You sit down, close your eyes, and focus on your breath (or the sounds, or the feeling of your seat on the chair). Within moments, your mind wanders off - into planning, or memory, or judgment. Sometime later - a few moments, a few minutes - you realize that you’re lost in thought. You turn your attention away from your thoughts, and back to your breath.
That’s how you meditate, right?
Except that, usually, when you realize you’re lost in thought, there’s an insidious little bit of judgment that sneaks in. “I did it again!” “I’m terrible at this.” “I can’t believe how long I let my mind wander!” “Why can’t my mind just shut up?!”
When you practice mindfulness meditation, you’re practicing noticing when your thoughts have wandered, and bringing your attention back to the present moment. Simple, but not easy - especially because of that hidden trap: how you talk to yourself when you notice your mind has wandered.
This is such a hard moment, whether you’ve been meditating for years or are sitting for the first time. That self-judgment muscle is super strong. You’ve been building it up ever since you were a little kid, internalizing your parent’s judgments and making them your own. You’ve put in a LOT of reps, and it shows.
In comparison, your self-compassion muscle is incredibly weak. You just don’t have nearly as much practice being kind to yourself, as you do judging yourself.
You probably spend somewhere between 0 minutes and 5 minutes a week flexing your self-compassion muscle, while your self-judgment muscle gets action more or less every time you have a thought.
But before you start judging yourself for judging yourself (caught you!!), let’s talk about what you can do to shift that ratio. Here are three ways you can get the double benefit of an easeful meditation practice, and reps at the self-compassion gym.
#1: Treat Your Wandering Mind Like A Puppy
Puppies are adorable. They’re inherently lovable, even when they’re doing completely obnoxious things, like peeing in the corner or destroying your couch. When your mind wanders, it’s doing the same thing: making a mess where you wish it wouldn’t. If you react to it like that’s a problem, scolding it or (metaphorically) hitting it, you’re not exactly building a positive relationship with your mind. You would probably never dream of being as cruel to an adorable puppy, as you are to yourself.
Just like with a puppy, the goal is not to crush your spirit and have your mind never go anywhere ever again: the goal is to train it to do things at the appropriate time and in the appropriate place.
So the next time your mind wanders while you’re meditating, imagine it as a puppy: pat it on the head, give it a cuddle; remind it that it’s time to meditate; and gently guide it back to where you want it to be: the present moment.
#2: When You Catch Your Mind Wandering, Celebrate!
When you realize your mind has wandered, it’s easy to focus on what you failed to do: keep your attention in the present moment. But what if, instead, you focus on what you completely succeeded at doing?
You caught your mind wandering! You didn’t stay lost in thought, you noticed what was going on!
Give a (silent) cheer, congratulate yourself, and bring your attention back to the present moment.
#3: Take Your Mind Wandering Way Less Seriously
If you’re being hard on yourself when your mind wanders, there’s an assumption buried in there: that this whole meditation thing is serious business. If it weren’t serious, it wouldn’t matter that you couldn’t keep your mind in the present moment. Try shifting that perspective: what if meditation is a big game of “catch yourself thinking”? There are no winners or losers in this game, only the fun of playing. When you meditate with that attitude, you’ll find yourself chuckling when you notice that your thoughts have run away with you, instead of cursing.
That lighthearted attitude will make it much easier to skip over the self-judgment, and come back to the present moment.
As you practice flexing your self-compassion muscle in these ways, you’ll probably notice that you’re way harder on yourself than you even realized. That awareness may seep into the rest of your life, and you’ll start noticing how hard you are on yourself at work, in your relationships, with your kids, even when you’re driving or walking down the street.
If that happens - take heart! Meditation is an amazing training ground for developing the muscles you actually want to build up. Using these three tips to shift the way you talk to yourself while you meditate, will help you change that dialog in the rest of your life, too.
The next time you meditate, notice how you’re talking to yourself. What self-talk trap do you fall into, and how do you get out of it? Does one of the tips above help? Tell me in the comments below!