“It takes boldness, even audacity, to step out of our habitual patterns and experiment with a quality like kindness – to work with it and see just how it might shift and open up our lives.” – Sharon Salzberg
Mindfulness for me is like a grand experiment in kindness. This wasn’t always the case though. When I first began practicing meditation nearly 20 years ago my approach resembled how I approached much of life – I rode myself hard and judged often. My inner critics routinely were the ones holding court. No surprise that my practice began to feel more like an endurance experiment in agitation and ouches than the relief I was seeking.
What fueled my own audacity to step out these habitual patterns, as Sharon Salzberg puts it, came from the gentle guidance of one of my first meditation teachers. I had just relayed a typical meditation experience to him. It wasn’t pretty. My teacher’s response was simply, back off. Flying in the face of my established try-harder critic, his reply stopped me in my tracks.
I came to learn that I was not alone in my critical habits. We have an epidemic in our country of harsh inner chatter riding and judging us. I also came to understand that when we begin to lose our center (when discomfort turns into overwhelm) the mindful thing to do is back off. To be present with what is means actually staying present. I learned it doesn’t work to stay present in states of overwhelm and when critics run the show. Once an experience feels too much, too scary, too harsh… our sympathetic nervous system kicks in. Our bodies become flooded with hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. While these hormones are excellent for reacting to threats and dangers (fight, flight or freeze), they inhibit our ability to respond and be with.
What does support presence, responding, being with… is adding a dose of compassion. Inviting a quality like compassion (in my case backing off) allows our parasympathetic nervous system to step in, halting the onslaught of stress hormones and enlisting the help of feel-good hormones. This allows our bodies to calm, enabling our minds to regain center. In bringing compassion into the picture we can shift our relationship with what hurts. We can gently experiment with distinguishing what is uncomfortable yet manageable from what is too much. We practice tending kindly to ourselves, moment to moment. In turn and over time, these mindful acts of kindness can soften the hurts.
That simple, audacious moment with my teacher marks the beginning of my grand experiment in kindness. In shifting the way I relate to myself (and my critics) I noticed the way I began to relate to others and to life opened up as well. I’m able to connect more deeply and lovingly. I started to appreciate that mindfulness is so much more than present, moment-to-moment awareness. It involves a sense of gentle curiosity. It’s being with what is, tenderly. Its nature is inherently compassionate.
About Ashley Dahl:
A champion of compassionate self-awareness, Ashley possesses the keen ability to help people infuse mindfulness into daily life and relationships. She brings humor and a presence of calm thoughtfulness as she blends the teachings of wisdom traditions and science with modern culture. Ashley earned her Masters in Social Work and studies mindfulness in the vipassana (insight) meditation tradition. She has been teaching for over 20 years and also provides mindfulness-based coaching and mentorship to small businesses and creative entrepreneurs throughout the Pacific Northwest. Visit her website (https://ashleydahl.com) to learn more.
Please join Ashley Dahl and Erin Joosse for a Daylong Retreat at The Tacoma Nature Center.
January 6th: Awakening Kindness – Finding Home Wherever You Are – a Daylong Retreat. Find out more.