self-forgiveness

Forgiveness and the myth of time

We all have a tendency to beat ourselves up over things we did wrong in the past, or that we think that we did wrong. And so we all need to forgive ourselves.

When we don’t forgive ourselves we often wish we could change the past. We replay past events over and over again, sometimes reliving events as they actually happened and blaming ourselves, and sometimes imagining that things went a different way. Then we end up regretting that this alternative reality didn’t actually happen.

And I think there’s a kind of myth about time that’s worth examining.

The Idea, “I Should Have Done Better”

I want to approach this myth from a direction that might seem a bit unusual. I’m going to start with talking about golf. Don’t worry if you’re not a sports fan. I’m not a sports fan! I don’t even play golf. So, no golf experience is necessary. But I think we can all imagine playing golf or practicing some other skill.

For now,  just imagine that you’re a pretty good golf player. You’ve lined yourself up to take a short putt — something you’ve done many times before. You almost always get the ball in the hole with such shots because you’re a good golfer. But on this particular occasion, for whatever reason, the ball does not go in the hole. Perhaps you get close. But, as they say, no cigar.

Now, in sinking a putt we’re dealing with an enormous number of variables. Every time you make the same movement with your body it’s slightly different. However much you practice, there’s an unavoidable imprecision in your body movements and therefore in the movement of your putter. There are other conditions that you can’t control — deformations of the putting green, how wet or dry the grass is , how hard or soft the ground is, changing wind conditions, how focused you are, whether you’re feeling stressed, for example. Those are just some of the variables involved in making a putt.

So you missed the putt for whatever reason. Maybe you would sink it 99 percent of the time, but this is one of the one percent times. And you can say to yourself, “Damn, I should have got that putt!” and you might feel really angry with yourself. You might get really down on yourself and be very critical about yourself, but the thing is you missed the putt.

And you keep thinking, “If I could do it again, I’d do it differently.” The thought obsesses you.

Could You Have Acted Differently?

Now, you don’t have the ability to go back in time and step back into the exactly same circumstances and conditions. In fact if you literally did go back in time and were in exactly the same place, and exactly the same situation, under exactly the same conditions, what would happen? You would miss the putt again, because the conditions that existed at that time were the conditions that existed at that time!

Now you might think, “Yes, but if I could go back in time I’d have the knowledge that I was about to miss the putt, and I’d do things differently.” But then you’re not in exactly the same conditions. You’re in a different set of conditions. And that, in a world where we are unable to project our present-moment consciousness back into the past, is a set of conditions that can never have existed.

So the the idea that you you should have sunk the putt is an abstraction. it’s referring to a different kind of world than the world that we actually live in.

Applying This to Non-Sports Things

So let’s apply this reflection to other things in our lives.

Let’s say you lost your temper with someone, and you said some things that were unpleasant. And afterwards you regret that, which is fine by the way, since regret is perfectly natural and ethical thing to do. We can regret something without beating ourselves us. It’s beating ourselves up that is the problem.

But the thing is, if you look back at that particular event, if you could see all of the conditions that were pertaining at that particular time—your expectations, and your stress levels, and all the different things that you were juggling in your mind at that particular point, and your physiological states, depending on how tired you were what your blood sugar level was, and so on—if you could see all of those conditions you would realize that it was inevitable in that moment that you were going to lose your temper.

You were doing the best you could with the resources that were available to you.  In fact, you did the only thing that you could with the resources available to you. Now, you can say, “Well, if I’d had a bit more mindfulness then I could have acted better.” But in that moment you didn’t have more mindfulness! You had as much mindfulness as you had! The idea that you could have done something differently is again a kind of an abstraction. It assumes that our present-moment state of mind can somehow affect our past state of mind, which is of course not possible.

Solutions Are In the Present, Not the Past

The myth about time that we need to see through is that the solution to painful regrets lies in the past. It doesn’t. The solution to our suffering lies right here, in the present.

The important thing is now. The regret you have about past unskillful actions is happening now. The learning you’re having, drawn from the lessons of the past., is happening now. The intention to act differently in the future is happening now.

