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.  

Want to learn more about mindfulness and compassion? Check out my new book, How to Be a Badass Lawyer, which is available on Amazon.

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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.

Want to learn more about mindfulness and compassion? Check out my new book, How to Be a Badass Lawyer, which is available on Amazon.

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Joy Is Remembering Heaven Is a Place on Earth

I got to my mother’s house late to pick up my daughters. I was exhausted and had just finished a too long evening meeting. I had an early meeting the next day and felt overburdened by life. As always, it took too long and too much frustration for my daughters, one 8 and one 4, to get on their shoes, gather up their belongings, and trundle out to the car. After I buckled them in and sat in the drivers’ seat, I started to pull out of the driveway in a rush to get home and into pajamas as quickly as possible.

Before I got to the end of the drive, the four-year-old chirps “Mommy, can we listen to ‘Heaven Is a Place on Earth’?” Sometimes, I admit, I brush her off and tell her “Not now, baby; it’s only a short ride.” But that night, I needed her to ask me this question. I needed the reminder that life is what we make it and what we see in it. So instead, I stopped, looked back to smile at her, and said “Good idea, Ellie. Yes we can!”

I don’t remember exactly how this song came to be a special one for us. Most likely the genesis is some 80’s playlist on Amazon Music, but I can see why the girls loved it even though it came out when I was Elinor’s age. It’s catchy, easy to sing, and has this uncanny sound – like a new beginning and happy ending all in one. I started playing it and as I sang “when the night falls down, I wait for you and you come around” I was already in a better mood than when I had pulled into the driveway.

As I started to drive towards home, the song blared on reminding me that I’m still “just beginning to understand the miracle of living.” The girls were singing and smiling in the backseat and I found myself smiling too. At a light, my little one yelled “mommy!” at me to get me to hold her hand and bounce it as we sang “I reach for you and you bring me home.” And suddenly I wasn’t just an overburdened, overwhelmed lawyer mom anymore. Instead, for a moment, I was a little girl sitting in the back of my mom’s minivan singing that song with my sister as it played on the radio.

There are lots of warnings for us parents to be “present” for our children. When you live as a lawyer, that can be hard to do. Our cases can fill up our calendars as well as our minds. They can leave little room for things like fun and memories and random adventures that lead to joy and connection. So that’s why we need other people to call us back to real life every now and then, even if sometimes we have to make ourselves listen. When we give them the chance, they remind us that there is no need to constantly worry and plan because the past and future are in each moment if we only choose to see it.

This memory was only a small moment, and many would argue an insignificant one. After all, I am telling you a story about a time when I played an old (and some might say silly) song in the car with my kids. But you know what? I don’t necessarily just remember the big, momentous occasions with my parents. I remember the small ones. I remember riding around to soccer practice and piano lessons in my mom’s minivan. I remember listening to the news on public radio in my dad’s Ford. I remember making up silly games with my sister in the backseat. For this reason, I know a truth that is easy to overlook: joy doesn’t require hours to emerge and it doesn’t require life-changing events. Instead, joy can be made in moments, and it is those moments that actually change our lives.

The key to living a joyful life is to be open to these moments so we can appreciate as many of them as possible. Of course, we won’t catch every one. Of course, there will be times when we will be too tired, or too distracted or too busy. But this only makes the moments we appreciate, fully take in, and share with others more precious. This memory with my daughters was one of those times. In a few moments, it transformed an exhausting and frustrating day into a good memory. It turned a silly song into a meeting place for my four-year-old self and the four-year-old now riding in the backseat of my car. That night when I went to pick up my girls, I was lost at sea, but I heard that four-year-old’s voice and it carried me. It reminded me that joy, fleeting as it may be, is powerful. It can forge a connection in moments that lasts well after the emotion that sparked it has passed. Indeed, when we let ourselves remember it, heaven is a place on earth.

Want to learn more about mindfulness and compassion? Check out my new book, How to Be a Badass Lawyer, which is available on Amazon.

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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.

Want to learn more about mindfulness and compassion? Check out the new book from our founder, Claire E. Parsons, called How to Be a Badass Lawyer which is now available on Amazon.

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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.

Want to learn more about mindfulness and compassion? Check out my new book, How to Be a Badass Lawyer, which is available on Amazon.

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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.

Want to learn more about mindfulness and compassion? Check out my new book, How to Be a Badass Lawyer, which is available on Amazon.

