This week is Thanksgiving, so it may not be all that surprising that I have the idea of “abundance” on my mind. As someone who loves to cook (and eat), Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday. When I was a kid, Thanksgiving meant cooking all day for my mom’s large family and then eating all night. This is the traditional (and maybe American) view of abundance: having so much that even when you share it with a group you still have too much.
I am celebrating these small pockets of time this week because this is the blog’s 50th post. I remember when I launched the blog worrying that my writing wouldn’t be consistent. Somewhat stuck in a scarcity mindset, I worried that things would get too busy. I worried that I’d run out of ideas. I worried that I would decide it was too much work. I worried that nobody would care. In the end, as it turns out, none of these worries born from the idea that my time and I weren’t enough ended up being true.
My writing was not always consistent but that was not actually a bad thing. Some weekends, I could crank out blog posts for the whole month, so it didn’t matter if I didn’t write for a few weeks. Life was very busy for much of the year. My law practice was hectic and I did a 500-hour yoga teacher training. This life craziness, however, inspired me to write rather than keeping me from it and fortunately some friends pitched in with guest blog posts too. And, while none of my 50 posts have gone viral, the blog has some followers and I still love writing.
Now, at this point, you could say I have written an abundance of blog posts. Indeed, this year I’ve written about the same amount as a short novel. But I didn’t need all the things my mind in its scarcity mode told me that I needed. I didn’t need unlimited time, freedom from all distractions, and a group of fans cheering me on to keep writing. Instead, all I needed was my laptop and some bits of time, when my law practice and kids allowed it, to deposit a few words here and there.
This Thursday, as you celebrate the abundance of the season, remember that the bounty on your table is the product of small acts done consistently over time. Abundance is not just something you can experience, but something you can create. This Thanksgiving, I wish you abundance in your celebrations and that you find it in yourself.
A. Intuitive eating is an evidenced based approach to health and wellness that has ten guiding principles to help people have a positive relationship with food, mind and body. Intuitive eating was created by two dietitians, Evelyne Tribole and Elyse Resch. Their book was first published in 1995, and the fourth edition came out last year. Over the last roughly ten years or so, there has been a lot of research supporting the positive outcomes related to intuitive eating, which support both mental and physical health. Intuitive eating is also very much so aligned with Health at Every Size (HAES), again promoting health and wellness without focusing on weight loss.
Q. What drew you to focus on intuitive eating in your work with clients?
A. Once I was a little over ten years into my career, I had enough experience to know that diets don’t work. And when it comes to kids especially, I recognized how promoting weight loss causes harm. I saw firsthand how the pursuit of weight loss damaged one’s relationship with food and their body, and that dieting was a predictor for weight gain and risk factor for eating disorders in adolescents. About the same time, I was starting my private practice, and I kept coming across the topic of intuitive eating in the area of nutrition entrepreneurship. The more I learned, the more it resonated with me, both personally and professionally. I truly believe intuitive eating can be life changing.
Q. What makes intuitive eating stand out from other practices or strategies for managing nutrition?
A. Intuitive Eating respects an individual’s lived experience and honors their health goals without focusing on weight. Intuitive eating allows people to focus on health promoting behaviors, without the pursuit of weight loss. It also has over 125 research studies supporting its efficacy.
Q. Many mindfulness practices emphasize paying attention to and honoring thoughts, feelings and body sensations, could those practice support intuitive eating?
Definitely! One of my favorite strategies is to encourage my clients to check in with their bodies midway through the meal and take notice. Whether they notice they are still hungry or are comfortably full, it doesn’t matter. Being in tune with your body is essential to being an intuitive eater. Honoring hunger and feeling fullness are just two of the principles of intuitive eating, but they are very important to the practice.
Q. Is self-compassion important to intuitive eating or managing nutrition in general? If so, can you explain why?
Q. Are there any other practices that you recommend for people who are interested in intuitive eating?
I would encourage anyone that is interested in intuitive eating to experiment with viewing food as emotionally neutral. So many clients come to me using the language that food is “good” or “bad”, or “healthy” vs “unhealthy”. All food offers some nutritional benefit, and I think if we can trust ourselves and our bodies, we will realize food holds no moral value. It is so liberating to know that all foods fit. I like to encourage a diet with enough nutrition, variety, and satisfaction because to me, that is what is healthiest.
