Five Lessons Power Zone Training Taught Me About Meditation

It’s a running joke that Peloton users like to tell everyone about how much they love their bike, but there’s a subset of Peloton users who are even more intense about this: the Power Zone Pack. As a member of the Power Zone Pack, I cannot help myself from commandeering what should be a post about mindfulness to discuss my Peloton instead. Bear with me, though, because I plan to offer some useful insights about meditation practice.

Power Zone rides on Peloton provide interval training in seven targeted effort zones, measured by your output which visually display on your screen during rides. While you can (and I did) do Power Zone rides on your own and make progress, the Power Zone program offers regular challenges which structure the rides by week to help you build capacity in each zone over time. In the final week of the challenge, riders take a 20-minute FTP (“functional threshold power”) test to measure performance. Ideally, your FTP will increase, but if it doesn’t, your zones will adjust and you can work on growth in the next challenge based on where you are.

I started doing Power Zone rides soon after I got my bike in late 2019, but I didn’t try a challenge until May of 2021. Though I had been afraid to commit to the challenge initially, I was amazed at how much I enjoyed it and how much sense the challenge structure made. As someone fascinated by mindfulness, it was hard not to think about how the same approach might help those new to meditation establish a practice that works for them. Here are the lessons that I learned.

1. Moderate but consistent effort is enough to make progress.

The reason that I was afraid to do the challenge is that I had been accustomed to working hard but not smart. When I did the Power Zone rides on my own, I did several regular Power Zone rides (in zones 3, 4, and 5) and only 1 Endurance ride (in the moderate zones 2 and 3) a week. When I started the challenge, however, I noticed that all the rides in the initial weeks were Power Zone Endurance rides and that those rides persisted throughout the program. Thus, when I did the challenge, I did more of the “easier” rides and fewer of the “harder” ones. Nonetheless, my FTP increased at the end of the challenge.

The lesson from this, of course, is that training doesn’t have to be painful to be effective. It can be really easy for type A people like lawyers to fall into the trap of thinking that working excessively hard or enduring punishment is the only way to rewards. If you are new to meditation, be watchful of this tendency. The practice isn’t easy, of course, but it shouldn’t be a constant source of irritation or pain. If you are struggling with your practice, consider if there are ways to make your approach or structure more supportive so that you can make progress without so much struggle.

2. Build skills first.

Why was I able to work “less hard” and still make progress in my first Power Zone challenge? Because the program was structured to help me build the skills at the beginning that I would need to power through the FTP test at the end. All those “easy” Power Zone Endurance rides in the early weeks helped change my experience in zones 2 and 3 from moderate to (comparatively) easy. In turn, that changed my experience in zones 4 and 5 to moderate instead of “no friggin’ way” and made brief spirts in zones 6 and 7 a possibility. Thus, the Power Zone challenge was structured to help me expand peak performance by building a solid foundation in endurance zones.

New meditators could learn a lot from this approach. In the beginning, meditation is most effective when meditators understand that they are building skills. Quite often, instead, meditators are impatient or have unrealistic expectations about themselves and the practice. They look for instant calm, life-changing insights, or bliss experiences and feel defeated or dejected if they don’t find them or those experiences don’t last. The more sustainable and practical approach is to use the initial experiences with meditation to build the skills of focus and compassion and to increase one’s tolerance for being with life, rather than unconsciously and habitually fleeing from it. Once you can do this, it is far more likely that you will experience more calm, insights, and bliss in your life and not merely in a few minutes of your meditation practice.

3. Community helps.

Though most Peloton users ride alone at home, a wide variety of Peloton communities have sprung up online. The Power Zone Pack has a massive group on Facebook, and I was fortunate to have found the Peloton Law Moms group even before I owned a Peloton. That group had a subgroup of lawyer mom Power Zone riders (shout out to #ProbableClaws) and their enthusiasm ultimately pushed me to join the challenge myself. The high fives from Power Zone riders are motivating, and during challenges tons of other Power Zone riders are there to ride along with you. In addition, the team names are hilarious and seeing them on the leaderboard is a source of amusement during long intervals. I made progress doing Power Zone rides on my own, but I had fun doing them as part of a team during the challenge. As in all things, community makes a difference.

Technology has opened up so many doors to busy people who are interested in meditation, but the downside is that most people’s experience with meditation is on their own. It is perfectly acceptable to meditate on your own and, for practical reasons, that’s what most of us will have to do most of the time. However, to the extent that you can incorporate support from others, your practice will benefit from it. Whether you find a social media group, attend a retreat, or just chat with a friend, community can support a meditation practice and make it more vibrant and even fun.

4. A compassionate teacher helps.

As a general rule, Peloton instructors are pretty positive, but the Power Zone instructors aren’t just there to entertain and motivate. They also instruct and are always focused on the long game. Matt Wilpers and Christine D’Ercole, as champion athletes, deeply understand that a growth mindset is critical to long-term success and they constantly remind riders not to focus on the numbers from one ride or interval, but instead to look for the trends over time. Denis, Olivia, and now Ben may kill you with a long Zone 5 interval, but they’ll encourage you for every second of it. The instructors don’t just want you to do well in the program, they want you to feel good about yourself so you can face the challenges in the ride and beyond.  

New meditators can benefit their practice by learning to be their own teachers, or at least cheerleaders. Whether you use guided meditations or not, it will help to pay attention to your inner voice. Notice whether your tone is critical or encouraging, focused on perfection or progress, or spends more time dwelling on errors than redirecting back to the present moment. If you’re anything like me, it may take some time until you are as compassionate with yourself as a Power Zone instructor is with the Pack, but if you give yourself time and grace your meditation practice and life will drastically improve.

5. You can learn from discomfort.

Just in case my first point made you think Power Zone training is easy, let me disabuse you of that notion right now. While the early weeks are comprised of many more moderate endurance rides, the later weeks include increasing efforts in zones 4 through 7 and culminate with the FTP test. I’m not going to lie: the FTP test is painful. It’s about testing your capacity, so it’s intended to be painful. Though these experiences are hard, they teach you (a) that you can handle hard things; and (b) how to handle hard things. In other words, the tough intervals and the FTP are where you put those skills you learned in the early weeks to the test. When you do, you not only experience the satisfaction and confidence of surviving an ordeal, but you learn what works and what doesn’t work for you as you deal with difficult things.

New meditators are often thrown off balance when they find calm and focus initially very hard to attain. They may struggle with copious thoughts, the tendency to fidget, self-judgment, boredom, or even physical or emotional pain. While it is not my advice to always “power through” all of those situations, it is my experience that discomfort of that nature can teach you a lot if you stay present with it. You can learn to stop fighting it. You can learn to care for yourself through it. You may even notice that the discomfort goes away on its own after a while. More fundamentally, you may finally and fully appreciate the fact that discomfort is a normal part of life and not something to be feared, pushed away, and avoided at all costs. Thus, while new meditators are encouraged to treat themselves gently as they face challenges that may arise during practice, it helps to remember that difficulties during practice are potential learning experiences.