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Stop The Shame Loop and Let the Process of Habit Change Unfold

I’ve never considered myself a very disciplined person. Let’s just say I’ve never met a french fry I didn’t eat, I hit the snooze button easily, and I’m always the one around the office you can count on to say yes to the impromptu lunch (abandoning the lunch I packed). 

Even with an established meditation practice, as a busy mom and lawyer, I often find myself stumbling through each day just trying to keep all the balls in the air and ending each day in bed cycling through the long list of things I didn’t get done or should have done: I should have exercised today. Why didn’t I meditate? I didn’t get through all my emails. Do my kids have clean underwear for tomorrow? I need to clean the bathroom (why is the bathroom always so dirty?)? Did I eat a vegetable today? Did my kids eat a vegetable this week? When was last time anyone in my family ate a vegetable? And on and on and on.

For so long I was stuck in a loop: try to cultivate a habit or make a change, feel like I was failing, feel ashamed and beat myself up, give up. Telling myself the story that I’m just not a disciplined person.

Then I found the work of Leo Babauta and his blog Zen Habits. Babauta’s work focuses on productivity using a Zen based minimalist philosophy. As women we are conditioned that success means we do it all and we do it perfectly. Babauta’s work helped me start to deconstruct that. He introduced me to the idea of starting small and just doing less.     

The focus on productivity helped, but I was still stuck in the habit change loop (start, stop, feel ashamed…). That’s when I found  Kelly McGonigal’s work and the 10% Happier Habit Change Course.  McGonigal is a behavioral psychologist at Stanford that studies habit formation and teaches using mindfulness practices.   

The first time I took the 10% Happier Habit Change Course, I learned the basics of habit change and how to create routines to support habit changes. The basic steps of habit formation are to choose a trigger, associate it with a behavior, and reward yourself for doing the behavior. McGonigal teaches that in order to build lasting habit changes we must connect them to our higher goals of the kind of person we want to be and the life we want to lead.

Establishing a regular exercise is a big habit for me. I have herniated discs and when I’m running and stretching regularly my back hurts less. The first time I took the Habits Course I took McGonigal’s advice. I’m also 44 years old with young kids. I want to be able to run around with my kids (and grandkids some day!). Yes, my increasing amounts of cellulite and my pants fitting too tight are part of the motivation to exercise, but once I connected exercise to my higher goals (feeling good and being active with my kids) it got a little easier.

I learned to incorporate visual reminders of these higher goals into my routine. I cut a picture out of a magazine of a mother and daughter smiling and running on a beach together and hung it up by my bed. This picture is a visible reminder to me when I don’t feel like exercising that the reason I want to put on those running shoes is so that I can be active with my kids and be pain free.

Practical tips and understanding the psychology behind habit change helped, but I was still stuck in the shame loop so I took the 10% Happier Habit Change Course again. This time I heard McGonigal’s words about cultivating self-compassion. I learned that the habit I really need to change is the mental habit of shame when I don’t do what I think I should be doing.

McGonigal says acknowledging that you even want to change something is the “bravest version of yourself” and that self-compassion means being gentle with yourself and acknowledge that you’re doing the best you can. She says “life is unfolding process” and that self-compassion is the bedrock of opening up to that process. I can feel myself opening up to the idea that habit change is a lifelong process up and for the first time I’m starting to interrupt the shame loop.

I will never be the most disciplined person, but maybe, just maybe, I can be someone who does her best and doesn’t beat herself up every time she doesn’t do exactly what she should be doing. Maybe I can finally embrace the concept of the lifelong process. Maybe some day I’ll be the person who exercises somewhat regularly, maybe eats a vegetable once in a while, and meditates regularly. Maybe I’ll be the kind of woman that lays in bed and thinks: I did my best today, isn’t that great? Good job, me.

So if there’s a new habit you’re trying to cultivate or a not-so-great habit you’re trying to break – whatever you do go easy on yourself.

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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How Mindfulness Helped Me Learn to Love Networking

One of my pandemic projects was publishing a book about networking with 19 other women lawyers. It’s called #Networked and it was a bestseller on Amazon in a few categories. For natural networkers, this might just be a cool thing but for me it was a milestone. It was one of the things that helped me fully and finally put to rest the idea that I was not good at networking.

In case my incessant droning on about sitting quietly had not clued you in, I am a bit of a nerd. I am an introvert and love reading and writing and quiet things. I love deep conversations or presenting on subjects about which I am passionate, but I detest small talk. I hate trying to come up with things to say to people I don’t know, and I am terrible at acting like I am having a good time when I am not.