About Kathryn Riner: Kathryn Riner is a masters level educated, pediatric dietitian living in St. Louis, MO. She has 14 years of experience working both in her community and at a local US News and World Reports nationally ranked children’s hospital. In 2016 she opened her private practice, Healthy Kids Nutrition, LLC providing compassionate, individualized nutrition therapy to families. In 2019, Kathryn trained with Evelyn Tribole, a co-author of Intuitive Eating and became a Certified Intuitive Eating Counselor. Her mission is to help parents and kids have a positive relationship with food, so everyone can feel happy, healthy and confident around the table. You can follow her on Instagram @intuive.eating.for.moms.
As a mindfulness and compassion teacher, I’m not supposed to say this, but I didn’t like yoga at first. In fact, the first class I ever tried felt so awkward and terrible that I didn’t try it again for several years. The impediments for me were manifold. I was not used to “being” in my body. I thought I had bested my perfectionism years ago, and still hadn’t learned that this latent tendency would stay with me for life. I am not small, naturally flexible, or graceful in any context. And I’m kind of a work horse. I do physical activities for a purpose – scoring points or walking to somewhere nice or cooking dinner – but generally not just because they feel good. So, when I first went to a yoga class, I was preoccupied with making the poses look right, worried about how my awkward feelings did not match the picturesque poses of the women in the class who (in my memory at least) looked like runway models, and not falling or pulling a muscle.
So what changed? My body sure didn’t. I’m 5’11” with a solid frame and have had 2 babies since my first yoga class. I’m no more thin or lithe or any of that nonsense than I was when I first tried yoga. My mind and heart, however, are quite different. You see, some time after that first failed and what I thought was humiliating yoga class, I started my meditation practice. At the time, I had no idea I was doing yoga.
This is where yoga comes in. I knew I wasn’t ready for intense cardio or strength yet, so I decided to give yoga another try. I found a local studio with reasonable teachers and welcoming and compassionate students. I got a trial membership and walked into a “yin” class that billed itself as slow and calming. I had no idea what this meant but, when I walked in, the teacher warned me that I would hold poses for 3-5 minutes. This news might alarm some, but as a meditator, I thought “Oh, I can do that.” Even though I needed tons of props to help me manage my inexperience, and lack of range of motion and strength, I loved the class. It became a regular for me and I gradually worked up to slow flow classes. By the time I worked my way up to power yoga, my exercise regimen was established as a habit.
Though yoga had helped me feel better by getting more into my body, I did the same silly thing I had previously done with my meditation practice: I fell away from it for a while. At it turns out, just like my experience without meditation had shown me, falling away from yoga helped me see how important it was. Once I got my exercise habit re-established, I wanted more intensity. I started going to Orange Theory and so stopped the yoga studio because I didn’t have as much time (or money) for the classes. I loved the classes and still stretched regularly but the tread running caused me to develop plantar fasciitis. I tried a lot of things to fix it, but the problem lingered until the pandemic forced me to switch things up.
In late 2019, I had purchased a Peloton for my husband to try to help him stick with cardio. By March, 2020, that item was a lifeline for me. At first, I focused on the bike, then added some strength, and then finally explored the yoga content. Lo and behold, the plantar fasciitis started to resolve when I added yoga back into my repertoire. This helped me learn that my body needed intense strength and cardio workouts, but it also needed the flexibility and balance that yoga offered. As I practiced more, I found that sometimes yoga was not just good for a stretch but needed in times when I was too worked up to meditate. I realized that moving first or meditating during a restorative practice was sometimes a more compassionate way to take care of myself.
In other words, I realized that yoga was a practice that could balance and add depth to my exercise and meditation routines. Though I had never been the biggest devotee of yoga and am definitely not doing Instagram-worthy arm balances any time soon, this experience made me curious. I realized that there was another side of mindfulness to explore and, since the pandemic didn’t seem to be ending as soon as I’d hoped, I enrolled in the 500-hour yoga teacher training program with My Vinyasa Practice. So, now this awkward, unbalanced, hyper-rational lawyer who thought she didn’t like yoga, is a yoga teacher.