To be sure, there are distinct differences between Power Zone training and a meditation practice. I don’t advocate treating your practice exactly like a data-based physical fitness regimen because one of the best gifts a meditation practice can offer for us lawyers is letting go of all our constant striving. But, I offer these lessons as an analytical tool to help you understand that, like Power Zone training, meditation starts exactly where you are and focuses on the long game. It’s about building skills by doing daily work, rather than quick gains borne from bursts of effort. For that reason, the Power Zone program offers a great workout and even some helpful life lessons. Best of luck in your practice and if you see #BrilntLegalMind on the leaderboard don’t hesitate to high five.

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Why Lawyers Need the Big Magic of Creative Living

“You should read Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert.” This was advice from another lawyer, Jeremy Richter, after I appeared on his podcast The Lawyerpreneur where we talked about how we liked to write and make things and didn’t care if other lawyers thought we were “weird.” I like and respect Jeremy quite a lot, but I confess that I had assumptions about Elizabeth Gilbert because of Eat, Pray, Love (in truth the movie version of that book) and I ignored his advice. Months later, I wrote a LinkedIn post about the paradoxes of writing which said, essentially, that it takes time but makes energy, it is frustrating but somehow still offers happiness, and it is often lonely but provides a path to belonging. Another lawyer messaged me, asking if I had read Big Magic because my post sounded just like it.

This was enough to make me see the writing on the wall. I immediately checked Audible, found a remaining monthly credit, and started listening. Halfway through the 6-minute opening chapter, I saw even more writing on the wall: I was totally wrong about Gilbert. At this point, I am not even sure what my problem with Gilbert was, but in retrospect I think I just discounted her work because it was popular. After reading Big Magic, however, I wish more people, and in particular, more lawyers knew about it.

Big Magic is a series of mini essays on living a creative life. Some of the essays contain stories about Gilbert’s writing career, but many others offer examples of creative people from across the millennia, reaching all the way to those early humans who drew pictures on cave walls. While the stories are not chronological or even directly related, they come together at the end like random bits of fabric collected over the years to create the cohesive pattern in a quilt. This analogy is perfect for the book because Gilbert’s central thesis is this: creativity is an essential part of being human because it is the part of our humanity that gives us access to divinity.

By this, Gilbert does not deny that living a creative life is hard—even gut-wrenching at times. She devotes several of the essays, often comically, to discussing rejection, the pain that comes when the muse visits but then leaves too soon, jealousy, competition, and dealing with the worst critic of all: the one inside your own head. But she argues that it is still worthwhile, regardless of whether your particular creative pursuit brings you fame or fortune and even if it drives you nuts on occasion.

Why do I love this book so much? Well, because I have lived it. While I have not yet written a smash hit novel or lived the life of a professional writer, I have experienced firsthand the benefits that living a creative life can offer. It took me a long time to accept my own creativity and allow it to flourish. Like a lot of lawyers, I thought for too long that I should focus solely on my law practice. Then, I had to get over the idea that I was “wasting my time” if I put effort into projects that wouldn’t lead to any benefits. As it turns out, the benefits of my writing were pronounced for both my life and law practice, though the path that those benefits took to find me were often indirect. Ultimately, though, it was when I finally accepted the truth that my creativity exploded: I was going to write because writing made me happy and lack of attention and praise was not going to stop me.

There is a lot written these days about mental well-being for lawyers and professionals and for good reason. Many resources, and even those on this blog, attempt to help by offering to fit wellness practices into the nooks and crannies of our overpacked lawyer calendars. I don’t criticize this approach because it was how I started my own journey and because studies show us that a few minutes a day can make a huge difference for our minds, bodies, and even relationships. But, for my lawyer and professional friends, I hope that the quest for greater happiness does not stop once a daily habit of a few minutes of mindfulness or another self-care practice is established. Then next step, if you can afford it and brave it, offers rewards of a much greater magnitude.

Mindfulness practices can help lawyers and professionals find stability and even heal themselves in the midst of our stressful and busy lives. If we let them, however, they can also help us notice what we need to do next to grow and to create. As Gilbert posits, this is the birthright of all humans and it is essential for a happy life.  I know your schedule is busy. I know we are (still) living in a global pandemic. I know that nothing is certain right now or ever. But those realities don’t make happiness and creativity luxuries; they make them both essential. If this weren’t the case, those early humans would not have had the urge to paint on cave wells even as they faced the daily task of survival.

So, if you have a project in the back of your mind, maybe you want to write an article, maybe you want to refinish that piece of antique furniture, maybe you want to finally make one of those crafts you’ve been saving on Pinterest, I hope you will do it. If you need encouragement, to get over all the voices in your head that tell you it’s a waste of time, or permission to connect with your own spirit, go read Big Magic. Then go make stuff.

Are you a creative lawyer? By this, I mean do you make or want to make anything, including fiction, nonfiction, or even a podcast? You aren’t alone. Join the CLAW (Creatives. Lawyers. Artists. Writers.) Alliance to find a community of other creative lawyers. For more inspiration on this, check out the Instagram Live I did with CLAW member, Becki C. Lee, an IP lawyer and children’s book author.

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Mindfulness Can Help You Stop Rushing and Feel Like You Have More Time

The first book on meditation that I ever read was Mindfulness in Plain English by Bhante Gunaratana. The book had lots of practical tips that served me well when I started a meditation practice in earnest, but the text wasn’t quite as plain as it claimed to be. Gunaratana kept talking about how meditation can help you create space between you and your thoughts. I understood this as a concept but I had no clue what it meant in practice. In fact, the idea itself seemed counterintuitive, since my initial experience with meditation felt like being smothered by my thoughts, instead of creating space around them.

Even so, I pressed on because my mind had been running for so long that it felt like a relief even to take a brief pause just to watch the wheels spin. By the time I worked my way up to 10 minutes of meditation a day, I noticed a variety of space emerge in my life that I had never set out to find: I stopped rushing so much. In particular, I noticed my tendency to rush regardless of whether I was dealing with real time constraints.

For example, I used to be in a big hurry every time I went to the grocery store, racing around and grabbing items as if I were on a game show. Rather than prizes, this habit had usually only given me frustration when I had to stand in line or got caught behind someone walking too slowly. Soon after I started meditating, however, a magical voice from nowhere said “What’s your rush?” as I was briskly walking past the gliding doors. At the time, my daughter was just over a year old so time to myself—even running errands—was a rare and precious thing. I slowed down, strolling through the store with ease, gazing with interest at the lovely produce, and even chatting at check out with the clerk. I came home in a good mood, rather than a bad one.

Now, this isn’t to say that my tendency to rush doesn’t come back. It comes back to me all of the time. On one meditation retreat, I realized that I was rushing even in my meditation because I would force myself back to focusing on the breath the second I noticed my thinking. In addition to making me laugh heartily at myself, this also helped me realize that giving myself the time to see what thoughts had emerged would let me have the insights that vipassana (aka “insight meditation”) was supposed to produce.

