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Am I Doing This Right?

July 6, 2016

Mindful Magazine recently invited me to offer a regular feature to support people who are meditating and getting stuck. We are calling it “Am I Doing This Right” and is an opportunity to have some fun, address some common questions and concerns that people have when they are meditating, and hopefully facilitate more mindfulness and compassion in the world. I will be posting the items here as well, but for the full presentation check out the latest issue of Mindful, or better yet, subscribe and get them all!

 

Meditation is simple, but it’s not easy. Most of us wind up with lots of questions. In the first installment of a regular series, we provide some answers.

I really like listening to audio meditations. Is guided meditation as good as quietly meditating?

The key word here is “listening.” If you’ve  arrayed yourself on your meditation cushion or favorite chair, flipped the switch on your sound system, and settled in to listen to Jon Kabat-Zinn guide you through an awareness of breath meditation because you just love his voice, then you may have a bit of a problem because you really aren’t meditating. You’re listening to a recording while sitting on a cushion. Big difference.

But you may find that having a gentle, invitational voice nudge you back on track when your attention drifts facilitates your practice. Maybe when you sit on your own without the recording, your attention seems to drift, wander, meander, and dart about aimlessly. Then perhaps the delicate scaffolding of a recording will help you develop the mental discipline you need to more frequently tap into the experience of being present.

But could the use of a recording actually be a mindful choice you make as you take stock of the state of your mind for any particular meditation session? If you actually practiced meditation a time or two without guidance, what could you learn? What would you lose? What would you discover?

Our “Greatest Hits” Have Just Appeared in the Latest Issue of Mindful Magazine

November 2, 2015

Screen Shot 2015-11-02 at 11.17.46 AMI am happy to announce that Mindful Magazine’s latest edition includes a nice synopsis of some of my posts over the past couple years. Take a look and share with your friends!

MindfulTakeYourMindForAWalk

Take some time to share your own tips and tricks for maintaining a practice. Our readers want to know how to keep practicing mindfulness.

Answering the Fundamental Question of Mindful Self-Compassion  

July 18, 2015

It’s a simple question, really. But one that often brings on a state of perplexed astonishment when someone asks us.

“What do you need?”

Unless we are a sobbing child who has come rushing to his mother after some sort of sibling transgression, or we are urgently and frantically searching for the restroom in an unfamiliar restaurant, we have an unusually hard time answering that question.

In a moment of suffering, sorrow, despair or betrayal, can we actually answer the very deep and important question of “What do I need? Right now, in this moment.”

What we often needed as children when we were distressed, was to be comforted, reassured that we are still loved and cared for, and soothed by the gentle unconditional touch of a loving parent. We needed someone to kiss our “booboo” when we stumbled and fell. Or to be consoled by a loving embrace when we were excluded from a game of hide-and-seek.

But for many of us, our distress was met by something else, or as we grew older we had difficult or traumatic experiences that disconnected us from our deep need to be loved, accepted and appreciated. For whatever the reason, we have found ourselves removed from a sense of what we really need when we suffer, and often are not even aware much of the time when we DO suffer. We overlook our fears of being disconnected, unloved or, ironically, overlooked, often by tending to the needs of others instead.

We throw ourselves into caring for the needs of those around us and many of us are quite adept at such acts of service. We channel our inner desires to be cared for by caring for others, and when done with a true connection to one’s own heart, this can be a beautiful thing. And we often instinctively know just exactly what others need. Our mirror neurons fire wildly when we contact another person’s pain and difficulty and through that resonance with another, we are miraculously able to muster up just the right expression of comfort, the perfect words and the much-appreciated offer of kindness or consolation.

But what of the darker moments of our own despair, fear or desperation? What do we need in those moments for ourselves, because this one matters too? We often struggle to answer that question and as a result, further suffering arises as we resort to other less helpful and more destructive ways of meeting that deep inner need to be loved and connected. We criticize ourselves for having this need, we tell ourselves that if we just tried harder, got things right more often (or better yet, if we were perfect), or removed ourselves from contact with others, THEN we would feel OK.

And so it is that a growing number of people find themselves in the Mindful Self-Compassion (MSC) course developed by leading self-compassion researcher Kristin Neff, Ph.D. and noted author and expert on compassion and mindfulness in psychotherapy Christopher Germer, Ph.D.

