Five Years Plus

{May 8, 2010}   Eat, Love, Sit

Have you ever been in the grocery store or some other public place when an overwrought mother is yelling derisively at a small child for some minor infraction? I know I have and it makes me cringe inside. “How can a parent talk to her child that way?” I say to myself, “I would never be like that!”  But of course I am regularly and instantly brutal to myself when I don’t measure up to my own exacting standards. Is my harsh inner critic really so different from the hapless mother screaming at her 4 year old in aisle 9?

For example, when my 30 day Paleo Challenge didn’t go as well as I’d hoped, I gave myself a hard time. The beginning went great, but I began to falter by day 13 and didn’t really recover my enthusiasm until day 25. In that difficult period wine, cheese and sweet foods, which I had intended to avoid, found their way regularly to my mouth. Once I moved beyond my disappointment in myself, I saw that perhaps I didn’t have the support I had needed. So the Paleo Challenge is a do-over, restarting on Monday with an online support community. Upon reflection I realize that the inner-critic comes into so many areas of life and actually undermines my best intentions for health, happiness and spiritual development.

Shortly after my breast cancer diagnosis I began having sessions with Carolyn Dell’uomo, a therapist who combines psychological techniques with a strong spiritual component. Over the two years I worked with her I learned a lot about myself and how to be more fulfilled in life. She taught me to hold the intention for self-love and simply notice and accept when my inner dialogue becomes negative. By self-love, I’m not talking about being conceited or self-absorbed – just gentle and kind. Even though I still have to constantly remind myself to be compassionate, I feel like I really get this both intellectually and in my heart. Self-love is just treating myself the way an ideal parent would treat a child – accepting mistakes, letting go of disappointments and supporting unconditionally while non-judgmentally reflecting areas where I need work.

As a tennis player and coach I know that my inner dialogue on the court  is not always so pretty. However, I am sometimes flabbergasted by the level of self-contempt some players publicly express. I tell my students that you should not say anything to yourself (out loud or internally) that you wouldn’t say to your doubles partner. With this awareness some students are shocked to discover how extremely hard they are on themselves, even in the game of tennis where we are supposed to be at play. This can be extrapolated to life by noticing how often we give others the benefit of the doubt while chastising ourselves for the same sort of mistake.

I have found the practice of meditation to be fundamental in learning to live with my inner critic. In its most simple form meditation is the practice of sitting quietly so that we can notice the mind, allowing thoughts to arise and pass without following them. Many techniques use a focus point (such as the movement of breath) to represent the present. Each time we notice the mind has drifted we gently bring it back to paying attention to the breath. This is the knack, catching that moment when we stray. It is a small success each time we can come back from a journey into the past or future.

I find some days I am lost in thought for minutes before noticing I have drifted, while other times I am more able to catch myself before traveling too far. Occasionally  the contents of my mind are so turbulent and disturbing it feels almost impossible to continue sitting. With practice, meditation does get easier. But meditation is not something to be good or bad at, it is a practice – a practice that has benefits in many areas of life.

Whether we’re sitting, eating, playing tennis or doing something else we love, doing so consciously makes it better. Eating can become an eating meditation, playing tennis a tennis meditation and yes there’s also the sitting meditation. Remember that the practice is to notice what you’re doing without judging and to keep coming back to the present. Make it a practice to come back to being kind to yourself and be compassionate when you notice that you’re giving yourself a hard time.


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