So why do I share this story? I share it because it taught me that there are lots of paths to mindfulness. Some of us, like me, are so tangled in thought that we have no choice but to start in our minds. Others, though, may have better luck by starting with the body. In the end, though, these paths intersect and over time can come together like tributary streams forming a powerful river. That’s what happened for me and so I am grateful for all the mistakes and wrong judgments I made along the way that forced me to look at mindfulness again and again so that I could understand it better.
The truth is that I never disliked yoga at all. I disliked myself or at least didn’t like the image I had of myself. Once meditation helped me get a better and more compassionate view, I found that I could enjoy yoga too. Thus, even though I was a reluctant yogi, the practice did for me what it promised to do. The word “yoga” means to “yoke” or unite mind and body. I had started yoga distant from and judging my body for how it looked and what it couldn’t do. When I dropped the judgment, paid attention to how my body felt and gave it what it needed, my mind and body became united and I learned that I had been doing yoga all along.
Author’s Note: Spoiler alert. There is some detail in this post about what happens in the movie and how it ends. The symbolism in The Green Knight is heavy and I personally benefited from some excellent analysis about the movie that I read online. In addition, though the movie is new, the story is not. If you aren’t familiar with the poem and prefer to be surprised, watch the movie first and then come back later to read.
When I left the theater after watching The Green Knight, I wasn’t sure what to think. I was mostly confused, a little surprised that the theater wasn’t totally empty, and I wondered out loud to my husband why the critic reviews had been so good. It wasn’t really that the movie was bad, but it was slow. Though it was about knights, there was hardly anything knightly about it. There was only one sword fight, and I knew going in how that would end. Even while watching the movie, I wasn’t rapt with suspense, though curiosity glued my eyes to the screen as I tried to unpack the symbolism in each scene.
That part was clear with the Green Knight’s threat to take off Gawain’s head and Gawain’s obsessive clinging to the magical green girdle he thought would protect him. It was only when Gawain finally set the girdle aside, and leaned forward to accept his beheading, that the Green Knight pronounced him a “good knight.” The movie doesn’t tell us what happens next, but, if you are familiar with the poem, you may know that Gawain does not get beheaded after all.
So why was this movie stuck in my brain? Because it didn’t just give us the needed reminder that we aren’t in control of things in life, it also showed how the stories we create and try to live up to as we go about our lives are part of the illusion of control that we must escape. From the outset of Gawain’s journey to face the Green Knight, he fails to live up to the standards for knights from the epic poems. Gawain appears to agree to fight the Green Knight at first, not out of courage or conviction, but instead because Arthur primed him in the minutes before the Green Knight’s appearance to believe he ought to start becoming somebody important.
When he leaves the castle walls on his quest, Gawain is quickly bested by 3 nihilistic teens and robbed of his horse, armor, and the green girdle his mother made to protect him. He’s left hogtied in a forest, presumably to die but narrowly and awkwardly escapes death. Gawain then wanders lost through the woods and stumbles upon the ghost of St. Winifred, a woman beheaded for her chastity, who must shame him into helping her secure her disembodied head. And he utterly fails in the house of a lord he encounters before facing the Green Knight.
He is totally outsmarted, outclassed, and beguiled by the lady of the house and accepts in rather humiliating circumstances the gift of his magically restored protective green girdle from her. She brands him “no true knight” for this encounter because Gawain cannot let go of the lust for protection and control. As Gawain runs from the house, telling himself he’s heading to face the Green Knight and not merely running away from his shame, Gawain fails again. He meets the lord of the house in the woods and reneges on his promise to give everything he received at the house back to the lord before he departs. Though he offers a farewell kiss, Gawain leaves without mentioning the green girdle the lady had given him.
So why do I love this? I love this because Gawain is us. Though played masterfully by Dev Patel, the character Gawain doesn’t have a clue what he’s doing. He goes out into the world, like us, with no instructional manual. He’s forced to try to make something out of himself, perhaps due to pressure from his family or the idea that he’s got big shoes to fill. At first, he falls flat on his face. He gets taken advantage of by bad people and suffers dearly. But from that he learns something really important: what it’s like to suffer. And he uses that knowledge for good when, after a little prompting from her, he helps Winfred even though she has nothing to give him. But then, just like us silly humans, Gawain fails again. He goes back to a house that looks enough like his home in Camelot and he forgets what he just learned. He falls prey again to the idea that he can find a lasting security and he clings again to his green girdle and hides it from the lord.