Not only can rushing make us less aware of our lives, it can also cause us to behave less ethically. This was demonstrated by a famous study of seminary students who were told that they had to give a lecture across campus on, of all things, the Good Samaritan story from the Bible. Some of the students were told that they were late and others that they had plenty of time to get to their talk. The students were set up to pass a victim in need of assistance and, by a wide margin, the students with time to spare stopped more often to help. The conclusion from this is clear: time constraints—even pretend ones—can cause us to forget our higher ideals (and perhaps be totally oblivious to irony too).

This truth of this study is borne out by my life experience. In my small grocery store example, one of the other things that happened was that a petite woman asked me (I’m 5’11’’) to grab a product off a high shelf for her. Do you think she would have felt comfortable doing so if I looked stressed out and grumpy? Probably not. In that case, the absence of rushing on my part freed me up not just to feel better myself but also help someone else. This happened to me in more significant ways as my practice evolved. I was more likely to ask how other people were doing, to check in on friends I hadn’t seen in a while, or to plan ahead so that I had the ability to work fun and meaningful events with friends and family into my schedule. Over time, the reduction in my rushing made me feel less like I had no time, so I realized that, in fact, I had the time to do things I enjoyed, such as writing, or cooking or going to meditation retreats, even while practicing law and raising a family.

Now, if you are a litigator like me, you may think that rushing is somewhat predestined by the aggressive and deadline-ridden nature of our law practice. But, even here, I have found that being mindful of rushing is beneficial too. I try not to delay responding to emails to keep cases moving, but I give myself time if I need to craft a response. I definitely give myself time if the email is at all aggressive and irritating, as emails from lawyers can sometimes be. I also take the time to be sure clients are on board with case management and that they feel supported and like their voice is being heard in the process. In addition, because I am more aware of how stressful time constraints can be, I am more proactive about managing cases and deadlines with clear communications so that the work gets done with as little human misery as possible. Sometimes there is no way around a hard deadline and you just have to work like hell to get the project done, but that only makes it all the more necessary to develop a habit of paying attention so that you don’t fall into the all too human habit of treating all deadlines that way.

In the years since I started meditating, I have experienced the space that Gunaratana promised in numerous different ways. Though it seemed to have little to do with my copious thoughts, reducing my tendency to rush may have been one of the most important. It provided me with the space that only time can provide to notice how I was living my life, and I was shocked to see that a small adjustment in how I behaved could produce such a significant change in my law practice, personal happiness, and relationships.

If, like me, you are someone who tends to rush, the first step is to notice when it arises. Notice what it feels like in your body when you rush. Notice the thoughts that emerge. Over time, you will see patterns and then the next step is to start to ask yourself whether the perceived time constraints are real. If they are, you can learn to take a deep breath and offer yourself compassion as you face the task. If they are not, take several deep breaths and offer yourself care by slowing down. Then simply repeat these steps over and over again for the rest of your life, congratulating yourself for crises averted and forgiving yourself for any mistakes. We cannot control how much space or time life gives us, but we have some control over how we perceive it. Meditation can help us remember this and that is one way it can make us free.

If you need a quick reminder to help you watch the rushing, check out our quick mini video here:

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5 Reasons Why You Might Benefit from and Enjoy Unguided Meditation

The ready availability of high-quality meditation apps means that most people exploring meditation these days are doing so with the support of guided meditations. This is a great thing and was, in fact, what I used to support my practice early on. Many guided meditations instruct and demonstrate, so the guiding may help you build skills and understanding even while you practice. It can also feel lonely and uncomfortable to start sitting in silence if you haven’t meditated much before or maybe just because that’s your personality. Thus, using guided meditations to establish or support your practice is excellent, whether you are a new or experienced meditator.

Even so, sitting in silence—meditating without guiding—offers a lot of benefits too because it offers freedom and flexibility that pre-recorded guided meditations cannot. Though I have no intention to dissuade you away from guided meditations (many of which are offered on this blog), you could be missing out if you never try meditating without guiding. To explain why, here are 5 reasons that you may want to explore meditating in silence.

 1. You don’t have to pick a guided meditation.

I went to Catholic school from 1st through 12th grade. Some may think those school uniforms are restrictive, but I kind of liked not having to think about what to wear each day. Sitting in silence offers this benefit. One of the reasons I shifted away from guided meditations was that I got sick of scrolling through my app or podcasts to find the one I wanted each day. Rather than continue wasting time and exerting effort to try to control my meditation experience, I instead let go and started using the unguided timer on my meditation app. Now, the only decision I have to make before I sit is to go and do it. In short, sitting in silence saves times and cuts down significantly on the risk that decision fatigue will impede your practice.

2. Unguided meditation always fits you perfectly because it is you.

If you use guided meditations, it can be a challenge to find one that fits your current circumstances. Though good apps and teachers will give you an idea as to what the meditation is about, you won’t really know the tone and content until you are in it. Meditating without guiding avoids this because there is no guide. Your practice always fits you perfectly because your practice is just you. To be sure, this can be scary and difficult at times but so can meditating with the guidance of a teacher. Just like you must learn to trust your teacher in a guided meditation, you also must learn to trust yourself when you sit in silence. In this way, sitting in silence is the perfect meditation for whatever the circumstances are, and it can help you learn to take refuge in yourself in whatever circumstances that may arise.

3. Silence gives the mind space to relax.

What I really love about silent meditation is how it feels in my mind. This is esoteric, so I will try to explain with an analogy. Let’s say your mind is a basketball player. All day long, you have the mind running drills. It must do your work. It must record facts. It must listen to words and make sense of them. To put it another way, during most of your waking hours, your mind is doing passing drills, layups, and free throws. When you meditate, you intentionally stop some of these drills by sitting still and closing or lowering your eyes. If you use a guided meditation, at least one drill continues on as you focus on particular objects or visualizations to which you are directed. But, what if you just sat in silence and gave your mind permission to have open gym? What if you dropped the drills for a while and let your mind play HORSE, 21, or a pickup game or whatever else it wants to do? Sitting in silence is a way of giving space—all the space your mind has to offer—to your thoughts, emotions, and mental habits. This can feel really good and can help you see your patterns of thought a bit more clearly. 

4. Meditation without guiding is more like real life.

While it would be awesome if your fav meditation teacher could sit on your shoulder and  guide you as you go about your life each day, that’s just not possible. In real life, we have to make our own decisions in the moment. For this reason, meditating in silence is advantageous because it more closely resembles real life where there is no guide. In other words, sitting in silence allows you to practice the skills of mindfulness and compassion unprompted so that you are more likely to use those skills when you need them in life.