MSC could be considered an “antidote” to the shame and self-criticism that many of us bear, and which cripples many of us with self-doubt, fear and self-loathing. By systematically cultivating the ability to be kind and loving to ourselves, especially in those moments of suffering that arise when we feel disconnected, lost, alienated or dismissed, MSC slowly helps restore in each of us our natural capacity to be kind, loving and compassionate to ourselves in the way that we do so effortlessly for others.

One of the first questions that MSC participants ponder in the course is the curious one of “How would you treat a friend when they are struggling, when they fail or feel inadequate?” Typically, the responses flow quickly and fluidly when we contemplate that question. And then, when the question turns to how we typically treat ourselves in those very same situations, the responses are often starkly in contrast. Especially when considering something as seemingly innocuous as the tone of voice of our inner dialogue. Many find that their inner critic is harsh, demanding, dismissive and belittling (and often echoes with the pain of the voice of people from the past who have treated them in this way). They notice how it feels to be spoken to in this way and it can often be a revelation for people who have never actually considered how it feels to be talked to in this way.

This revelation is often reflected in comments by participants like “I would NEVER talk to someone else like this!” In fact, this phenomenon is more widespread than one might think. In fact, Dove recently dramatized this fact in a YouTube video where they asked women to write down the things they say to themselves about their appearance. They then set up public conversations between two women in cafes and restaurants where one woman said those same things out loud to her companion. Strangers nearby were horrified and, in some cases, actually interrupted the two actors to comment on how terrible it was that one person would speak to another in such a way!

The MSC program sets about to help participants begin to “warm up the inner conversation” and begin to cultivate a loving, tender, accepting attitude toward oneself, that motivates us out of a desire to be happy and free from suffering, rather than one of perfectionism, fruitless striving, fear and shame. Early research on the program is promising and the huge existing body of research done by Kristin Neff and others already demonstrates a strong association between self-compassion and a huge variety of measures of well-being and good mental health, as well as the ability to make changes in unhealthy behavior, persist in the face of adversity, and to be perceived more positively in intimate relationships, just to name a few.

If you find it difficult to answer the fundamental question of Mindful Self-Compassion of “What do you need?” when you are feeling overwhelmed, afraid, sad or fearful, you might benefit from a greater ability to bring kindness to yourself and soothe yourself in these moments, as well as in your daily stressful life. Consider taking the Mindful Self-Compassion course to discover your compassionate inner voice and to find a way to meet yourself in the way in which you tend to meet others, reversing the Golden Rule and doing unto yourself what you would do (and say) to others!

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To locate an 8-week Mindful Self-Compassion course near you, or to locate a 5-day intensive MSC program, see the Center for Mindful Self-Compassion website. Dr. Hickman will be co-leading upcoming MSC intensives in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada in late August and near Rome, Italy in early October. For mindfulness and self-compassion courses in San Diego, see the UC San Diego Center for Mindfulness website.

Loving the Living With the Love of the Dead

May 6, 2015

I have a wide open day ahead of me here in the San Francisco Bay Area and am eagerly anticipating a welcome return to the coastline of Point Reyes National Seashore and a meandering and rejuvenating drive up the coast through my childhood coastal stomping grounds. One stop along the way might be a brief visit to the seaside grave of my father-in-law, whom I have never met, but who rests in my heart because of what he meant to my beloved wife and the warmth and admiration that flows from her every time she speaks of him. I am the welcome and grateful recipient of his fatherhood in this way.

And so the thought floated up out of my waking moments: “What if we could be with the living breathing people in our lives, the way we are with the dead?” That may sound a little strange, but bear with me for a moment.

How are we when we stand there awkwardly looking down at whatever tangible marker might have been placed as a proxy to the vibrant existence of a family member or friend? We feel a certain presence of the deceased, but largely our attention is broad enough to include a kind of warm attentiveness to our own selves as we recall the person who once walked and talked and breathed with us.

We are quiet, respectful, patient, receptive and tender in our attention. We may feel the reverberations of grief and loss that the person’s passing brought to us, but it is a kind of nostalgia (the roots of that word referring to “the pain of remembering”) that bears the mellow sweetness of the time that cliché has told us heals all wounds. And we are finally free of the constricting web of a change agenda for the other. The “if only” and the conditional melt away with the reality of the absolute and the imperative of this very moment as it is, without holding or pushing away, even if we would like to do so.