But even this big dope of a guy—even Gawain who keeps messing up—learns. By the end of his relatively uninspiring journey, he learns the truth he needs to understand to do anything great at all: that security and safety (at least the lasting kind) are myths. Before he faces the Green Knight, Gawain is shaking with fear and has a vision of himself running away and returning to Camelot. In this vision, Gawain’s unearned legend for bravery precedes him and leads him to rise in favor and ultimately become king. The vision though foretells the personal costs he must suffer and the harm he must do to others to take that path. More significantly, the death of his loved ones and the depicted fall of his empire tell us that none of this so-called greatness will last anyway. It is this vision, stark as it is, that knocks sense into Gawain and forces him to set the green girdle aside and lean in as the Green Knight prepares to take his head.
It also shows how those stories can keep us from helping each other and being ourselves and how they can even make us feel justified to cause others pain. Indeed, unlike many films depicting Arthurian legends, this one examines some of the old stories and legends even as it retells one. It contrasts the tale of St. Winifred, a woman brutalized and robbed totally of her agency, with the often violent heroism for which men of the time were praised. Likewise, Gawain’s final vision examines the merits of the knightly legends as well as the value of titles and power, which not only fade but may also lead to the perpetration of violence against others, including loved ones.
I think the creators of The Green Knight made a tactical decision to make Gawain much younger and less established than the well-sung hero of the ancient poem. They made him young because I think the filmmakers were talking to the young. They were telling the young that, like Gawain observed, our leaders are aging, our stories from the past need to be examined, but we have no choice but to go and try and fail. If we do this with open hearts, a willingness to face our own shame and accept what we cannot control, we may just become good knights and do some good in the world. It’s a hard world to be living in and a difficult time to be practicing law, but The Green Knight tells us that you don’t have to be perfect or fit the mold to be a “good knight.” Instead, you only have to accept the realities of life, including your own humanity, and be willing to face the things that scare you. This is a lesson any young knight, human, or lawyer could certainly use. Thus, just like life, The Green Knight may confound, confuse, and mystify you, but if you can sit back and let the lessons it is offering come to you, you may come to see how good it really is.
If you are interested in learning more about this, you may be gratified to know that there are a number of high quality and accessible courses for you to explore compassion practices further. Here’s a brief comparison of some of the most well-known courses available that can help you get started with the process of cultivating compassion for yourself and others.
1. Best Introduction: Science of Compassion by Kelly McGonigal
2. Best for New Meditators: Power of Awareness by Tara Brach & Jack Kornfield
This is an introduction to mindfulness and meditation created by popular and renowned meditation teachers and psychologists, Tara Brach and Jack Kornfield. It is available at regular intervals throughout the year from Sounds True. The course is primarily composed of video and audio recordings but they are high quality and informative. Tara Brach is famous for her RAIN technique, a compassion practice for handling painful emotions and an entire section is devoted to this strategy. If needed, online community options and Zoom meetings are available to participants who need more detailed instruction. Although this course is not live, the teachings were recorded before a live audience. Recordings of Q&A sessions with the audience are included and this is where Brach’s and Kornfield’s teaching really shines. In addition, the course includes a self-study, half-day retreat, which offers a chance to explore the practices in more depth.
3. Most Practical and Comprehensive: Compassion Cultivation Training from CCARE at Stanford University
This course is the marriage of ancient meditation practices and modern science. It was founded by researchers at Stanford University and Thupten Jinpa, Ph.D., a Tibetan refugee who served as translator to the Dalai Lama for more than 30 years and later earned a Ph.D. in religious studies. This course uses Tibetan compassion practices, including loving-kindness and tonglen, as well as others derived from research to teach students how to increase compassion for themselves and for others. CCARE has limited in-person choices for instruction but trained teachers offer the course elsewhere, including virtual options. Because compassion for self and others are intertwined, I found the subject most practical when both aspects were treated together in this program. The structure of the CCT program, as well as the small class size, permitted more time for discussion with and learning from classmates.