5. You may get an unfiltered look at your mind.

Guided meditation is great because you don’t have to think of what to focus on while you meditate and it may keep you on track. For that same reason, though, guided meditation has the potential to hide certain habits of mind from view. The mind can be tricky and it will hide and evade whenever the opportunity presents itself. Even though guided meditations are often intended to help you find clarity, inherently, they are additional sensory input for the mind to process. When you sit in silence, you take this additional input away and may give the mind one less object (or pleasing voice) to hide behind. Free from this extra layer of words, you may be in a better position to see how your mind works. 

Silence, for many, is unsettling, unnerving, awkward, or just plain boring. For that reason, guided meditations offer support, comfort, and instruction to many meditators. As a result, I am not telling you in this post that you must or even should meditate in silence. I’m not saying that sitting in silence is the only “real”, “legitimate” or “valid” way to meditate because I believe meditation practices naturally shift over time and we all must find what works for us. My point here, however, is that meditation without guiding just might work for you if you give it a try.

If you want to work a bit with silence in your meditation practice but aren’t quite ready to do it for a full session, check out this meditation. In this practice, Claire will help you get settled and then offer three short intervals of silence for you to practice.  

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How My First Residential Meditation Retreat Freed Me from Self-Doubt

Full disclosure: this title is a bit of a lie. It’s mostly true. My first residential retreat forced me to turn and face my self-doubt, when I had previously run, hid, and thus, found myself controlled by it, for most of my life. That created an opening in my awareness and the result was a whole lot of freedom to expand. But it didn’t set me “free” from doubt in the sense that it made it go away. In truth, I am not sure that anything can. It’s a pattern of the mind that is so engrained that I suspect nothing short of enlightenment (which doesn’t seem to be happening for me any time soon) is going to dislodge it. So what do you do when you can’t beat something? You join it. That’s what the retreat made me do. It made me meet the doubt half-way and the freedom came in when I realized I didn’t have to make it go away at all.  

I didn’t go to the retreat with the specific aim of taking down my self-doubt complex. I had been meditating long enough by that point to know that isn’t really how this works. I knew that I couldn’t control—and shouldn’t try to control—the retreat experience by setting any goals. The point was to take what comes and work with it because that’s what I’d have to do in my life when the retreat was over. Fortunately for me, however, the retreat went exactly according to my non-plan.

I had thought it wouldn’t be a big deal. I had been meditating for about 5 years, I had done some 1-day intensives before, so I was not without skills. At least that’s what I’d told myself. The first night was pretty easy. The silence didn’t start until after dinner and the talk and sit were pleasant. The retreat was at a Catholic facility well out of town, so the only noise was the crickets singing me lullabies. Nevertheless, I could not sleep because I always struggle to sleep in unfamiliar places. Though I avoided a total melt down, it was much too late when I eventually drifted off to sleep.

The morning gave me hope that the day wouldn’t be a total loss because I didn’t feel too bad. I started with a sit before breakfast. It was hazy and uninspiring but not awful. Breakfast, coffee, and a walk outside helped immensely, so the next sit was better and I enjoyed the talk from the teacher leading the retreat. I started to think I might be okay, but by the third sit everything started to change. The weather turned to rain. In a silent retreat, where you can’t talk, engage with other retreatants, or—gasp—even look at your phone, there are precious few distractions. Food is one and walking meditation periods when you tend to basic needs or just move is the other. When the weather is nice, you can get a change of scenery and enjoy the air. When it’s not nice, you have no choice but to find a spot indoors and awkwardly try to avoid running into the path of the other yogis doing walking meditation, who always look so much more focused, devout, and serene than you.

After lunch, things got worse. The coffee had worn off and the meal told my body that it was time to take a nap. Having done several retreats since then, I now know that on retreats my body just wants to sleep from the hours of 2-4 PM. On that retreat, though, I hadn’t learned this yet. I spent the sits fighting off sleep and the suspicion that I was a hopeless failure at meditation. I had also totally failed to appreciate the physical toll that lots of extra meditation would have on my body. At the time, I meditated only about 20 minutes each day. By Saturday afternoon, I had already done about 4 times that, sitting on a cushion with no back support. Everything hurt, so meditation was just sitting with one source of physical pain after another. Even walking meditation wasn’t much help since I was so tired. Feeling defeated, I headed to the kitchen for a snack, hoping maybe a boost in blood sugar might help raise my spirits. I brightened when I saw apples and peanut butter, one of my favorite after school snacks, and sat in near solitude to eat them.

My doubt voice, however, took this opportunity to enter stage right like a diva for its big aria. “Aren’t you supposed to be doing walking meditation right now?”, it asked. I ignored it and sliced my apple. “Did you really come here to eat? You could have had an apple at home.” I smeared some peanut butter, rolled my eyes at myself, and sat. The voice didn’t like being ignored so it turned up the volume. “Why do you have to do stuff like this? Can’t you just be like everyone else?” This was harder to hear. I might have cried but for another yogi standing across the room. I held it together but then the really low bows started, “You could have spent this weekend with your children and you chose to spend it here navel-gazing.” Ouch. I was sinking fast. But then the voice got arrogant, and made a mistake when it tried to land the finishing blow.

When it said “This is a waste of your time,” I suddenly thought “Wait, what?” I might doubt myself but I knew my meditation practice had been good for me. I knew the studies demonstrating its benefits. I had seen my life change consistently for the better since I started meditating and had relied on it countless times to pull myself off so many mental ledges. Thus, when the doubt voice started to attack my practice, my bullshit detector went off like an alarm clock to wake me up. But I didn’t respond with anger. I didn’t punch back at the doubt voice like Rocky after being battered on the ropes. Instead, I laughed (at least internally). I laughed because I suddenly realized that I had been the object of a life-long prank. In a flash. I saw how many times I had listened to that voice and ended up feeling lost, or stuck, or weak. I had tried for years to push the doubt away, puff myself up with feigned confidence, or take the path of least resistance and none of those strategies had worked. So instead, like pulling the mask off a friend at a costume party, I said to the doubt voice in my head “Oh, there you are. I was wondering when you’d show up. Take a seat. We’ll be here for a while.” It did just that and let me finish my snack in peace.

That little exchange also helped me see that I had been beating myself up physically too. I accepted that I was tired and hurting, so I made the rebellious decision to skip the last sit before dinner so I could do some light yoga in my room and shower to prepare to sleep as soon as the evening sit was done. It helped me a lot and my outlook was better at dinner than it had been all day. The evening sit was wonderful and included a guided loving-kindness practice that helped me connect to my daughters and community, even though I wasn’t physically with them. As soon as it ended, I got up, went to bed, and fell asleep immediately.

I awoke the next morning to sunshine, a clear head, and a lighter spirit. As I did the first sit, the truth of what happened the day before was distilled for me in this flash of insight: “Doubt feels a lot like truth.” When you are in it, doubt feels like the real truth. Truth with a capital “T”. It feels like all the lived experience before that was the illusion and the doubting construction of the facts is what is real. But it isn’t and the struggle is seeing that. The doubt had also caused me to be withholding of care for myself at a time when I needed it most. I had been physically in pain for hours before I finally accepted that I needed to do something about it. When I let go of the doubt that backed me into the corner of trying to look like a perfect yogi, I cut myself slack and took care of my body. This is when my mind and heart relaxed and opened enough for me to see clearly.

