I chose a meditation this morning from my 10% Happier app that promised to provide focus. Sharon Salzberg was the teacher, and she promised to help me focus on the space between the breaths. I noticed my breathing was labored. I struggled with pausing between breaths. As soon as the exhale ended I was gasping to inhale. My body was reacting as if I would die if I went a second without oxygen. I know from experience this is a symptom of my anxiety.
My anxiety’s creator is what I call my drill sergeant. He literally has a whip that he uses to keep me on the right track. “Do it right,” he screams and cracks the whip. “You can’t stop now,” he admonishes when I stop to rest. His goal is to keep me on track, to shame me into sticking to a standard is always be elusive. And when I’m meditating, he rails at me to “relax …. stop thinking … quiet your mind … breathe smoothly and easily …. you’ll never get this right”. What actually happens is I can’t do any of those things. I just get scared that I’ll never do it right, and I lunge at my breath to help me feel safe.
“Be gentle with yourself,” I tell my friends when they are lunging after their breath, their eyes wide with anxiety and fear over something that they can’t seem to accomplish or make right. I see their drill sergeant and can almost hear the crack of the whip as he admonishes them to meet an impossible goal. It’s not infrequent that people tell me that they can’t be gentle with themselves. If they are not harsh with themselves, they will fail.
When I recognized what was happening this morning, I stopped trying to follow her instructions, and I said, “I love you, Sharon”. I gave myself a big, imaginary, long hug. Immediately my body relaxed, and in a few minutes my breathing and my mind settled into an easy, relaxed cadence. I love the lessons of meditation and yoga. They are so subtle, and they only come when I pay attention to my internal drama. I think the drill sergeant is my internal voice, but he’s not. He’s an external structure built by a lifetime of experiences, demands and uninformed authority figures. He is not what is within me.
Yoga, meditation, therapy, 12-step recovery and other spiritual practices quiet the unhelpful voices that cause us to lunge after our breath or material goods or addictive substances of any kind. These safe practices – and if they are not safe, they are not healthy – provide a different structure that provides a soft spot to land and an absence of expectations. We all have enough goals and demands and expectations that drive us nearly to our death. The inner voice of the spirit is so gentle and sweet in comparison. It’s only when we meet it with gentleness that it becomes audible.
Ms. Salzberg echoed my experience this morning when she said that we can only improve and succeed if we lovingly support ourselves. Want to stick with a diet? Need to stop drinking? Is your life not working? Don’t listen to the drill sergeant. He’s what drove you to this place. Listen to your inner voice that tells you what you need and want and who genuinely adores you just the way you are. In my experience, it’s in the safety of sweet gentleness that my spirit ignites. The human spirit is infinitely more powerful than being driven from the outside…. and a lot more pleasurable, too.
Be gentle with yourself. See how powerful you really are.