4. Best for Self-Compassion: Mindful Self-Compassion from the Center for Mindful Self-Compassion
This course may be one of the most well-known compassion courses across the globe. It was created by researchers and teachers, Kristin Neff and Chris Germer. It is available in either a live or online format that ranges from 8 to 12 weeks, depending on the course structure. It is packed with strategies and resources to expand and employ self-compassion, regardless of one’s experience with meditation. The tone of this course is very soft, so soft in fact that lawyers or others not familiar with compassion practices may struggle or be put off by it. Like the Power of Awareness above, it includes a half-day retreat as well but the retreat for MSC is live and done with other participants, which is generally more supportive for a first retreat experience. Because MSC is so well-known, one other neat aspect of the course, especially if you take it online, is that your classmates are likely to include people from around the world. Interacting with classmates around the world on the topic of self-compassion may help you understand more than anything how universal and critical the human need for self-kindness is.
So, which course should you choose? I’ll admit that CCT was my personal favorite, so if you could pick only one I would tell you to try CCT. With that said, I benefited from and enjoyed every course mentioned here and compassion is a capacity that I don’t think you can overtrain. The real question isn’t which course you should choose, but which one you should try first.
Founder’s Note: I found Laura where I found a lot of other wonderful people I have nevermet in person: LinkedIn. She posted great content about compassion and so I connected with her. When she offered a CCT course this spring, I signed up even though it ended the week after I finished Mindful Self-Compassion training. I was a bit afraid I would be sick of compassion by that point, but Laura’s style of teaching was so real, practical, and filled with heart that I ended up being even more enthusiastic about it. Please welcome Laura to the pages of Brilliant Legal Mindand check out her bio below for information about another CCT courses she offers.
In late February 2020, I traveled to New York City for a compassion workshop. Having grown up in the New Jersey suburbs, it felt like coming home. The city’s sights, sounds, and smells were as familiar as my heartbeat and the first bite of a folded slice of pizza brought me right back to childhood. As people jostled on the subway and scrambled up the stairs that Saturday night, the coronavirus still seemed like news from the other side of the world. Thousands of bodies crowded around Times Square, oblivious to what was just around the corner. We could not have imagined how soon and suddenly our lives would change, and how much strength and courage we would need to summon in response.
We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.
Whether or not we recognize it, we have all drawn on this compassion for ourselves and others to navigate the past turbulent months. And it is compassion, this awareness of suffering and willingness to relieve it, which will continue to resource us moving forward.
At the beginning of the pandemic, the poet Moya Cannon wrote:
Light is what days are made of –
it pulls the daffodils up out of dark earth,
prompts the eagle and the stub-tailed wren to nest
and draws the humpback whale north with its song.
Stones, warm on the morning sea-shore, know it.
Such tempests of grief our sun has scanned
yet light, the sun’s light and compassion’s light,
Author Bio: Laura Banks is honored to be a Certified Compassion Cultivation Training (CCT) Instructor, dual-certified by Compassion Institute and Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE). While raising a family around the world, she has witnessed how meeting the challenges of life with compassion can greatly reduce suffering and transform the very things people thought would break them into the most resilient and beautiful parts of who they are. This powerful combination of evidence-based training and personal experience shape Laura’s commitment to strengthen her own and others’ capacity to thrive and find meaning throughout life, especially through the cultivation of compassion. You can learn more at www.lauralbanks.com or connect with Laura on LinkedIn.
Want to learn more about Compassion Cultivation Training? Check out this interview our founder, Claire E. Parsons, did with Laura here.
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.
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:
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 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.
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.
I admit it. The word “joy” used to make me cringe a little bit inside. For a while, it was plastered on the walls of so many homes along with signs reading “Live. Laugh. Love.” and showed up in the titles of countless self-help books. The frequency with which I saw that term used, often inaccurately, gave me the distinct and bizarre impression that “joy” was somehow omnipresent, yet also mythical and unattainable. After all, how could conflict, unhappiness, and social problems be so prevalent when everyone seemed hellbent on praising joy?
In the work setting, one simple way to savor experiences is to acknowledge a win and congratulate your team. When the praise is directed to you, you could practice savoring joy by learning to simply say “thank you” when you receive a compliment and allowing the warm feelings just wash over you, instead of deflecting or talking to hide your embarrassment. If you struggle with paying or giving compliments, a simpler place is to establish a habit of internally congratulating yourself for a job well done. For example, after a difficult deposition, you might reflect on how you handled yourself and appreciate the discipline, organization, and restraint you showed in hard circumstances. These practices generally don’t take much time, but research suggests that the cumulative effect over time can yield major benefits for your motivation, outlook, stamina, and capacity to handle difficult moments.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.