After leaving that retreat, my doubt did not ride off into the sunset and my tendency to be harsh with myself did not fade into oblivion. They come back to me frequently and sometimes catch me off-guard and knock me down. More often than not, however, I see them in time before they can do much damage. I see them now because I look for them. Before that retreat, I had not wanted to look for my doubt voice because I didn’t want it to be there. I wanted to feel strong, confident, and capable, not weak, and scared and unsure. So, when doubt cropped up, I didn’t know what it was and couldn’t see what it looked like and too often mistook it as a sign of my own frailty. In reality, doubt is just a part of my personality that wants me to be good, to do things well, and to follow the right path. For too long, doubt had let me wander only on a narrow and constricting path, but in a world full of hubris and recklessness a tendency to check myself and check again isn’t entirely bad. The retreat helped me see that doubt was not truth, but only a flavor of it. It helped me see that I could love that doubting part of myself and bring it along with me as I moved forward into the unclear future.

There are lots of stories that people share about how they prevailed over doubt. I don’t quarrel with any of those. For some, the “do it scared” approach works. For others, fake it until you make it may convince even self-doubters of their own abilities. But for me, doing nothing was the only way that I could have made peace with my self-doubt. I had to stop fighting it, stop ignoring it, and stop trying to control it. When I did, I could get a look at it. To my surprise, I found that it wasn’t that scary or ugly after all and I could just let it hang out with me when it chose to show up every so often. The retreat therefore didn’t make my doubt go away, but it changed my relationship with it and that’s what set me free.

Want the condensed version of this story? Here’s a reenactment of the retreat experience. We promise no mommies, meditators, or little doubt voices were harmed in the making of this film.

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Lessons from My Lawyer Dad that Could Have Come from a Meditation Teacher

My lawyer dad doesn’t know a thing about mindfulness, but he’s still one of the best meditation teachers I have ever had. He’s steady, hard-working, kind, and decent. He’s not closed off to new ideas, but he favors tradition and knows himself well enough that he generally hasn’t needed to seek out new practices and approaches to help manage his life. Dad worked as a lawyer for or with local governments his whole career and he loves things like procedure, budgets, and finance. As an introvert, he’s rarely the life of the party, but people listen when he talks because they know he thinks first. He was picked on in school because he grew up on a farm in a small town called Rabbit Hash, Kentucky, so he usually prefers not to stand out. For these reasons, my dad would never seek out information about mindfulness and he has never tried meditation. Dad only knows that mindfulness has helped me quite a lot in my life and it makes me happy to teach and write about it.  

You know what? That’s just fine. In the Pali canon, it is said that there are 84,000 doors to enlightenment. I take that to mean that we have options and various interconnected winding paths that can lead us to growth and fulfillment as long as we stay open to learning from what comes to us along those paths. My dad doesn’t know a thing about meditation but, as one of my first mentors in life, he prepared me to benefit from it. Many of the lessons he taught me weren’t too different from those I learned in my meditation practice or from meditation teachers. In honor of Father’s Day and to celebrate my lawyer dad, I am sharing them with you here. 

1.      Simple is good.

My dad’s favorite ice cream is vanilla. His favorite snack is saltine crackers. His beverage of choice: ice water. This isn’t to say that he doesn’t mix things up every now and then but he usually keeps things simple. Sometimes this simplicity can be magical. He makes the best fried chicken I have ever had anywhere and he doesn’t bother with the Colonel’s 11 secret herbs and spices. His recipe is just salt, pepper, and flour. That’s it. In my years of meditation, I’ve come to adopt the same approach. I’ve tried lots of different styles and practices, but most of the time I just like to sit and relax into the silence. I’m so glad I learned early on from my dad that simple is good. 

2.      It’s okay to be quiet.

If you are a meditator, it helps if you have at least a decent relationship with silence. When I teach about mindfulness, people often ask me if I am naturally calm. I tell them, emphatically, that I absolutely am not. But I have one secret advantage: I love silence. Silence isn’t lonely to me. It’s peaceful. It makes me feel at home. I’ve never had trouble with silence because my dad always liked it too. He often drove with the radio turned off. He would read for hours on end. In a world that constantly wants to make noise and run from itself, my dad taught me that it was okay just to stop and be still every now and then. That’s perhaps the first lesson that any new meditator needs to learn, so thanks dad. 

3.      Don’t be a martyr.

I’ve written before about struggling after the birth of my first daughter because she was tongue-tied and I couldn’t breastfeed her. During that time, I remember my dad saying this to me “Claire, you will have her whole life to make sacrifices for her. I don’t have any doubts that you will be willing to do that most of the time. You don’t have to try to make all the sacrifices all at once right now.” Achiever types like us lawyers love to set standards and meet them but that tendency can easily turn to martyrdom if we aren’t careful. I have even seen it show up in my meditation practice. So, remember this lesson from my dad: you have a whole life to practice. You don’t have to do it all at once. Trust that you will make the right choices as you go along and give yourself some grace. 

4.      Fear is a part of life.

My dad was a successful and respected civil servant with decades of experience. After he retired from that role, he decided to go into private practice, just a few years before I graduated from law school. I remember sharing with my dad that I was scared about business development and my dad gave me the best response possible: he admitted that he was scared of this too. To see someone who had accomplished so much admit that he was afraid and acknowledge that business development was hard helped more than any pep talk that simply told me “you can do it.” It was one of the lessons that helped me understand that fear is just a part of life and it has nothing to do with your competence or chances of success. As you start meditating, you may have a tendency to think that you “get over” or “advance beyond” difficult emotions. Not so in my experience. As human beings, we never get over things like this no matter how hard we work or how awesome we are. But, as my dad helped me see, fear is a part of life, but it helps when you can share it. 

5.      Don’t quit just because your ego gets bruised.

I loved basketball growing up and as a very tall kid I was pretty good at it. In high school, though, the competition caught up with me and my coordination and skill didn’t grow at the same pace as my height. I had an injury my sophomore year that benched me all season. My tryouts during junior year didn’t go well and, though I missed getting cut, I ended up on the JV team. I was so ashamed that I was in a pit of despair for a week and contemplated quitting. My dad told me that I didn’t have to play but that I shouldn’t quit just because I was mad or felt embarrassed. He reminded me that basketball was a sport and was, you know, supposed to be fun. I ended up deciding to play and had so much fun with the younger players. As team captain, I was able to be a leader in a way I never had before. That season was one of the best sports experiences I ever had because of this opportunity to lead. In our meditation practice, we may get upset when we struggle because it hurts our ego when we find we can’t do it perfectly or advance as quickly as we’d like. Of course, if you can avoid quitting just because you are mad at yourself or embarrassed, you may learn an entirely different lesson than the one you started out to discover. 