In law school, these tendencies combined to cause me to literally run away from a networking event during a failed big law summer clerkship experience. On a Saturday in 90+ degree weather in full sun, I stood in the posh backyard of a soon-to-be partner trying to “get to know” the firm’s attorneys and socialize with my fellow clerks. That was the cover story, at least. It was really an audition and I knew it and the only thing I could think about while pretending to drink my warm beer was trying to not sweat. After an hour, I made some excuse and left, knowing my fate was sealed.

Though I clerked the following summer in the firm where I ultimately made equity partner and had a vastly different experience, that memory haunted me for years. It repeatedly told me that I was no good at networking and that I would never be able to develop business and make partner. As I just said, though, I made partner and I literally just published a book about networking. So, clearly something very drastic has changed. As with a lot of things in my life, my mindfulness practice is one of the things that helped me change my own mind about networking. Here’s how.

1. Body Awareness Helped Me Manage Energy

Before I started meditating, I was constantly in my head. Body scans and breath practice, however, constantly reminded me to focus on the sensations in my body instead. Eventually, that shift in focus started to permeate my life even out of seated practice and I was better aware when I felt nervous or tired or just not into it when I had to go to a social event. When I could, I learned to meditate for a few minutes before or just send myself some loving-kindness during those times. That really helped and I found I was better able to tolerate and monitor the energy drain that large social events often caused me so I could focus better on the people there.

2. Awareness of Thoughts = Awareness of Ideas

 I really like to write and do it all the time now. Years ago, though, I only did “extra” writing outside of my law practice occasionally. As a big overthinker, one of the main benefits of my meditation practice was that it gave my thoughts enough space so I could see them more clearly. I eventually found that my thoughts were ideas for written content, so slowly and surely I started writing. Now, most of us don’t think of writing as a networking activity, but when I started to do it consistently and on platforms like LinkedIn, I found that it absolutely was.

When you put written content out there, you are sending out a verbal handshake to whomsoever on the internet may find it. If, like me, you learn to be yourself, people will reach out and want to talk more. But, unlike networking at happy hours with total strangers, you don’t have to make small talk because you already have something specific that brought you together. In other words, mindfulness turned my introversion into networking gold.

3. Consistently Returning to the Breath Practices Persistence

This next one is basic, but its importance cannot be overstated. Even if you never get a single amazing insight or spiritual experience from meditation, you can be pretty sure that the practice will teach you at least one thing: persistence. Anyone who has done breath practice knows that it can drive you nuts to keep going back to the breath over and over and over again. But we do it and hope it will pay off. It paid off for me and still does today. It helped me practice persistence and persistence is absolutely critical to networking. Nobody builds an empire or a community overnight. It takes a bunch of teeny tiny acts done consistently and maybe with a little bit of skill and luck mixed in. There is nothing that teaches you better about the impact of a bunch of teeny tiny acts than a regular meditation practice.

4. Compassion Helped Me Learn to Be Myself

The number one change I made to my networking game was to stop trying to “fit in.” I used to go to events and try to “look natural” and “seem upbeat” and “appear friendly.” In other words, I was trying to look like an extrovert and look like I was having fun doing it. Nobody bought this, including myself. My meditation practice taught me something that helped me stop this foolishness: there is nothing wrong with me. Specifically, loving-kindness practice helped me understand that I was loving, wanted to be of service to others, and was loved by many.

It also helped me appreciate that some particular social settings, small talk with strangers and loud group events, were painful for me, while others, deep conversation with a small group of friends, made me feel like I could conquer the world. When I learned this and accepted it as okay, I shifted my focus. I realized that my networking could include smaller events or activities with friends or even writing on LinkedIn. In other words, when I realized that my introvert tendencies were not bad character traits, I finally started to use them. And, when I started to network like me, instead of trying to mimic or go along with my extroverted friends, I made progress.

5. Giving Feels Good

Most of the best networkers tell you that their secret to success is giving. They will tell you to focus on proactively offering value to your network more than you focus on plucking benefits from it. This is good advice and my life experience tells me that we are more likely to do things when they feel good to do. My mindfulness practice helped me not only to pay more attention to how my body feels but also to more fully accept that I need to nourish myself to do my work.

Though I hated networking at first, everything changed when I started focusing on giving, rather than taking. I started small by taking on projects that I cared about, joining groups with a mission that I supported, or writing about topics that mattered to me. This soon put me in the position to help others by connecting friends, sharing tips that could help others, or doing good work for my community. When I noticed how good—how satisfied—that made me feel, I wanted to do more and had the energy to do it even with all my other obligations.    