And those things are happening now. So, in the present moment:

  • Let the past be the past.
  • Regret what you did wrong, which is just another way of saying “realize that what you did wrong was wrong.”
  • Accept that you did the best you could with the resources available.
  • Learn from your past mistakes.
  • Intend to act differently in the future.

You can of course opt to use the present moment for beating yourself up, but self-punishment, calling yourself names, telling yourself you’re a bad person, and so on are all unskillful, unhelpful, and painful ways of acting. They’re a waste of this precious moment we have in the present to act in ways that promote our long-term happiness and well-being.

This Isn’t Determinism

Now, it might sound like I’m being deterministic—that we have no choice and therefore no responsibility. That’s not what I’m saying, as I’ll explain

The ability to choose courses of action, including the choice not to do something that hurts us and other people, is always potentially available to us, but practically speaking it often isn’t, because we frequently lack mindfulness. Without mindfulness, it’s as if our lives are predetermined by conditions. When we have mindfulness, life becomes more creative. We begin to be able to make choices that prevent suffering happen to ourselves or others.

Normally we’re not very mindful. I remember reading about a study once that showed that what we do and say is something like 80 percent predictable. Normally our habits simply roll on, without much mindful intervention.

An Analogy for Mindfulness, and Its Lack

Imagine a heavy ball rolling down a slope toward something precious, like a kitten. The ball is going to hit the kitten (which is, for the sake of argument, too young to move out of the way). That’s life without mindfulness. Our habitual impulses roll on, like heavy balls on a slope. Sometimes bad things happen as a result.

Now, imagine there’s someone observing the ball rolling down the slope. They see what’s about to happen, and with the touch of their hand the ball is diverted on a different course and the kitten remains untouched. That’s life with mindfulness (or with sufficient mindfulness to take action, which is the important thing).

It’s just an analogy. Don’t overthink it!

In any given moment of life, you either have enough mindfulness to act skillfully, or you don’t. When there’s no mindfulness present, it’s like there’s no one there to nudge the heavy ball.

And any moment in the past when you acted badly was a moment when you didn’t have sufficient mindfulness or wisdom to do otherwise.

Mindfulness = Wiggle Room

Mindfulness gives us wiggle-room. And if we want to live happier lives, and to have fewer regrets, then we should make it a goal to develop more mindfulness. Because more mindfulness gives us more wiggle-room.

With the little bit of mindfulness we have at present, we recognize that life has more potential for happiness when we’re mindful. So we set up conditions so that we can develop even more mindfulness. We meditate, for example. Or we commit ourselves to living according to ethical principles, like Buddhism’s five precepts. Or we join a community of other people who also intend to cultivate mindfulness. Or we go on a retreat where we can intensively train in mindfulness. Or we study by reading books and listening to talks on mindfulness so that we understand better what it is we’re trying to achieve. Or we create mindfulness triggers for ourselves. Or, all of the above.

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And right now, in the present moment, as we look back on things that we regret doing (or not doing) we recognize that self-blame is a painful waste of time. We recognize the value of accepting that we did what we did, and we did the best we could with the resources available to us at that time, and we in fact couldn’t have done otherwise. And in this present moment we can ask how we might act differently in the future.

The key to forgiveness is seeing that the solution to our present suffering is not in the past. It’s here, now. You can’t go back and change the past. But you can bring about change right now. And that’s going to benefit you—and other people—in the future.

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Five ways to forgive yourself and let go of painful regret

I’ve seen many people suffering because they can’t forgive themselves. Maybe they hurt someone in the past, or allowed someone to get hurt, or missed an opportunity, or made a bad choice. And they torture themselves about it.

Sometimes people hold onto these regrets—and the pain they cause—for years or decades, and have great difficulty letting go of them. And regret festers. It’s like a wound that never heals, and that, like an abscess,  poisons our entire being. It can turn into self-hatred—the belief that we, in our very core, are bad or unworthy.

