The ‘having it all’ dilemma: Why self-compassion is the key


 Originally featured in Balance Garden

Many of us have grown up in an age where there is the desire and expectation to ‘have it all’. A rich and fulfilling life. A successful career. Sparkling relationships. A deep sense of peace, joy and well-being.

We’re lucky to live in a time of relative peace and stability. For all its shortcomings we have a political and economic system that encourages a certain degree of personal freedom, education, social mobility and entrepreneurship. It is relatively able to support us to go after our dreams and catch us if we fall. This has sparked wave after wave of innovation and liberation, and although there is still a long way to go, in many ways ‘having it all’ on the surface looks within the reach of the majority.

Yet in practice many of us are finding we’re way off the mark. Our email inboxes span for miles, our bedrooms are technically floordrobes and to-do lists have become groaningly unmanageable. Increasingly, those of us with just those intentions have turned to mindfulness in recent years to help negotiate the stresses of being constantly 'on the go', finding a few moments of calm with a daily meditation in the middle of juggling relationships, fitness, work, hobbies and life admin. Mindfulness based meditation has become highly valued as a way to manage stress, however those who turn to relaxation and concentration-based practices often quickly discover something else beneath the surface of the practice.

“I did sit there for a while but I didn’t really feel relaxed”, “I couldn’t stop thinking about work/something that happened that really upset me”, “I suddenly felt the need to question everything I’m doing with my life” are common ideas that arise for those embarking upon a meditation practice.

Often this might be the first time in years someone will have interrupted the natural free flowing chatter of thought and seen it for what it is or created a little gap for something else to show up. That ‘something else’, while it might often seem quite abstract, is usually important. Perhaps it’s a memory, or a realisation, an image or a feeling. Perhaps it’s a deep sense of fatigue. Or perhaps it’s just a sense of longing for something to arise, an implicit recognition that some kind of mental or emotional shift is required to restore a sense of balance.

While it can be a little disconcerting, this is actually very healing. Meditation is like a cleansing system for the mind, a way to detox from all the structures and stresses that both we ourselves and society place upon us. What it does expose is a need for better tools to support us in this process of re-balancing.

Compassion-based practices (or loving-kindness practices, known as ‘maitri’ in Pali, the language a lot of Buddhist texts were originally written in) developed alongside mindfulness in Buddhism for good reason. As we learn to settle and create stillness, we start to see everything more clearly, shining light onto all aspects of our lives.

In the sun the good looks richer, more glorious than ever before. The ugly is also more visible. Much like spring brings an urge to clean and tackle neglected aspects of our home, so meditation gently, as and when we’re ready, helps us increasingly see those cupboards full of junk, dirty corners and weeds in our minds. Feeling secure and confident in our own ability to handle this with self-kindness is the key to this process.

Suddenly the concept of ‘having it all’ starts to take on a new meaning. We begin to look more inwardly and to reinterpret our lives and our values. We notice a sense of greater empowerment and personal responsibility for our own happiness in a way that doesn’t involve earning more money, taking more holidays or expecting more out of others. It’s a slow, multi-layered process but this journey itself becomes something of intrinsic value to us. Over time it begins to transform us into more contented, authentic and joyful versions of ourselves.

It’s a relatively simple (sometimes even monotonous) process. But it’s not always easy and actually as the practice deepens it often become more demanding at times. Indeed, the many structures, rituals, texts and hierarchies that are in place in Buddhism evolved for good reason to guide people along this path. Much like lifting weights on your own with little understanding of how to train and poor posture can be ineffective or even harmful to your body, so a meditation practice may be less effective or even counterproductive without adequate support, checks and balances. And of course, a lot of self-compassion.

It is wonderful, and much needed that the popularity of mindfulness is increasing in our culture and that mobile apps and drop-in classes are supporting its rise. These resources are a fantastic way to discover meditation, for ad-hoc support in terms of stress relief or to help with sleep and to complement the practice of a meditator who is familiar with the terrain and is supported by other means (a teacher, a community). However to really reap the benefits of what meditation has to offer more is needed.

Here is some guidance on how to build a healthy and rewarding meditation practice:

Do give apps like Headspace a go to get started and motivated, and to use in conjunction with other training. Insight Timer is a great free app with lots of guided meditations and a method for tracking how much and often you’re meditating.

Seek out a structured meditation course at your local meditation centre or a good interactive online course.

Practice regularly. Even just 5 minutes a day, building to 20-45 minutes.

Meditating with others is often a rewarding experience. More and more meditation evenings are springing up set in pleasant venues and convenient locations, often accompanied by a bit of food and socialising so that they offer a more accessible alternative if Buddhist centres or yoga studios aren’t really your thing.

Find some people you can talk to about your meditation practice. Sharing your experiences and hearing from others will help you learn a lot and integrate those learnings more into your daily life.

Enjoy it! Like with most things, the more you learn about it and engage with it in a relaxed way the more your love for it will develop. At times it will be difficult, or seem like a chore, and at times it will seem like the most blissful and rewarding thing in the world. All this is normal!

Don’t be afraid to ask for help. It’s not uncommon that as we illuminate areas of our minds that have remained hidden that we need to work through some issues. Counselling and psychotherapy can be great assets as part of this process.