We may also ride the harsher waves of hurts, resentments, wounds that never really healed, anger at abandonment, fear of life without this person who simply desired what we all desire: to have peace, satisfaction and joy in life, no matter how he or she went about seeking that. But we are finally and ultimately aware that absolutely nothing can be done but to meet this suffering within ourselves with some degree of kindness and gentleness, and perhaps the wisps of forgiveness. Forgiveness of this person who was ultimately and inevitably human, flawed and subject to failure, mistakes, desire and delusion, and vulnerable to the reality of mortality.

And perhaps some opportunity for forgiveness of ourselves is also present in the space of dwelling in the presence of the dead and buried. Forgiveness of ourselves as we realize that we are the only ones that have been truly and completely bequeathed to our daily and lifelong care. If we are to experience healing, change, improvement, relief and release, it will come from deep within us when we shift our relationship to the outer world and tend warmly and compassionately to what is within us.

How would it be if we had tea with a friend and sat with them as we sit with the dead: delicately attuned to our own experience, reflective but fully present, riding the gentle undulations of the heart as the encounter unfolds word by word, expression by expression, emotion by emotion. Is there, in the end, a more respectful and self-compassionate way of connecting with those we love than by connecting warmly with our own tender beating heart and treating it in the same warm way we treat a heart in its eventual repose?

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Steven Hickman is a Clinical Psychologist, Executive Director of the UC San Diego Center for Mindfulness and the Director of Professional Training for the Center for Mindful Self-Compassion. Steven will be co-leading 5-day Mindful Self-Compassion courses on June 1-6, 2015 in London; July 5-10, 2015 at Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York; and October 5-10, 2015 at Fara Sabina Clarisse Eremite Monastery in Rieti, Italy. For dates and locations of other MSC courses around the world, see the Center for MSC website.

How About Making an “Old Year’s Resolution” to Be More Compassionate to Yourself in the New Year?

October 29, 2014

UCSD Center for Mindfulness

steve-hickmanBy Steven Hickman, Psy.D.
Mindful Self-Compassion Teacher and Teacher Trainer
Executive Director, UC San Diego Center for Mindfulness

Perhaps you have seen the clever t-shirt depicting a pirate on his ship exclaiming “The beatings will continue until morale improves!” We tend to laugh at that sentiment because at some point in our lives we have probably found ourselves on the receiving end of that sort of “logic”. And we also laugh because we know it is a ridiculous notion that pummeling someone with negativity will bring about more positivity. It’s like continuing to put your car in reverse in order to move forward.

But consider for a moment where your New Year’s Resolutions come from and see if there are some seeds of this approach in how you treat yourself. Do you look into the mirror and think, “Listen Big Guy, I know you want to lose a few pounds…

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Seasoning as symptom?

March 8, 2014

Bottled_Seasoning,_Trinidad_and_TobagoI had the delightful opportunity to sit this morning in an unfamiliar but tremendously comforting place, to gaze lovingly out onto a winter-bare meadow glistening in the morning sunlight angling through the woods and bursting onto the reflective whiteness of frozen snow. And to eat a plain hard-boiled egg.

OK, so the egg part doesn’t sound so romantic or poetic, but indeed it was. I took a moment to briefly feel some gratitude toward the chicken who birthed it, but mostly I simply enjoyed it as it was.

The pieces of shell yielding to my gentle touch.

The micro-rush of being able to pull off a particularly large piece of shell intact.

The quick sweep of my finger across the smooth surface to detect any lingering shards of hardness.

And then I ate it slowly and mindfully.

It was delightful. Just as it was. And it nourished my body as well as my senses by being what it was and allowing itself to be eaten.

Soon after finishing my little egg meditation I thought about how I usually eat hard-boiled eggs. Quickly, without much attention and with a lot of seasoning. Salt and pepper maybe, or some other spices sprinkled on each bite, with an underlying imperative that something has to be added in order to make the experience complete. And then I thought of how I eat eggs in other forms, quite often with some sort of hot sauce like Sriracha or Cholula.

And then I thought of my friend Hubert, a wonderful German chef who often cooks for our mindfulness training retreats. He once bemoaned how so many people want seasonings and condiments for the food he prepares, even before they have tasted the food. It seemed as if he was a bit insulted by this behavior.