Now there’s no way to instantly forgive ourselves. It’s a process that can take years. But I’d like to suggest a few things that can help with this important practice.

1. Know that you did the best you could

The past of course is past, and we all know we can’t really go back and change things, but we can end up replaying events over and over in our minds, wishing we’d made different choices.

When I recently told someone who was suffering because of regrets, ‘You did the best she could,” she pulled a face. I said to her, “You don’t believe me, do you?” She said I was right. “So you think that if you had a bit more mindfulness or a bit more compassion, things would have turned out different, right?” Right. “But did you actually have, at that moment, a bit more mindfulness or a bit more compassion?” Well, no. “So you did what you could with the resources you had available to you.”

That’s all we can ever do.

This perspective is deeply counter-intuitive for many people. We’re wedded to the idea that we could, had things been different, have acted differently. And it’s true that had we been a different person we would have done something different. But we weren’t, and we didn’t. So obsessing about an alternative version of the past is pointless and a source of pain.

We can talk about having free will, or the ability to choose, but in any given moment we can only choose from the limited options available to us. And at times our very ability to choose can be severely constrained. There are certain situations (panic, extreme stress) when the mind has great difficulty considering alternatives to pre-programmed courses of action: defense, aggression, retreat, paralysis. Our options can be extremely limited. Right now we might not be able to completely forgive ourselves, but we can take steps in that direction.

With practice we can learn to develop our mindfulness and our ability to stay in (or come back to) balance so that we have more flexibility in how we behave. We can increase the options available to us. But practice is something we do now, not in the past. And it affects how we act in the future and not, again, in the past. The past is past. You did the best you could with the resources you had at hand. The best you can do right now is to accept that what happened happened, and resolve to do better in the future.

2. Do the right thing — now

When we’re caught up in regret and self-blame we’re focused on wanting to do the right thing — but in the past, which is the one time period we can have absolutely no effect on.

So focus on what you can do right, right now. This is the only moment you can directly affect. And how you relate to this moment determines your future happiness and wellbeing.

Self-hatred is toxic. It undermines us. It makes us miserable. It weakens us. The right thing to do right now is to bring as much mindfulness, compassion, forgiveness, and wisdom into this moment as you possibly can. To the best of your present ability, let these qualities manifest in you. You’ll be a better person as a result — not in the past, but in this moment and in moments yet to come.

3. Be a friend to yourself

If you were witnessing a dear friend torturing themselves over past actions, what would you do? Would you tell them they must be a terrible person because of the mistakes they made? Probably not. Would you tell them they’re broken? I doubt it.

You’d probably suggest to them that it’s unhelpful that they give themselves such a hard time. You’d probably tell them they were making themselves suffer unnecessarily. You’d probably suggest that they be gentle on themselves, and that they let go. You’d probably tell them about the good qualities you see in them, and suggest that their mistakes don’t define them.

In other words you’d suggest that they relate to their past in a more wholesome way. So why not give the same advice to yourself now? Be a friend to yourself.

4. Recognize that you need to forgive yourself in order to forgive others

The way we relate to ourselves tends to form the pattern of how we relate to others. If we have difficultly being empathetic and kind to ourselves we probably won’t do those things with other people either. If we judge ourselves harshly we’ll probably judge others too.

And the converse is true. If we want to be better to the people around us that we love — if we want to love them better — we need to work on loving ourselves better. Taking care of yourself, you take care of others.

5. Love your regret

In Buddhist psychology, regret is a skillful volition. It’s a positive thing! Regret is what’s skillful in us encountering an ethical slip. Regret is a sign that you want to be a better person. It’s a sign that you have ethical values.

When we don’t understand this, we tend to freak out. When we experience regret we take it as a sign that we’ve failed, or that we’re bad. Because regret, although skillful, is a painful experience. And it’s natural for us to assume that when we’re in pain, there’s something wrong.

The important thing is to learn to deal with the pain of regret in a way that doesn’t cause us more pain. So we can understand that regret is a natural and important part of being a human with ethical values. We can be mindful of, and accept, the pain of regret. And we can be kind, supportive, and compassionate to the part of ourselves that’s suffering. In other words, we can practice self-compassion.