6.      Any moment can be a teachable moment.

I was a kid who asked a lot of questions. Deep questions, usually starting with the word “why.” It didn’t matter how out of the blue it was. It didn’t matter if my dad was cooking dinner or working in the yard. He didn’t skip a beat. He’d answer the questions and a lot of time throw some back at me to force me to think through the issue myself. Lots of meditation teachers will tell you that any moment can teach you about yourself if you keep your mind and heart open. In the same way, my dad’s constant comfort with questions and unwavering willingness to teach showed me that any moment in my life could be a learning moment. 

Though for many, meditation can feel strange at first and many may worry that the practice may change them. In my own experience, I have found that meditation didn’t change me but allowed me instead to connect more deeply with who I really was. This is why it’s no surprise that my dad’s wisdom and the wisdom from so many wonderful teachers lines up. If there are 84,000 doors to enlightenment, I am glad that I found one running to me that started on a farm in Rabbit Hash, Kentucky. Happy Father’s Day to all the dads, step-dads, foster parents, and father surrogates out there. Thank you for teaching us kids in your own way about mindfulness, meditation, and life. 

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Rethinking Self-Care: It’s a Practice

I used to roll my eyes every time I saw an article with “self-care” in the title. I was always ready with a snarky comment about the consumerism of the wellness industry and how it’s only for entitled women with endless time and money. I mean, Gwyneth Paltrow may have an entire evening to devote to a bath, a book, and a cocktail, but us real working moms are lucky to pee in private. 

It’s hard not to feel jaded about self-care because as working moms we’re bombarded with marketing campaigns in the health and wellness industry telling us we’re just not taking care of ourselves unless we buy those expensive yoga pants, luxury candles, or take a long bath with essential oils. These messages tell us to treat ourselves because we deserve it.

It can also feel like yet another thing I should be doing. If I had that $65 essential oils or $55 calming vapors I would be more productive and less stressed. Or maybe I’d have time for Gwyneth Paltrow’s evening routine if I were a little more organized.

 But, having a busy law practice and three kids (one of which is immunocompromised and has ADHD and anxiety) during a global pandemic has me re-thinking my ideas around the word self-care.

In a recent Ten Percent Happier podcast episode, the researcher and psychologist Barbara Fredrickson talked about how so many people have had to learn how to take care of ourselves during COVID-19. Yes, self-care has become a commercialized product driven industry, but at its most fundamental level it’s about learning how to meet our most basic needs and truly taking care of ourselves on a spiritual, emotional, and physical level.

Sounds easy, right? The truth is it’s really hard, but my mindfulness meditation practice has helped me figure out how to take better care of myself.

Feel your Feelings.

When I first started a regular meditation practice the first step was just slowing my mind down enough to the just figure out how I actually felt. I felt overwhelmed and didn’t even know what I needed. If I had a nickel for every time I was feeling impatient and cranky only to realize I was just hungry. I would eat a cheese stick and suddenly I didn’t feel quite so on edge.

A mindfulness meditation practice is all about slowing down, taking a breath, and feeling emotions. When we bring awareness to how we feel we can begin the process of figuring out what we need.

What Do I Need Right Now?

This is a simple question I often ask myself in a moment of feeling overwhelmed or stressed. It gets me in the headspace of taking care of myself. Sometimes the answer is a drink of water, sometimes the answer is working for 15 more minutes, or cancelling that meeting.

Which brings me to my next question I like to ask myself.

How Can I Let Go?

As a busy mom of three running her own law practice, this is usually the most important question I can ask myself. Sometimes what I need to do is let something go.

For me this usually looks like eating out instead of cooking dinner, not doing a load of laundry, not squeezing in that meeting, leaving the dishes in the sink until tomorrow, not responding to that text or email, letting my kids have more screen time so I can talk to my sister on the phone.

You get the picture. We are pulled in a million directions every single day – work, family obligations, friends, etc. So sometimes what we really need is to just let something go.

Build Healthy Habits.

Self-care isn’t just about coping with the day-to-day. It’s also about taking care of ourselves in the long term. As Claire and I recently discussed, sometimes this may mean sticking the healthy habits you created or acknowledging when your habits may need to change (you can check out our blog posts on habit change here and here, or our Instagram Live chat here).

Practice Self-Compassion.

This is mindfulness language for cutting yourself some slack. And, it’s probably one of (if not the) most important things we can do to take care of ourselves. It’s the key to combatting mom guilt and that ever-present feeling in the pits of our stomach that we just didn’t do enough today.

It’s also what I’m working hardest on right now by focusing on self-compassion (check out Claire’s blog post on self-compassion and mom guilt).

If you treat yourself, enjoy it.

While sometimes the self-care industry can feel like it’s encouraging escape and indulgence, that doesn’t mean it isn’t ok to treat ourselves once in a while.  Sometimes life is a little extra hard and we need a treat to get ourselves out of a slump. Eat that ice cream, get that manicure, or let your kids watch extra TV so you can chat with a friend. As long as the treat isn’t triggering your unwanted habit, just enjoy it avoid beating yourself up later. 

The thing I’ve learned over the last year is this: self-care is just about learning how to take care of ourselves. It might look different to different people and it will change over time, but it is absolutely necessary.

Loren VanDyke Wolff is an attorney, mom, community leader, and long-time meditator who lives and practices law in Covington, Kentucky. She has contributed several pieces to the blog and has a passion for improving the legal profession. You can connect with her on LinkedIn.

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Litigating a Big Case Terrified Me, but Left Me Feeling Like a Badass

Every so often, there are cases that come along that test your limits as an attorney. Maybe they are high profile. Maybe they come from an area of law that is outside of your comfort zone. Or maybe the result in the case could have huge consequences for your client or community. Earlier this year, I had a case that included all these things and it scared me to death. This was a problem because I was lead counsel and it was my job not only to develop a strategy to manage the litigation, but also look confident enough for my client to have faith in my abilities.

For days after the case was filed, I was in a nasty mood. I was tensed up like a spring that had been held back and might burst open at any moment. I found it difficult to do small tasks on the case and focus, dig in, and do the work. While I had support from colleagues and friends, I kept feeling like I was lost in an unknown land with no idea how to get home. When I interacted with my client, I gave directives, identified risks and strategies, and offered consolation for their nerves. But as I did, I knew I was in ‘fake it until you make it’ mode.

I knew I had to get my head right to litigate the case well. I had critical and complex briefs to write and I had to quickly prepare to put on and attack proof in a hearing. How was I going to shake my fears and get my head in the game? I didn’t know what to do, so I kept doing what I always did. Fortunately, for me, that included meditation.