I put this all together and wondered if perhaps our growing reliance on spices, sauces, and flavorings (witness how many flavors of potato chips you can buy these days!) is because we are actually honoring some deep desire to simply taste our food?

But because of our frenzied pace and fractured attention, our food is often dismissed, overlooked or simply consumed thoughtlessly like fuel. What if, when we reach for the hot sauce we could see it as our deep desire to remain intimately connected to the life-sustaining essence of our food? Could the salt and pepper be a mindfulness bell that reminds us to pause and be with the process of eating so that we can give ourselves what we deeply need: the simple experience of tasting what we are putting in our mouths?

It’s hip to be a foodie these days, but maybe being a foodie is really an inflated version of our deepest instinct to taste. What might it be like to pause and consider the chipotle-infused, citrus-brined and applewood-smoked pork loin chop nestled in a bed of hand-massaged, lemon-macerated kale beside a hillock of garlic-laden goat-cheese-topped whipped Andalusian parsnips? And to instead see the pork chop, garden greens and vegetables that it is. And then really EAT it with full awareness, unlocking all that it has to offer, bite by bite, without distraction.

Might this be the deepest expression of our true nature to connect with and taste what we eat? What would it be like to let go of needing our food to be ANY different than it is? What would we learn? What would we lose? What would we discover?

Maybe our meditation practice can simply be each meal. After all, you were going to eat anyway, right?

 

The Myth & Pitfalls of Meditation “Progress”

January 25, 2013

buddhalightA good friend surprised me with a little trinket the other day that really made me smile at a particularly stressful time. It’s a little key fob Buddha with a button on his back that you can push to turn on an LED flashlight to find the keyhole to your home, that lost lipstick in the bottom of your purse, or the last jujubee you just dropped on the floor of the movie theater (best to practice “letting go” of that last one. Really.)

I had a little fun with my gift by sharing it on Facebook with the photo of it (on the right). Here’s what I wrote:

“Thank you Michelle for my new Buddha LED Light Key Fob! Apparently when you become enlightened then some of that light shines out of your butt. The problem is that as soon as you get up off the meditation cushion to see if it’s shining, you aren’t enlightened any more and the light is off. Kind of the reverse of the whole “does the light in the refrigerator really go off when you close the door?” dilemma. Ahh, enlightenment is soooo complicated and paradoxical.”

A friend responded with the inquiry “Does this mean you have to be on the cushion to be enlightened?” A reasonable question, but in general I find myself so unable to address any issues around enlightenment that my eyes glaze over and the best I can do is an enigmatic smile and a deep wish that the conversation would shift to subjects I can handle like “Will the Oakland Raiders EVER Return to Glory?” (Feel free to post a response to this blog on that question if the whole meditation thing doesn’t pique your interest. I could use a little hope in that regard!)

What I was referring to in my Facebook post was that inevitable pull we feel to check to see how we are doing, whether it is relative to how we USED to be doing, or how OTHER PEOPLE are doing, or (even more problematic) how WE THINK WE SHOULD be doing. But in the end we are just doing. Or more accurately, just being. No comparisons necessary. Contrary to almost everything else these days, meditation is not a competition, you can’t do it better, faster, bigger or more fuel-efficiently than anyone else. As Jon Kabat-Zinn says in a chapter called “This Is It” from Wherever You Go, There You Are:

People usually don’t get this right away. They want to meditate in order to relax, to experience a special state, to become a better person, to reduce some stress or pain, to break out of old habits and patterns, to become free or enlightened. All valid reasons to take up meditation practice, but all equally fraught with problems if you expect those things to happen just because now you are meditating. You’ll get caught up in wanting to have a “special experience” or in looking for signs of progress, and if you don’t feel something special pretty quickly, you may start to doubt the path you have chosen, or to wonder whether you are “doing it right.” 

Trust me on this one. I have the true test to see if you are doing it right. Ready?

Question #1: Are you meditating (aka “doing it?)  ____Yes    ____No

If your answer was yes, you are doing it right.

So consider this: “What would it be like to let go of needing to see any signs of progress and only practice for its own sake?” Would that be possible? I would invite you to see what that might be like.

And quit peeking to check to see if you’re enlightened yet. You’ll probably just tumble off the cushion and hit your head on the floor anyway. Hardly very enlightening, but then again, sometimes a good (figurative) whack upside the head is what we need to remember to just sit 🙂 As Jon Kabat-Zinn says, “This is it.”