So these are a number of things you can bear in mind to help you let go of shame, regret, and self-blame. Again, there’s no magic bullet. You’ll make progress a little at a time as you gain insights into the pointless painfulness of self-blame and as you learn how to bring your focus more into the present moment.

And if you’re interested in learning more about forgiveness and other spiritual practices, please check out Wildmind’s Meditation Initiative, which will give you access to many of my online course, including Forgiveness: The Art and Science of Letting Go.

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“We are all formed of frailty and error; let us reciprocally pardon each other’s folly.” Voltaire

In this artwork by Ukrainian sculptor Alexander Milov, which was on display at last year’s Burning Man festival in Nevada, two adults sit back to back. Both are in pain. Both are curled up, turned in upon themselves, absorbed in their own suffering. But in trying to deal with their hurt in this way, each must turn away from the other.

Within each of the adults, though, children stand upright. They are open. They face one another. They reach out, uniting through touch. It’s not obvious in this picture, but the children are translucent and radiant. At night they glow, symbolizing the light of love.

This isn’t an allegory along the lines of “adults bad, children good.” The adults are the children, and the children are the adults. Both the man/boy and the woman/girl are simultaneously dealing with their own hurt, and responding to the other. The children are alive to their own tenderness and vulnerability, and also that of their partner. Their suffering unites rather than divides them.

I think there’s always a part of us that wants to reconnect when we’ve hurt another person, or been hurt by them. There’s fear and pride and hostility too, which may stop us from reaching out, but there’s also that deep need to return to a state of harmony. There’s a need to forgive and to let go of grievances. There are these two tendencies, and we choose between separateness or connection.

An awareness of our own “frailty and error” will help us choose to connect. When we think we’re perfect, it’s hard for us to tolerate imperfection in others, and so we become hard and judgmental. When we forget that we make mistakes, have flaws, and fall into bad habits, we become intolerant of those things in other people. We need to connect with our own vulnerability if we are to forgive others.

“What is tolerance? It is the prerogative of mankind. We are all formed of frailty and error; let us reciprocally pardon each other’s folly; this is the first law of nature.”

« Qu’est-ce que la Tolérance ? c’est l’apanage de l’humanité. Nous sommes tous paitris de faiblesse et d’erreurs ; pardonnons nous réciproquement nos sottises, c’est la premier lois de la nature ».

Voltaire“What is tolerance?” Voltaire rhetorically asks in his “Philosophical Dictionary.” “It is, he replies to himself, “the prerogative of mankind. We are all formed of frailty and error; let us reciprocally pardon each other’s folly.” To Voltaire, tolerance is the “first law” of human nature. Without it there is no connection.

Often, of course, we do not connect because we cling to our grievances. Our response to hurt can be to separate, and so the part of us that longs for connection is ignored. We polarize against ourselves and against the other, perpetuating conflict and hurt.

Less often, we identify more closely with the desire to forgive, and ignore the part of us that is hurt. This course of action is scarcely less destructive, since it leads to painful and damaging self-sacrifice.

In order admit to our frailty and error— in order to forgive—we need to learn to take care of the part of us that is hurting—with genuine compassion rather than indulgent wallowing—and as we address our own suffering in this way, see that the other too is hurting, and reach out to them. Through connecting with our own frailty, we learn to care for the frailty in others. In dealing with our own suffering, mindfully and compassionately, we naturally turn toward others.

They too, just like us, are hurting. They too, just like us, need compassion. Their being, just like ours, is woven through with “frailty and error.” Only if we recognize that can we let go or resentment and forgive each other.

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Forgive Yourself

Everyone messes up. Me, you, the neighbors, Mother Teresa, Mahatma Gandhi, King David, the Buddha, everybody.

It’s important to acknowledge mistakes, feel appropriate remorse, and learn from them so they don’t happen again. But most people keep beating themselves up way past the point of usefulness: they’re unfairly self-critical.

