmmm, wonder what this thought or feeling can teach me), acceptance (I welcome all aspects of my thoughts and feelings), and detachment (I will let go of all thoughts and feelings instead of running to, running from, ignoring, or getting overly involved in my thoughts and feelings). Erin sees acceptance and detachment as the same thing and prefers this definition:
Mindfulness is observing the present with curiosity, acceptance, and self-compassion.
She believes, more and more, that we cannot cultivate present-moment awareness without self-compassion. I take her point. I’ve taught meditation and mindfulness to thousands of people and they all report similar experiences.
To the last person, everyone is convinced they are doing it wrong.
We suspect that everyone else is better than us when it comes to sitting quietly with our thoughts. So instead of simply watching our thoughts and feelings come and go, we attach to them and then fall into a spiral of shame and self-recrimination.
Why are you so stupid? we scream.
Why are you so bad at this? we scream.
What the hell is wrong with you? we scream.
We cannot feel shame and simultaneously be mindful. MRIs (brain scans) of people feeling shame show an amygdala lit up like a Christmas tree. When we feel shame, our animal brain initiates our fight, flight, freeze, or fold response and releases a stress cocktail of norepinephrine and cortisol into our bloodstream. Since we cannot have present-moment awareness if the amygdala is online, then we can easily see why self-compassion is a crucial aspect of mindfulness.
But of all the components that make up mindfulness, self-compassion is the hardest to teach. Cultivating empathy and sympathy for all aspects of the human experience is a tall order. We are more willing to alleviate the suffering of others over the sufferings of our own hears. Is this because we all secretly believe we are unworthy of love?
When we open our heart to receive love, we also open our heart to any dormant pains. It can rekindle hurts that we thought we put to bed long ago. It can make us feel selfish or self-indulgent. And all of these feelings leave us feeling ashamed and unworthy.
So to practice self-love, train your brain like you would train a puppy.
We brought Barley – our puppy – to his forever home when he was three months old. We bought him a potty bell, which is a bell that the dog rings it when he needs to go out. To help him understand the process, you pick him up and hold him close to the bell. “Touch,” you say. When he touches and it rings, you praise him extravagantly and take him outside to do his business. You keep repeating this process every hour until, eventually, the dog associates the bell with going potty outside and will nose the bell himself when he needs to go out.
Potty bell training only works using loving praise. You would have thought our dog had cured cancer every time he peed, so effusive were we with praise. He was not only a good boy, he was the absolute best boy, yes he was! We hugged him and used that special speech register humans use when they are especially proud of their pets, since this so-called dog-speak has been shown to improve attention in pets.
Potty training lasted around three weeks. In that time, there were some accidents in the house. Barkley would ring the bell, we would go outside, he would pee, and we would praise.
But then he might come right back in and pee on the kitchen floor. When this happened, we didn’t yell and scream at Barkley. We didn’t spank him. We didn’t tell him he was a worthless pup. Instead, we lovingly picked him up and repeated the process: bell, touch cue, ring, go outside, wait until there was a potty, enormous praise and belly rubs.
Training our brain works the same way, since our minds are like puppies. Like us, puppies are mostly loving and curious, but easily scared and distracted. They run after, grab, and vigorously shake toys like we run after, grab, and vigorously shake thoughts and feelings. Puppies have an attention span of about 3 seconds, so they need numerous and constant reminders to stay on task. The human attention span, at around 8 seconds, isn’t much larger.
Training our brain to lovingly heel to the present moment takes effort. Especially when we remember that 80% of all our thoughts are negative and repetitive. It just isn’t our default setting to assume we’re a goodboy. Instead, we are convinced that we alone have garbage thoughts and everyone else is doing mindfulness better. Instead of praising ourselves for making the attempt, we yell and scream and tell ourselves that we are worthless creatures.
Could you love on your brain in the same way you love on your puppy? Talk to yourself the same way you talk to your doggo? Who has a good brain? You are such a good brain, yes you are. I love you more than any other brain in the world (it’s better if you read that in dog-speak)!
Next time you feel shame creeping in, rub your own belly and say, “I love you.” It might feel uncomfortable or silly, but, over time, it will replace the more negative things you tell yourself and allow you to be more present in your own life.