The vagus nerve, emotions and the difficulty with mindfulness practices

healing from the freeze

“Now, many people who don’t know a lot about trauma think that trauma has something to do with something that happened to you a long time ago. In fact, the past is the past and the only thing that matters is what happens right now. And what is trauma is the residue that a past event leaves in your own sensory experiences in your body and it’s not that event out there that becomes intolerable but the physical sensations with which you live that become intolerable and you will do anything to make them go away.”

Last week, during a two-day deep cleaning/paint prep binge (see the kitchen ceiling to the right!), I listened to a recorded talk by Bessel van der Kolk given at the May 2011 22nd Annual International Trauma Conference. The title of van der Kolk’s title is a mouthful: “Putting neuroplasticity into clinical practice with neurofeedback: rewiring…

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The Power of Starting Small and Not Needing to Be the Best

“Better to do something imperfectly than to do nothing flawlessly.” ~Robert H Schuller

I have tried for so long to build a meditation habit. Seriously, it’s been one of my biggest goals for more than a decade.

And I’ve tried really hard. I’ve read books, I’ve taken classes, I’ve made accountability charts, I’ve set SMART goals; I’ve done it all.

Sometimes, I’ll fall into a good rhythm, and I might make it onto my mat three or four days in a row. Then sometimes, three whole months will go by without me managing to do it at all.

So what gives? Why can’t I make it happen? What am I doing wrong, after ten years of trying?

I decided to dig deeper into what was happening inside my poor little monkey mind that might be hindering my progress.

It took me by surprise when I realized that no matter what my practice has actually looked like over the years, whether I’d been totally diligent or utterly neglectful, there had been one constant the entire time: I’ve always felt like I needed to be the best at meditation.

Yep, that’s the phrase that actually popped into my mind, word for word, when I tried to unpack what was going on: the best at meditation.

I know what you’re thinking: What does that even mean? How can you be “the best” at something like meditation?

And let me tell you, I know how dumb it sounds. Meditation, by its very nature, is about not having attachment to such things as results or outcomes. I mean, it’s about being in the moment, not about getting an A+ rating or a bunch of gold-stars.

And yet I felt like I needed to be awesome at it. To be better than others. To bypass beginner status and immediately step into the category of “expert.”

I kept getting this image in my head: me, perched perfectly still in lotus position, the dawn sunshine on my face, wind blowing gently in my beautifully beachy hair, my outfit crisp and white, and my face a perfect vision of peace and tranquility.

(Never mind that I am not a morning person, that the lotus position gives me pins and needles, that my hair is more bushy than beachy, and that I don’t even own any crisp white clothes.)

When I dug deeper, I realized there was a follow-on thought from my attachment to this vision and my need for achievement: If I couldn’t be awesome at meditation, if I couldn’t achieve perfection… there was no point.

That was my unconscious thought pattern.

Which was why I always aimed for ridiculously long sessions; if I didn’t have a full thirty minutes to devote to it, what was the point?

It was why I was so disappointed if my mind wandered; if I didn’t give an A+ performance, what was the point?

It is why I’d feel like a failure if I didn’t do it first thing in the morning (even though my late-night work sessions made that completely impractical); if I hadn’t done a dawn session, what was the point?

And it was why I would get so down on myself if I missed a single day; if I couldn’t keep a perfect score card, what on earth was the point?

All in all, it’s no wonder I haven’t been able to make this habit stick. At every step of the journey, I’ve been psyching myself out of making any progress by expecting supreme, utter perfection.

In the past, this type of thinking has reared its head in other areas of my life too: if I can’t go to the gym for at least a full hour, there’s no point, right?

If I can’t eat 100 percent healthy for the rest of the week, I may as well write the next few days off, yeah?

And if I can’t fit in a long, uninterrupted stretch of writing time, there’s no point pulling out my notebook at all, amiright?!

Thankfully, over the years I’ve become aware of these perfectionist tendencies, and have developed a few mental strategies and ninja tricks to overcome them. (Don’t have time for a full gym session? Do half an hour of power yoga in the lounge room instead. Revolutionary, huh?)

But it’s taken me oh-so-long to realize that I was also doing it in my meditation practice; that I was letting my pursuit of perfection hold me back from inner peace.

Now that I know, I’m trying to let go of all expectations on myself when it comes to gettin’ my Zen on. In fact, my meditation sessions these days have been pared right back to the simplest, most achievable, most non-perfect thing I could think of.

Want to know what that looks like? (Prepare yourself for the profoundness!)

Two minutes of meditation, every one or two days.

That’s it.

And, if I haven’t managed to pull it off during the day, I do it in the shower at night, just before I go to bed (yep, standing there, suds and all, with not a lotus position in sight).

It’s minimal, it’s manageable, and it’s achievable. It’s also effective for quieting my monkey mind and giving me the tiny pockets of peace and stillness I crave so much.

I’m now on my fourth week of this new approach, and I’m happy to report that by releasing my expectations of perfection. In fact, by embracing the fact that I am going to mess up, and by giving myself some wiggle room and a short-cut to get around it, I’ve actually been more mindful in the past month than I’ve been for a really long time.

And I’ve definitely ended up with more time spent on the mat through these little baby steps than when I was aiming for giant, dramatic leaps.

It’s been an eye-opening lesson, and one that I’m very grateful for.

So now I want to ask you, dear one, are you letting perfection hold you back from achieving something you really want?

Could you cut yourself a break and aim for “okay” instead of “awesome”? It might sound counterintuitive in our culture of comparison and perfection, but the results might just take you by surprise.

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The Power of Starting Small and Not Needing to Be the Best