Inside the mind are many sub-personalities. For example, one part of me might set the alarm clock for 6 am to get up and exercise . . . and then when it goes off, another part of me could grumble: “Who set the darn clock?” More broadly, there is a kind of inner critic and inner protector inside each of us. For most people, that inner critic is continually yammering away, looking for something, anything, to find fault with. It magnifies small failings into big ones, punishes you over and over for things long past, ignores the larger context, and doesn’t credit you for your efforts to make amends.

Therefore, you really need your inner protector to stick up for you: to put your weaknesses and misdeeds in perspective, to highlight your many good qualities surrounding your lapses, to encourage you to keep getting back on the high road even if you’ve gone down the low one, and – frankly – to tell that inner critic to Shut Up.

With the support of your inner protector, you can see your faults clearly without fearing that will drag you into a pit of feeling awful, clean up whatever mess you’ve made as best you can, and move on. The only wholesome purpose of guilt, shame, or remorse is learning – not punishment! – so that you don’t mess up in that way again. Anything past the point of learning is just needless suffering. Plus excessive guilt, etc., actually gets in the way of you contributing to others and helping make this world a better place, by undermining your energy, mood, confidence, and sense of worth.

Seeing faults clearly, taking responsibility for them with remorse and making amends, and then coming to peace about them: this is what I mean by forgiving yourself.

Start by picking something relatively small that you’re still being hard on yourself about, and then try one or more of the methods below. I’ve spelled them out in detail since that’s often useful, but you could do the gist of these methods in a few minutes or less.

Then if you like, work up to more significant issues.

Here we go:

  • Start by getting in touch, as best you can, with the feeling of being cared about by some being: a friend or mate, spiritual being, pet, or person from your childhood. Open to the sense that aspects of this being, including the caring for you, have been taken into your own mind as parts of your inner protector.
  • Staying with feeling cared about, list some of your many good qualities. You could ask the protector what it knows about you. These are facts, not flattery, and you don’t need a halo to have good qualities like patience, determination, fairness, or kindness.
  • If you yelled at a child, lied at work, partied too hard, let a friend down, cheated on a partner, or were secretly glad about someone’s downfall – whatever it was – acknowledge the facts: what happened, what was in your mind at the time, the relevant context and history, and the results for yourself and others.

Notice any facts that are hard to face – like the look in a child’s eyes when you yelled at her – and be especially open to them; they’re the ones that are keeping you stuck. It is always the truth that sets us free.

  • Sort what happened into three piles: moral faults, unskillfulness, and everything else. Moral faults deserve proportionate guilt, remorse, or shame, but unskillfulness calls for correction, no more. (This point is very important.)
  • You could ask others what they think about this sorting (and about other points below) – include those you may have wronged – but you alone get to decide what’s right. For example, if you gossiped about someone and embellished a mistake he made, you might decide that the lie in your exaggeration is a moral fault deserving a wince of remorse, but that casual gossip (which most of us do, at one time or another) is simply unskillful and should be corrected (i.e., never done again) without self-flagellation.
  • In an honest way, take responsibility for your moral fault(s) and unskillfulness. Say in your mind or out loud (or write): I am responsible for ______ , _______ , and _______ . Let yourself feel it.
  • Then add to yourself: But I am NOT responsible for ______ , _______ , and _______ . For example, you are not responsible for the misinterpretations or over-reactions of others. Let the relief of what you are NOT responsible for sink in.
  • Acknowledge what you have already done to learn from this experience, and to repair things and make amends. Let this sink in. Appreciate yourself.

Next, decide what if anything remains to be done – inside your own heart or out there in the world – and then do it. Let it sink in that you’re doing it, and appreciate yourself for this, too.