If you hate networking, you aren’t alone but don’t discount the possibility that you may only dislike the version of networking you have experienced so far. I used to hate networking too when I tried to mimic the way that others did it. When I started focusing on what I liked and worked for me, I learned to enjoy and even love networking. Mindfulness practices could help you do the same thing. Sure, meditation in itself won’t turn you into a super connector, that will take many other steps and a whole lot of time. But it can help you do the preliminary work you might need in order to begin taking those steps. Meditation can help you turn inward to appreciate what is truly unique about you, so that you can turn outward with more confidence and skill. So, if you’ve had enough running away from crowded networking events in tears, try sitting quietly by yourself for a few minutes instead.  

If you need a meditation to get you started, check out this guided meditation we created that uses loving-kindness practice to help you shift your mindset about networking.

Want to learn more about mindfulness and compassion? Check out my new book, How to Be a Badass Lawyer, which is available on Amazon.

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You Can Meditate Even If You Can’t Sit Still

I wish I could meditate,” people often tell me when I speak or present about mindfulness, “but I can’t sit still.” To be sure, meditation is associated with stillness. One of the most ubiquitous symbols of mindfulness is the statue of the Buddha. He sits there with that half smile, perfectly still, looking totally unbothered and it can make some of us—mere mortals who have yet to attain enlightenment—think we can’t do the same. I’m here to tell you to forget that idea. You are allowed to move when you meditate.

Look, you don’t need my permission or anyone’s permission when you start a meditation practice. It’s YOUR practice. Do what works for you. But, as a recovering perfectionist myself and as a lawyer trained to never take an action without solid authority, I know how easy it is to forget that. In fact, I needed my meditation practice to learn even to notice what felt good to and worked for my body. With that in mind, I made this permission slip for you in case you want proof positive that a meditation teacher has authorized you to move during meditation. Share it with your friends and family and anyone who ever questions you or gives you side eye for moving during your practice.

Now, of course, you may think “but isn’t moving during meditation bad?” and wonder why I am giving this permission out so freely. My answer to that is that the classic lawyer response: “it depends.” Movement during meditation is generally something to be avoided because the point of meditation is usually to calm and settle the mind. If the body is moving, it is harder to do that and it may be nearly impossible for a new meditator. As such, the general advice and the strategy I use in my own practice is to try to find a posture I can hold for a solid period of time and avoid moving where possible.

But, this strategy has limits. Beyond stillness, the other way to calm and settle the mind and body is to comfort it. That means your physical comfort as you meditate supports your mental stillness. Thus, if something is making you uncomfortable during you practice, the wise and skillful thing may just be to move to take care of it. This means you can (and maybe ought to) scratch that itch or wiggle that leg that has fallen asleep.

Once you practice long enough, you start to realize that there really are no distractions from your practice; there are only new things that arise that become your practice. In reality, when a desire to move arises, it isn’t a zero sum game. Instead, if you remain mindful during the situation, it’s really a choice of what mode of practice you want to employ. You can choose to sit with the experience and stay with the physical sensations in the body and watch them arise, move, change, and fade away. That’s practicing body awareness, equanimity, compassion, and also exploring the temporary nature of life. Those are great skills and experiences to have in your life. But, if you choose to move, you practice body awareness, mindful action, and compassion. Those are also great skills to have.

The key with both of these things, of course, is to first maintain awareness of your experience. When you do that, you can choose the next course of action and whatever action you choose becomes your practice. Then you can simply return to the breath or whatever focal point you have selected for that session. Now, of course, if you lose awareness and just scratch that itch or wiggle your leg unconsciously, what then? I think you know the answer here: this is still practice. When you realize what you’ve done, you notice it, return to your focal point, and try to avoid mentally bludgeoning yourself in the process.

In short, you can move when you meditate. You don’t need to be a statue. You can find stillness (and wisdom and compassion) even when your body and the world won’t let you sit still. That is life. Don’t fight against it; practice with it. The wisdom, the lessons, and the benefits of meditation don’t come from trying to live up to a standard. They come from learning to move through life with greater compassion, awareness, and ease. You can learn that from sitting still in your meditation practice and moving on occasion too. Give it a try.

For more information about ways to respond to when the urge to move arises, check out the 1-minute video and slide deck on our Learn to Meditate in Less than 2 Minutes page.

Want to learn more about mindfulness and compassion? Check out my new book, How to Be a Badass Lawyer, which is available on Amazon.