I am adamant about reminding people that meditation isn’t magic but it is a practice that has helped me over the years and gotten me out of many mental jams in the past. Honestly, the fear and loathing I was feeling about the case made me reluctant to sit. In times when I am really struggling, meditation is the last thing I want to do because I know it will force me to confront things I’d rather not feel. Even so, I knew I needed to manage my stress and that I needed a lifeline to keep me steady. I made myself sit even though I knew I wouldn’t enjoy it.  

I didn’t do any special practice or guided meditation and I barely focused on my breath. Instead, I just sat in the dark of my mind and let the thoughts swirl around. The thoughts were so intense and mixed up with my emotions that it took me a few days to get my bearings. Something in me must have recognized that I just needed to give it time. My meditation on the first night was a dark haze with little focus and minimal relief. I forgave myself and tried again the next night. I was surprised to find that my mind was less scattered and I was even able to do some loving-kindness practice for myself. That seemed to unlock a door because the third night was when I broke through.

As I sat, I found my mind settling on its own and connecting to my body like a final puzzle piece falling into place. Even as thoughts surfaced about the case, I was calm without effort and could just see them arise. This let me look at—examine—my fear. I could see it as a vision in my mind in addition to feeling it in my body. I saw the vision of me losing the case, making a mistake, and having to deal with the consequences. As I watched, my favorite phrase from my loving-kindness practice– “may I greet my life with joy”—sprang to mind. I selected this phrase for myself because embedded in it is the idea that life isn’t always a joy, but I can still choose to bring it in when I respond to situations in my life. This recollection made me break down in tears for a moment.

When I recovered, my mind collected itself and, in a kind, wise voice from nowhere, said: “Claire you can’t control what happens in this case. But you can control two things: how hard you fight and how kind you are to yourself as you fight.” And that was it. I didn’t conquer my fear at all. I acknowledged it. It was big, and drawn out, and overwhelming. It went right to my ego and shook it to its core. It took me 3 days before I was ready, but I stared that fear right in the eye and saw the truth: that I couldn’t make the fear go away but I could care for myself as I felt it.

Remembering this set me free. I slept better that night than I had in a week. I got up the next day and found it easier to focus. I wrote one of the best briefs I have ever written, with force, clarity, and solid legal analysis. I orchestrated a defense and showed confidence and compassion in preparing my client to testify. The litigation was stressful and worrisome to be sure, but I remained focused and steady throughout. Despite all my fears, the results for my client were much better than I had expected, and I was proud of the job my team and I had done. The funny thing is, though, that the results were not what made me most proud. I had started the case focused on the result and it made me feel alone, vulnerable, scared, and even a little like a fraud about to be revealed. I ended it feeling like a badass because I let the results go.

My meditation practice helped me get out of the mindset of treating the case like a test of my worth as an attorney or a person. It helped me stop punishing myself for all of the things in the case I couldn’t control so I could focus solely on the things I could. In the end, the case didn’t test my limits as a lawyer, but rather expanded them. I had believed unconsciously that a scared lawyer wasn’t a good lawyer. I now know that a scared lawyer can be a great lawyer. I didn’t have to conquer all of my fears to do great work for my client. Instead, I needed to let myself expand to hold the fear with kindness so that it could transform to compassion and courage.

If you are dealing with anxiety relating to a case, you aren’t alone. We have a guided meditation for you. It uses visualization and loving-kindness practice to help you take care of yourself as you serve your clients.

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Just Learning to Say “This Is Hard” Can Change Your Life

My favorite unintended side effect of my mindfulness practice is that it gives me all kinds of opportunities to laugh at myself. I don’t mean mock myself in a cold or cutting way. Rather, I mean laugh out loud at how silly this thing I call my self can be. To be sure, there are times when my practice has called on me to go and find my inner child curled up on the floor in the dark recesses of my mind and stroke its hair and tell it that it’s beautiful and things will be alright. But some of the time, the only logical response to myself is to just say “Girl, I love you, but you are a goofy” and laugh.

My journey to learn to say “this is hard” is one of those things. Yes, you got it right. I’m not talking about enlightenment here or some vision quest type situation. I am telling you that I struggled for years (read: decades) to learn to (a) observe a difficult personal experience; and (b) acknowledge in the present moment that the experience was difficult. We are talking very basic stuff right here. But hallelujah when I finally learned to do this it was like I had worked a miracle.

Like most lawyers I’ve struggled with perfectionism most of my life. I’ve been the “smart” girl in school and the “good” girl in my family. And somewhere along the way, that got confused with the idea that I had to be innately good at anything I ever did. When I started practicing law and raising kids, I really struggled because—newsflash—those things are hard. As a new mom and lawyer, I was still in the mode of pretending like things were “fine” and that I was “on top of things” and, through gritted teeth, that it was all a “piece of cake.” How did that work out for me? Terribly. I totally fell apart and that’s when I turned to meditation to put myself back together.

Meditation is sometimes presented like magic but it’s actually much more like those times when you are running out the door looking frantically for your car keys and your spouse or child says “you are holding them.” Learning to say “this is hard” is a car key situation for me. It was right there all along and I was too busy trying to look like I knew what I was doing to see it. By learning to sit in silence, I saw my thoughts, I felt my body, and let my emotions have a voice. I suddenly started to see that—holy crap!—all kinds of hard stuff happened to me all the time. I would struggle to focus, I would have nasty voices in my head saying mean things, my foot would fall asleep, my knee would hurt, and my ego would be bruised and battered because I wasn’t the stoic meditator I had set out to be.

Do you know what all of this taught me? That just saying “this is hard” really, really helped. When I acknowledged the hard stuff, I was able to stop struggling against it. I could stop pretending it wasn’t there. I could stop putting on a brave face. By just letting go of that, I saved so much energy and opened up so much space. That extra energy and space left room to just experience the situation. Many times I would see that the situation passed on its own and that I didn’t have to do anything. On other occasions, I saw clearly what I needed to do to care for myself. For example, if my foot fell asleep, maybe I might just wiggle my toes or move my leg. In the case of an attack of the nasty voice in my head, I might just focus more on my breath or hold my own hand as I watched it rage in my mind like a child throwing a tantrum on the floor.

After I practiced this enough in meditation, I noticed it started to happen on its own in my life. When I notice my own struggle during a workout, admitting that my situation is hard helps my inner cheerleader come out and say “you got this!” When my daughter throws a real live tantrum on the floor, it helps just to take a breath in and internally say “ouch.” These moments of recognition are often enough to steady me so that I can respond with some semblance of calm. In my law practice, acknowledging when things are hard helps me manage my schedule to make my days easier or ask for help from a colleague on a tricky problem or when dealing with difficult opposing counsel. In other words, letting myself admit that things are sometimes hard was the necessary first step for managing my life and law practice more effectively.

This is why I have to laugh at myself because the thing I was running from my whole life is what I needed all along. It was so simple and so small that I kept overlooking it, so the only way I could see it was to stop everything, sit down for a while, and do nothing. When I did, I finally let the truth of life come raining down: that life is hard and pretending it’s not makes it harder. So, when life is hard, just admit it if you can because saying “this is hard” is the first step of self-compassion. But, if even that is hard for you, laughing at yourself is always an option too.