  • Now check in with your inner protector: is there anything else you should face or do? Listen to that “still quiet voice of conscience,” so different from the pounding scorn of the critic. If you truly know that something remains, then take care of it. But otherwise, know in your heart that what needed learning has been learned, and that what needed doing has been done.
  • And now actively forgive yourself. Say in your mind, out loud, in writing, or perhaps to others statements like: I forgive myself for ______ , _______ , and _______ . I have taken responsibility and done what I could to make things better. You could also ask the inner protector to forgive you, or others out in the world, including maybe the person you wronged.
  • You may need to go through one or more the steps above again and again to truly forgive yourself, and that’s alright. Allow the experience of being forgiven to take some time to sink in. Help it sink in by opening up to it in your body and heart, and by reflecting on how it will help others for you to stop beating yourself up.

May you be at peace.

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Most of us have plenty of experience with self-blame and guilt—but we are often at a loss when it comes to forgiving ourselves. According to Colin Tipping, this is because our idea of forgiveness usually requires a victim and a perpetrator—which is impossible when we play both roles at the same time. Tipping’s Radical Forgiveness process allows us to navigate this dilemma for deep and lasting healing.

Many of our fears, anxieties, and even physical health problems originate from the parts of us that we consider unforgiveable. Yet when we recognize that we are worthy of forgiveness—no matter who we are or what we have done—we gain access to the loving energy of spirit that can heal our deepest wounds.

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Self-compassion for writers (and other tortured souls)

I was talking to a Buddhist friend recently who’s a wonderful writer. She creates amazing blog posts that usually start off deeply personal but go on to teach important and universal lessons about life. I have a lot to learn from her about combining the personal and the instructional, and in many ways I regard her as the better writer. The thing is, she told me she hasn’t been able to write for two years now, because she’s a perfectionist.

And that’s the problem with perfectionism. Perfectionism makes us anything but perfect, because, for one thing, it makes it harder for us to create. Perfectionism is like teaching an animal to do a trick by beating it every time it doesn’t do exactly what you want. What would happen if you tried to do this? You’d end up with an animal that could only cower in terror. If the animal was sensible it would run away. If it was really sensible it would bite you first. And I think this is what happens with the creative parts of ourselves when we’re perfectionists. We end up training our creative energies not to create, and we produce what we call writers’ block, or (more generally) creators’ block. Our creative urges run and hide. They see the blank page, and don’t dare mar it because the critical part of us is sure to step in immediately and say “Not good enough. Who wants to read this crap? YOU SUCK!”

But perfectionism is just another name for “low levels of self-compassion.” We need to recognize this because I think saying “I’m a perfectionist” is a way of humble-bragging: I won’t do anything unless it’s perfect, ergo, anything I do is perfect. I don’t create, but if I did it would be awesome. But while there are some high achievers who are perfectionists, their achievements come at a price. Perfectionism puts us on edge. It makes us rigid. When we’re driven by perfection we’re less likely to learn through play, experimentation, or trial and error. Self-compassion is where we treat ourselves kindly, even when we make mistakes. We recognize that we, just like everyone else, mess up. We recognize that mistakes are not only inevitable, but that they’re a helpful part of the learning process. To do anything meaningful we need to tolerate imperfection

I guess I’m an “imperfectionist.” A saying that I take as my pole star, my guide through life, is “If a thing’s worth doing, it’s worth doing badly.” So when I’m writing I just plunge in. I ignore my inner critic and allow myself to mar the page. The first effort may be ugly, repetitive, shallow, confused, or whatever. I don’t care. At least I have something to work with. Only after that initial creation do I go back and make improvements. That’s when the inner critic comes in handy. Your inner critic is an invaluable asset if you give it the right job to do — and that job is to tell you what’s not best about your work after you’ve written the first draft. Its job is not to prevent you from getting started. So I review and rewrite my work over and over, and each time I smooth the clunks out of my writing my inner critic has less and less to say. In the end it just shuts up because it’s done its job, and there’s nothing but good feelings when I read the text.

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Beating yourself up just doesn’t work very well as a motivational strategy, and it has wider consequences for your wellbeing as well. Constantly being on edge in case we slip up, and then criticizing ourselves when we inevitably do, is a tough way to live. People who score low for self-compassion are much more prone to being stressed or depressed.

