One of the hardest lessons I have learned about mindfulness meditation is the need for self-compassion and self-kindness. Maybe I am alone in this particular form of craziness, but the first time I read those words, I cringed. Why? Because I know that I am a sinful human being. I have a history of addiction. I am selfish, and at times I can be impatient and short-tempered. In short, I know my dark side, and I have seen rock-bottom and the damage I have done to others along the way. The fear is that if I am not constantly on guard in the war against my dark side, it will win.
Thus, when I first heard mindfulness practitioners and teachers speaking of self-compassion, I assumed this meant self-justification and enablement of one’s dark side. “Don’t be so hard on yourself for your destructive and toxic behavior. It’s ok. Everyone does it.” Again, this may be my own particular form of ignorance, but I was relieved when I realized that this was NOT what self-compassion means at all.
Self-compassion, especially as it relates to the practice of meditation and any other spiritual discipline, is about patiently letting yourself try and stumble and grow in your abilities. Think of a parent helping a child learn to ride a bike. If the parent berates and curses the child every time he or she falls, what do you think is going to happen? The child will not be too keen on even trying to ride if failure just leads to abuse. Even if the child does learn to ride, every time he or she gets on a bike, the memory of the abuse will surface.
This is why self-compassion is essential when practicing meditation or memorizing scripture or learning any kind of Christian spiritual discipline. If we kick and curse ourselves for failure to meet our imaginary standards, if we abuse ourselves for not measuring up, we will soon lose the desire to grow. Why bother if the whole things ends up being a form of self-flagellation.
Be Gentle – When you are practicing meditation and your mind wanders to your to-do list, gently pull your attention back. When you mean to read scripture every day, but you miss a day, gently remind yourself to get back to it the next. Encourage yourself the way you would encourage a young child learning something new.
Don’t Compare – Also, do not compare yourself to others or judge yourself by another person’s abilities. Rather, if you must make comparison, compare yourself to where you were. Have I made progress in this area from where I was before? This time last year, I was not even trying to grow closer to God. Now I am spending ten minutes a day in contemplative prayer with Him. This time next year, I may be up to twenty minutes, or I may be up to twelve. Either way, progress is being made.
Celebrate – Make sure you celebrate progress and victories. At Celebrate Recovery, each week we say, “Give yourself a hand for being here tonight.” Why? Because that is a step in the right direction. It is progress and should be acknowledged and celebrated.
Remember, spiritual growth is a marathon, not a sprint. It takes time. We may wish we were growing faster than we are, but abusing ourselves will only distract us from the goal. Show yourself some compassion and keep on growing.