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Self-Compassion Is the Path Out of Mom Guilt and Into a Better World

“Am I a bad mom . . . ”

I cannot tell you how many times I have sent texts starting with this phrase to friends when life feels like a mess. I’ve seen countless posts in Facebook moms groups that start this way too. These questions about one’s quality as a mother may finish with anything from missing a child’s school event because of work, to forgetting a child’s lunch when rushing out the door, or even for far less dire things like bringing store bought treats to the bake sale. When I ask the question myself, I usually couch it as a joke, though I am seeking some level of real-world affirmation or at least sympathy from my friends. So, when I see other moms ask this question, my answer is always “no” and I’m usually part of a chorus of other moms who, in unison, proclaim “hell no!”

I’m glad these supports are out there. I appreciate it when my loved ones come to my aid when I get down on myself. But I hate seeing so much evidence that wonderful women are seriously considering whether they are good mothers every time life happens. I’ve struggled with this myself in the past and occasionally still do. In fact, mom guilt is why I started meditating in the first place. I had it so bad when my first daughter was born that I developed post-partum depression and it took years to work out of my self-judgmental tendencies. How did I do it? Self-compassion.

Self-compassion is the way out of mom-guilt. Am I saying it is the only way? Absolutely not. It’s no secret that moms, and parents for that matter, are doing far more on their own than they have ever done before. Our modern culture has lost many of the supports for parents we enjoyed in more traditional times. Unfortunately, legal and social networks in the United States have not progressed to fill in the gap with things like paid family leave and corporate cultures that really walk the walk in terms of respecting the demands of working caregivers. As a society, we’ve got to do better for moms and caregivers overall.

But self-compassion isn’t at odds with that. Self-compassion is what we can do right now to care for ourselves in the imperfect world in which we live. It’s not a vague platitude to “make time for self-care”. Rather, it’s a practice that you can bring into your life to care for yourself even when you have no time. More importantly, the practices are based on traits we all have as humans, so we can all cultivate them with subtle shifts in mindset and practice.

So what is self-compassion? It’s the same compassion you offer to everyone else in your life. The only difference is that you offer it to yourself. Compassion is nothing more than presence with suffering and the willingness to help. Researcher Kristin Neff, Ph.D. breaks down the elements as (1) awareness/mindfulness; (2) kindness; and (3) common humanity. If anyone understands compassion, it’s moms. For cultural reasons and maybe because our time and energy are often so short, the hard part is factoring ourselves in.

How can moms bring in self-compassion to reduce mom guilt? They just need to remember one rule: self-compassion is always the answer. By that, I don’t mean the only answer but it’s always the first response. I bet this sets off all sorts of alarm bells and “buts” and “what ifs” in your mind. So let me break it down.

First, let’s start with the easy one: a situation where you feel guilty or bad about your performance as a mom, but your better angels (and maybe loved ones) are telling you that you didn’t do anything wrong. As an example, maybe you were tickling your child and they fell back and hurt themselves. It’s totally normal to get down on yourself about this situation but it’s not really something morally bad, is it? I mean, it’s actually good that you were playing with your child, right? So why the bad feelings? Because our brains are trained to react to bad things and assign blame. If there’s no one else around, we are the only targets. So we blame and attack ourselves. The problem is, of course, that our kids being hurt causes pain for us too. We may comfort our kids in that situation, but who’s comforting us?

That’s where self-compassion comes in. We can use awareness to recognize that we hurt too. We can offer ourselves care just by experiencing the pain and reminding ourselves that all we can do is our best. And we can remember the common humanity: how many parents across time and the world have done the same thing? We aren’t alone in this struggle. It’s a human struggle. We aren’t bad at life; life is hard. Going through this process feels a lot better than guilt and it keeps the mind rooted in the present so it doesn’t go down the path of blame, shame, and rumination about the past.

Now, you are probably thinking: “Hold your horses on all of this self-compassion business. If I did something wrong, I deserve a kick in the ass.” Yeah, I struggled with this one too. It’s true that even us moms screw up sometimes. We lose our cool. We make bad choices. We say and do hurtful things to people we love. You know why that is? Because we are not superheroes, or saints, or martyrs, or TV moms with a makeup artist just outside of camera view. We are humans. And humans make mistakes.

Guess what? When we humans make mistakes, we get a kick in the ass in the form of consequences and bad feelings. As an expert at losing my cool with my kids, I can tell you I always get payback. They react to my anger with anger and bad conduct that I have to eventually control. And then I get treated to a nice tepid bath of shame and regret. In those situations, I don’t really need to pile on by kicking myself while I am down. Instead, what I really need is to restore calm, forgive myself, recognize what caused the problem, make amends, and move forward.

Will nasty internal comments help me do that? Hell no. So I have learned to recognize instead that parenting is hard, that I do a lot, that my limits get tested and pushed every day, and that me breaking sometimes is what most other moms and parents around the world experience too. Then I remember how good I am, how much I love my kids, tell myself I can do better, and go apologize. In the process, I remind myself that I deserve forgiveness and teach my kids that, instead of hiding from our mistakes, we own them and fix them.

And what if it’s more complicated? What if the causal chain of your screw up is mish-mashed up with someone else’s or that of society at large? I’d argue that this category comprises the vast majority of the incidents that may trigger your feelings of guilt. We don’t live in a vacuum; we live in a complex social system and are subject to all the restrictions and mores and whims that entails. How on earth could we possibly distill our role in a situation, with the aim of doing better next time, if we don’t employ clear vision and a relatively friendly attitude towards ourselves? We can’t.

This complexity, of course, leads to something even bigger:  the reality that self-compassion isn’t even just about us and isn’t something we necessarily have (or ought) to do alone. It isn’t about coddling ourselves or giving ourselves a pass on our nonsense. Rather, it’s about adding a baseline level of comfort so that we can face the cold hard facts about ourselves and the world in which we are living. When we can do that, we are more likely to foster and rely on relationships that can support us through hard times. Through this process, we become stronger, healthier, happier, and we can offer our kids, teams, and communities so much more. Because when we learn to pick ourselves up when we fall, forgive our own mistakes, and take care of our own pain, we find new courage to reach higher, take risks, and face the pain of others and the world.

Self-compassion is therefore not just the way out of mom guilt. It is one of the steps we can each take to make a better world. Imagine what might happen if, all of a sudden, 90% of moms didn’t feel guilty but instead knew that they were good, kind, loving, strong, and resilient? Rather than asking whether they are good or bad, those moms would ask two much better questions over and over again: “what do I need?” and “how can I help?”

For more resources on self-compassion, check out Kristin Neff’s work which is linked above or our Guided Meditation for Caregivers.

For more discussion on the topic of mom guilt and self-compassion, check out the Instagram Live I did with Mom Life and Law podcast host and lawyer, Megan Whiteside.

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