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How Mindfulness Helped Me Learn to Ride the Wave in a Life Full of Transitions

Spring is about transition. The days are getting longer, the weather is warming up a bit, and we’re starting to shake off the winter blahs. For me right now, it is also about life transitions. I’m 44, I have 3 kids one of which had a kidney transplant as a baby, I left a job at a law firm in December, and we decided to move in January. And, of course, let’s not forget we’re a year into a global pandemic that has required us to basically reinvent our lives. So, let’s just say that transition is kind of my jam these days.

The past year, strange as it has been, is not strange at all in the context of the last decade. These past 10ish years feel like they have been nothing but transition for me. In the span of a few years, my husband and I started our own law practice, rehabbed a house built in 1870, and had our first baby. Then, in 2012, our second child, William, was born with end stage renal disease which began what I like to refer to as: The Five-Year Pause.

For the first 18 months of William’s life we were in perpetual crisis mode. It was exhausting – both physically and emotionally. At 18 months old William received a kidney transplant and by the time he was five he was in school and we had settled into a life with an immunosuppressed kid. Our law practice continued to grow and in 2015 we had a third kid.

Loren with her kids.

Then I turned 40, and thought “now what”? I spent a lot of time thinking about what I would do next and I ended up leaving the law practice I had with my husband and joined a law firm. Though I learned a lot at that firm, it wasn’t the right fit. And, like so many others, COVID also had my family in turmoil. My son’s ADHD and anxiety made virtual school incredibly stressful. My 11-year-old daughter was suffering—we were all suffering. So, I joined the 140,000 women that left their jobs in December.

In the midst of all of this, I’ve realized that I’ve experienced growth. Here I am—spring is around the corner, we’re still in the middle of a global pandemic, and I’m in the middle of yet another major life transition trying to figure out what’s next for my career. But, unlike when William was born, I now have a regular meditation and mindfulness practice to help me. Through all that change, I have learned a skill, a strategy, a practice to cling to when times feel hard.

Let me be clear. I have a lot of days where life feels really hard. Mindfulness does not mean I’m floating around blissed out all the time (picture one of those smiling Buddha statues). That is definitely not me. I’m still a mom that yells at my kids sometimes, feels overwhelmed a lot, and sometimes feels like I’m not smart enough. I still fall victim to all the other harmful thought patterns that go with anxiety and stress to which women lawyers are especially prone. And did I mention we’re in the middle of a global pandemic?

The difference is that my mindfulness and meditation practice makes me feel a little less terrible. I now have a more skillful way to handle difficult feelings when they come up and I’m able to ride the wave of the hard days with a little more ease. And I’m able to appreciate the less-hard days which has brought a little more joy and happiness into my life. And above all, my mindfulness practice helps me show up every day and practice – again and again.  

At its core, a mindfulness meditation practice is about cultivating the ability to be fully present – to bring awareness to how we feel. It’s also about compassion—for ourselves and others. An essential step in a meditation practice is cultivating a nonjudgmental space in our own brains where we can feel our body and experience emotions without being reactive or feeling overwhelmed. And for me, a major ah-ha moment in my meditation practice was reaching the understanding that it is just that – a practice. Which means I will be working on it for my entire life. I mean, sure, maybe I’ll reach enlightenment, but assuming I won’t, I’m going to continue practice because the truth is I just feel a little better when I do. And especially during times like now – when life feels especially overwhelming – my mindfulness practice allows me to be present with the hard feelings without completely freaking out. And, sometimes, when life is hard, not freaking out is a victory.

So, here’s my intention for this spring: I’m going to use this time to reset. To begin again. To remind myself that while life’s transitions can feel difficult, they also bring growth. I will be brave and remain open to the possibilities. I’m also going to work on my self-compassion practice (which means I’m going to practice cutting myself some slack because life is hard right now and I’m doing the best I can).

And, maybe for just a moment, I will celebrate all the change, and all the joy and pain, and all the people in my life who helped me survive and grow in the last 10 years. Because the truth is life will be hard sometimes no matter what I do and I’ve learned that sometimes it helps to just take a deep breath and ride the wave.

To learn more about this topic, check out the video of founder Loren and our Founder, Claire E. Parsons, discussing how even short mindfulness practices can help you deal with the turbulence of life:

Want to learn more about mindfulness and compassion? Check out the new book from our founder, Claire E. Parsons, called How to Be a Badass Lawyer which is now available on Amazon.

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