… no matter how old, the tree keeps growing new twigs and branches. It never stops to say ‘I’m done growing now, I think I’ll stay the way I am’.
This thought occurred to me while doing a mindfulness walk through a park last year. I also noticed that each tree had lost some branches and had “scars” galore, but that didn’t stop it from sprouting new ones. It didn’t say ‘I’ve been hurt, I don’t want to try growing this new branch, since I’ll probably just get hurt again’.
Over 8 weeks last autumn I’ve had the great pleasure to partake in a Self-Compassion Mindfulness course, based on the work that Dr. Kristin Neff has done. During the course I went through good times and bad, but the first thing I learned was a tiny exercise in self-compassion which has had a lasting impact on me.
Here’s what you do:
In a moment of stress, frustration, grief or anxiety you just stop, put your left hand on your heart, put your right hand on top of your left to caress it lightly and you say out loud to yourself:
“This is a moment of suffering. Suffering is a part of life. May I be kind to myself.”
And that’s it!
It might seem too easy, it might seem a little crazy, but it helped me a lot. Because what this tiny gesture and mantra does is stopping your thoughts from spiralling downwards.
Too often when something happens we start blaming ourselves or feel bad about the way we react. Here are two examples I have noticed in myself and a friend while I was doing this course.
Downtalking your own feelings
I was walking home with a friend from work who was sharing something that had happened that day which upset her. I was listening and nodding and could definitely understand how she was getting frustrated by the thing that had happened. I empathised and thought I would have been frustrated by this as well. And then just as she had finished talking about the thing that happened she added:
Sorry, I know it’s stupid and I shouldn’t get upset about this.
It was extremely clear to me in that moment that she was starting into the so familiar spiral of self-blame. Her feelings of frustration were completely valid, and yet rather than accepting that this was a difficult moment and being kind to herself she went and berated herself for feeling the way she did.
This was all too familiar to me, because I had recently done it to myself in a slightly different way.
Piling on the guilt
In December of last year I found out that my dad had a tumour in his throat and needed surgery. It’s always upsetting when a loved one gets sick and this situation was no different. I’ve always been very close to my dad so it shocked and scared me. My mind went to the worst case scenarios of course and then it added an extra bit of spice: massive guilt. I felt extremely guilty over the fact that I was single and had not produced any grand children for him. Not that he’d have ever asked for something like that. But that’s where my mind went and I started feeling awful and found myself crying and berating myself.
But then I remembered my little exercise.
I took a deep breath, put my hand on my heart, caressed it with the other and acknowledged my difficult situation and wished kindness on myself. This didn’t take away from the pain and fear I felt over my dad’s situation, but it did stop me from spiralling down and piling on additional suffering onto myself unnecessarily.
And that is really where the magic lies in this exercise. Rather than blaming ourselves or feeling guilty over things outside of our control, let’s choose to be kind to ourselves and keep growing, just like the trees (see how I brought it back to the beginning of the post there?).
I especially love how this tree shows us that just because the ground beneath you ends doesn’t mean you can’t grow high up into the air. Sometimes things not going your way is the biggest blessing because you’re forced to change the direction of your thinking and it may lead you to finding a clearer path.
Happy continuous growing, folks.