So self-compassion is a great habit. And it is a habit. It’s something that we can train ourselves to have. Just as with my iterative approach to writing, we won’t suddenly produce full-fledged self-compassion out of thin air, so at first we’ll do it badly, as we do with all things worth doing. But we keep practicing, and get better at it as we do.

So, how do we get started? There are three things areas I’d like to focus on: perspectives for self-compassion, mindfulness, and kindness.

1. Perspectives for self-compassion

Everyone suffers. Everyone finds life hard in different ways. We all want to be happy and not to suffer, but happiness is often elusive, and suffering keeps coming along, often unexpectedly. We all mess up. Being human isn’t easy. These perspectives help us to let go of any expectation that life — and our lives in particular — should be free from difficulties. The also help us see that we shouldn’t expect creative work to be easy. As Stephen King said, “Sometimes you have to go on when you don’t feel like it, and sometimes you’re doing good work when it feels like all you’re managing to do is shovel shit from a sitting position.” Suffering — whether at the keyboard or in any other aspect of life — is normal.

Embrace this discomfort, because it’s through building your shit-shoveling muscles that you’re going to create.

2. Mindfulness

Mindfulness is a form of awareness in which we observe our experience almost as if we were watching an external event. Being mindful of our experience — and especially of painful experiences — is a critical component of self-compassion.

First we have to acknowledge that there’s pain present, and this isn’t always easy, because too often we believe the stories that spring up to distract us from our pain. So you sit down to write and it’s emotionally uncomfortable. Instead of just acknowledging the discomfort and starting to write, you decide it’s time for a snack, or time to dust the shelves, or to update Facebook. And off you go; the story has won: it’s prevented you from working through your fear. Being mindful creates a gap between the stimulus of discomfort and our response to it, and this gives us the freedom to choose how to act. I feel restless? It’s uncomfortable, but that’s OK. I’m feeling uncomfortable and I’m going to write.

Mindfulness involves acceptance. In the “gap” that mindfulness opens up, there is peace. It’s OK to suffer. It’s OK to feel frustration, to feel disappointed, sad, frustrated, hurt, despondent. These things are not signs that we’re failing, but that we’re human and engaged in the process of living. And when we’re in the act of creating, and we hear the inner critic saying that our work isn’t good enough, we can be mindful of that critical voice and decide not to believe it. Just keep going.

3. Kindness

Imagine you a friend shows you a draft of a short story, and it’s not very good. What do you say to them? “You idiot! You’re so stupid to try to write! No one’s ever going to want to read this crap!”? Of course not. But that’s the way we often talk to ourselves.

Elizabeth Gilbert says that self-discipline is overrated: “The more important virtue for a writer, I believe, is self-forgiveness. Because your writing will always disappoint you.” It’s by being kind and by forgiving the shortcomings in ourselves and our work that we get better at creating. This doesn’t mean that we recognize that a piece or work is bad, forgive ourselves, and leave it as it is. It just means not judging ourselves as “bad writers” for having written something that’s not yet good. It means treating what’s substandard as a first draft. It means looking at the crap head-on until we can figure our how best to shovel it. We accept imperfection and then go back and rewrite. Then rewrite again. And again.

What’s going on when we’re kind to ourselves is that the most mature and compassionate part of us is showing kindness to the part of us that’s most in pain. Our inner grown-up is comforting our inner child, giving it reassurance. Treating our painful feelings compassionately can be as simple as placing a hand on the part of our body where the hurt is most prominent, and saying “It’s OK.” We can offer reassurance by saying to our discomfort, “I know you’re hurting, but I’m here for you.” That might sound cheesy. That’s OK. I’d rather sound cheesy than be a blocked writer.

So next time you’re stuck on a project, staring at a blank page, or whatever your creative equivalent is, try on for size the perspective that discomfort is an integral — and valuable — part of creating. Have a mindful acceptance of any painful feelings that arise. Stay with the discomfort rather than turning away from it. Offer yourself some kindly reassurance as you shovel the shit.

Creating is hard, and that’s OK. Be an imperfectionist, and just keep doing it badly, at least at first. Because it’s worth doing.

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