I heard this at a follow-on meditation course I took some months after I’d first learnt to meditate, and my heart sank. Then I was taken aback by the implication of my reaction. Why would my heart sink at the prospect of becoming more me, more myself? Did I dislike myself so much that I actually wanted to be a different person? Is that what I’d hoped, deep down, to get from meditating? Painful though it was, that moment was a turning point for me, the first step on an on-going path of self-acceptance.
It seems to go against the grain of self-help and personal development to accept yourself, warts and all, to not work hard to smooth out all the creases and bumps and glitches in our personalities so that we’ll finally become the perfect person we yearn to be. Self-acceptance smacks of resigning ourselves to being stuck as we are. If we don’t recognise and criticise our failings, how will we ever improve?
But it’s a bit like the joke about the reply a man gets when he asks for directions – “Well, I wouldn’t start from here!” You have start where you are and really know where you are before you can move forward. Mindfulness is a practice in that knowing – of how you are, how you feel and what’s happening for you, in the present moment. Self-criticism is like a fog that obscures the view, preventing us from seeing ourselves clearly. Kind acceptance of what is there, in that moment, allows us to see through the fog, to observe what’s actually going on, without judgement - even the ugly thoughts about your boss/spouse/friend; even the horrible panicky feeling in your chest; even the fantasies about being better/calmer/cleverer/richer/kinder.
"We cannot change anything until we accept it. Condemnation does not liberate, it oppresses." Carl Jung
In my own practice, I have found that the longer I practice letting myself be as I am in the moment, the more I do actually change. It’s not that I have become, or am even becoming, a perfect human being, but I am kinder to myself, more accepting of the fact that I’m not perfect (and never will be), that I sometimes mess up, but that overall, I’m ok as I am. Of course there are times when the old habits of self-criticism kick in, but I’m getting better at catching those thoughts, accepting them and being kind to the feelings they evoke in me.
One of the traits I used to actively dislike in myself is a tendency to forget or lose things. It has caused a lot of stress over the years, usually followed by a bout of mental self-flagellation, which caused yet more stress. I had high hopes that mindfulness would transform me into a model of efficiency, but alas, I’m still waiting (though I have improved, thanks in no small part to a great, simple practice, Starting & Finishing, which I wrote about in an earlier blog). But mindfulness practice has done two things – firstly I have more perspective - I’m not as forgetful as I used to think I was, and secondly, I don’t get as stressed about it. I haven’t become a ‘better’ person, I’ve become kinder to myself for not being perfect.
“We don't meditate to improve ourselves; we meditate to end our compulsive striving to do everything better.” Christopher Germer, The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion
Try it and see for yourself. What is it in yourself you would like to change, that you feel is holding you back from being the person you want to be? Maybe you don't want to be shy in social gatherings, maybe you hate the way you get so irritable when you're tired, maybe you wish you wouldn't turn to eating or drinking too much when you feel a bit down. How would it be to become curious about it, observe it without judgement? How would it be to let go the self-criticism and be kind to how you feel? To allow yourself to be imperfect, to be human?
I love the way Leonard Cohen puts it in Anthem:
“Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
It’s how the light gets in.”
Through a kind awareness of our cracks and imperfections, we can let in the light of understanding and compassion and empathy and allow ourselves to be fully human.
Breathworks Blog >