It took a grand total of fifteen minutes into my first week-long meditation retreat for me to come to an overwhelming realization: Self-love and self-compassion are different—and for years, I had practiced one without the other.
Upon arriving to Shambhala Mountain Center, my brother—who had graciously offered to give me a ride to the top of a mountain in Colorado—asked me where to park.
“I don’t know,” I replied, “I’ve never been here before.”
“Well, you have a map, right?” he said.
Yes, I did have a map. It was given to me at check in, along with a list of other things I only half-heard because of how terrified I was; anticipating everything I was about to do that I’ve never done before. (Meditate for around eight hours a day and be without my phone for a week, to name a few.)
As soon as I felt the words, “I don’t know how to read it,” bubble up inside of me, a harsh, unapologetic voice in my head interrupted the thought:
“Seriously? You didn’t even try to figure it out.”
The voice was familiar, for I have heard it before. That sort of winey, self-critical version of me that doesn’t feel like me, but lives in my head. When I hear it, (because I still do), I often think of people who come to parties without an invitation; showing up unannounced, speaking shamelessly without hesitation, and lingering around afterwards for what feels like forever.
Though I had heard this voice before, it seemed louder this time. All of a sudden, instead of a winey whisper I could shew away, it was dominating my internal dialogue. As time went by, it got worse.
“Don’t unpack that way, people will think you’re a snobby New Yorker. HIDE YOUR BABY BLANKET, ARE YOU FIVE? Why did you choose these pants today?”
I had familiarized myself with this voice for as long I could remember, yet the nature of being on retreat—i.e., being stripped of external distractions like work or relationships—made it feel like someone had robbed me of the mental air-bags I created for myself overtime. I was face to the dashboard smacked with my own self-hatred.
Usually, when this self-critical nature would arise, I would immediately push it away. OR, I’d create a narrative around it that looked something along the lines of, “Yes, that is true. You are all of those horrible things, and now you’re going to fixate on that and feel bad about it all day.” (Insert evil laugh here.)
As she led us through the first of many sits ahead, one of our teachers, Susan Piver, explained to myself and other students that meditation has the ability to aid the curation of compassion for both ourselves and others. The days went on, and she, alongside teachers Kevin Townley and Crystal Gandrud, continued to remind us about the importance of finding ways to bring compassion into our lives, for it allows for one to experience day-to-day occurrences with a gentler approach, both on and off the cushion.
By the third day of retreat, the volume of my internal critic had become so loud it seemed like it was all I could hear. I felt sadness and confusion more than anything; for as a teacher and coach in the wellness space, self-love had been something I had studied, practiced, and taught for years. How could I love myself so much yet still feel this way?
Throughout the week, we broke off into discussion groups that were monitored by one of three instructors leading retreat. In fear of losing my shit due do a combination of boredom and what felt like pure insanity, I decided to listen to the suggestions the instructors gave my peers when they had confronted what they viewed as mental obstacles. After all, my initial tactic of seeing my self-hate talk, condemning the thoughts, pushing them away, and coming back to my breath was only making me feel worse.
In our first round of break out groups, a student explained that she was unable to focus on meditating because she couldn’t stop planning. No matter what she’d do, her mind would always start to rehearse the different scenarios that could happen in the next few months of her life. “I’ve planned months and months ahead yet I’m unable to find my breath and be in the present,” she explained.
Our teacher sat up straight and began to act excited.
“So, what do you have planned?” she said.
“Well, you’ve spent hours and hours planning. Got anything good?”
The woman laughed and began to tell the group about all of the yoga studios she planned on trying and the places she’d like to visit. Once she finished, our teacher suggested something that affected me in ways I now find hard to put into words, even though they weren’t directed at me.
“I wonder what would happen if you just let yourself do it,” she said.
The room was silent. The teacher raised her eyebrows. “Keep us posted.”
Here I was, waiting for Crystal to give the student an antidote for her thoughts, and to my surprise, she suggested the opposite. A, “let it happen, reach for compassion, and see what’s to come,” approach. It seemed like the only thing I hadn’t tried.
In that moment I wondered about my own situation. What would happen if I just, “let myself do it”? What would happen if I stopped making my thoughts a monster I had to run away from, an obstacle I had to overcome, or a part about myself I had to fix?
So, I tried it. I sat my ass on the cushion, and for 20 minutes (or ten years?) I let my mind go to the same place I had initially avoided with every fiber in my body. Horrible, dark, sad thoughts came, accompanied by feelings of gloom and guilt. Then they passed. Then then came, and then they passed again.
Now, before you think, “Duh, that’s what thoughts do…come and go,” I invite you to pause and reflect on your relationship with your thoughts. In my experience, even if they eventually pass, certain subjects feel so real in the moment; like there’s a story behind them that has been or could be…something. Anything. Anything but what’s actually happening.
The only way I can describe what happened in that moment is this: I allowed myself to go into a place of dark thoughts, only to then find that after some time, nothing was actually there but just that: thoughts. My thoughts weren’t my reality, they were just in my head.
By allowing these thoughts to surface and exist rather than push them aside, I was able to give them space to be, feel the feelings they prompted, and let them go. And, after letting go over and over again, to my surprise, compassion began to appear. A sort of, “it’s okay if they come again, you’ll be fine, I love you,” soft tone that stemmed from the heart, rather than the mind became present.
Has my internal-hate talk stopped appearing, post-retreat? No. Do all of a sudden, I feel great when it does, rather than sad or ashamed? Also no. What I’ve come to realize, though, is that with patience, practice, and trust, compassion towards oneself has the ability to loosen what was once a tightly coiled narrative. It has the ability to soften sharp edges of the mind, and open places of the heart that closed for all of eternity. Dramatic I know; but from my experience, true.
With that, I ask you: What would happen if you let yourself do it?