Meditation Advice for Perfectionists

2016-08-22

I lay down on a roll mat, covered by a blanket. There were around ten of us in the room, everyone hoping that today’s meditation session would hand them a key to unlock the door to their future. The door which was currently keeping them trapped in a cycle of mental illness.

‘When you’re ready, close your eyes’, said a soothing voice from the group leader – the only person in the room not laying down. As my eyes closed, my self-conscious thoughts forced them back open again. ‘If you don’t feel comfortable closing your eyes, look gently at a spot on the ceiling’. I sighed with relief and looked at the cream-colored, smooth ceiling.

‘Now, focus on your breath. Feel the air moving through your nostrils, cool on the in breath and warmer on the out breath’. I felt the air moving through my nostrils. In this moment, a random fact came to mind – we breathe 16 times a minute.

Mental calculations made that 960 breaths an hour, 23,040 in 24 hours and over 8 million breaths a year.

Breathing in 8 million times a year, it came as a surprise to me that the feeling of air moving through my nostrils was a sensation so alien to me. Taking a moment to think about this, my attention drifted back into the room. ‘And now your calves’, said the group leader. The out-of-context sentence was followed by silence.

The silence seemed to continue forever as a fear rose within me. ‘I should’ve been paying attention – I have no idea what we’re meant to be doing’, my inner monologue rambled. The thoughts stirred up anxiety in me and I curled up my feet in discomfort. ‘Now, focus on your thighs. If you feel any tension in them, gently release it’.

I tried to feel my thighs. I couldn’t feel anything. My heart started racing as I tried tensing them to feel something.

‘Focus on the areas where your thighs make contact with the floor’. I felt the skin where my thighs met the roll mat, where a gentle pressure pushed the rest of my thighs in an outwards, bulging direction.

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The bulging sensation overwhelmed me as I felt regret at the lack of control I’d had lately around food. I imagined myself gorging on chips as they went straight to my thighs, outwardly showing the lack of control I felt within. My thighs had always been a problem area, and I felt sad thinking about this, wondering if I was the only one in the room feeling so… fat.

Rational thoughts washed into my mind. ‘Fat isn’t a feeling’, ‘there’s nothing wrong with eating chips’, ‘it’s healthy for your thighs to bulge a little when you lay down like this’. The anxiety in my chest stayed, and only became stronger when I heard the leader’s voice again.

‘Now feel your chest’. Had I really missed from my thigh to my chest? What about the other thigh? Was I missing an entire meditation session, stuck in my thoughts? ‘I’ve failed’, said my inner monologue. The rest of the session was spent ignoring the instructions and feeling paralysed. I wanted to get up and leave, but I didn’t want attention drawn to me.

“Hi there!”

“Hi”, I shuffled awkwardly.

“How did you find it?”, she asked curiously, stopping what she was doing.

“Well, to be honest, I couldn’t do it. My mind was going everywhere – I missed entire sections of what you were saying” I said, my eyes glancing at everything in my vision range except her eyes.

“That’s great Alex, really! It might be difficult, but the more you are distracted, the more work you can do. Bringing your attention back to my voice, as you did between thoughts, is what meditation is all about. When you miss a section, just congratulate yourself on getting back to my voice. It’s all about being kind to yourself.”

Back then, her hippy nonsense, as I thought it, washed over me. Though touched by how invested she seemed in me, I didn’t really understand what she meant. It was only later into my meditation journey that her words became my words, and I found myself giving others the same advice.

The human brain is wired to go off on tangents. We hear a word that reminds us of something and we go off track thinking about that thing. Our brains create networks of thoughts, and before we know it we are following a thought path, confused at where our attention went.

The idea of meditation is that we:

  • Notice when we are going down a thought path.
  • Bring our attention back to our breath (or whatever we were focusing on before).

This means that when we catch our thoughts going an unhealthy way in everyday life, we can notice that and gently guide our attention away from it. We can develop new paths of thinking and direct our thoughts away from the old ones, allowing development of the way we think.

Being a perfectionist – as I was – about meditation doesn’t make sense because meditation is about accepting our imperfections.

Accepting that our minds will go off on tangents, and doing what we can to bring ourselves back. The more our minds go off, the more we can bring them back, and the more enriching our meditation practice can be.

So next time your thoughts feel scattered and you’re trying to meditate, be kind to yourself and celebrate that your brain is doing exactly what it’s supposed to do.

Image Source: Flickr

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