When Mindfulness Isn’t Enough

by Carol Hendershot

When I began to receive the benefits of mindfulness, I was nothing short of amazed. Here I am, not doing anything, and I’m feeling calm and at ease. The old voices in my head that said I had to do something, fix something, fix me, had started to become quieter. Relieved that there was a way to be in my life that didn’t require doing, I embraced the gift of mindful awareness.

There were ups and downs in my practice, but over the long haul, things kept getting better. I was feeling less anxiety, my stress level was way down, and I wasn’t as irritable with my kids. I was sure I had found the answer to all life’s problems.

Mindfulness, the act of paying attention to experience as it is, of bowing to the present moment with acceptance and curiosity, is the open-hearted awareness that seeks to understand rather than evaluate. It is spacious and forgiving. And, the more I practiced, the more this way of being was available in my life. WOW!

And then one day, my world collapsed.

Intrusive thoughts would wake me, I would shiver with anxiety and fear as the old feelings of ‘not enough’ came rushing back in. All I wanted was for the pain to go away.

I thought I knew what to do. I had this shiny new tool called mindfulness, and I was sure it could get me through anything. I pulled out my cushion and began to meditate, and instead of relief, a tsunami of pain washed over me, again and again.

I am one of those sensitive creatures called a human being. And like many in my tribe, when the pain of living is intense, I forget I even have a tribe; I feel lost and alone.

After sitting with disappointment and feeling like a failure, I got angry at mindfulness and decided it had failed me.  I traded in my cushion for a flood of distractions.

It took me a bit to realize that neither was true; I wasn’t a failure at meditation, and mindfulness hadn’t failed me. The benefits I had gained were real! I needed to find the missing piece.

That was when I discovered self-compassion.

I knew that one of the reasons that mindfulness is healing is because kindness and compassion are at its core. But sometimes, when we are in severe pain, we need to make compassion a more deliberate practice. The emphasis must shift from open awareness to actively soothing ourselves. We need to pull out the thread of compassion and work with it to soothe our broken heart.

Mindful self-compassion is giving ourselves the same kindness we would give a dear friend.

There are three components to mindful self-compassion. The first component is mindfulness. We can’t be kind to ourselves in the midst of our pain if we are unwilling to admit that we’re hurting. To be self-compassionate, we can’t start with self-blame and criticism, we can’t resist and turn away. We have to confront and feel our pain. Ouch!

The second component of mindful self-compassion is common humanity. We start to realize that as alone as we feel right now, our pain is part of the human experience. We all suffer. There is nothing wrong with us; we are merely engaged in the dance of humanity.

And finally, when we engage in self-compassion, we are choosing to give ourselves the kindness and care we need and deserve. The question becomes, “How can I give myself what I need?” rather than “What is wrong with me?”

What did I learn through this process?

By becoming skilled at soothing my own pain, I could step back into the open field of mindful awareness where wisdom resides.

Yes, it is a process; it takes time, and every moment is infinitely worth the effort. Please join me on this journey.