In this season of giving, we are all thinking about what we can do for others. This is certainly noble and important. But we’ve also all heard the expression, “charity begins at home”. In particular, I’d like to focus on what Buddhists call “right speech”.
Traditionally, this concept refers to how we use language to avoid hurting others. According to the Discourse on Mindfulness Meditation, right speech is defined as “refraining from lying, divisive speech, harsh speech, and meaningless speech”. An abbreviated version of this definition can also be as simple as “speaking truthfully and helpfully”. In a recent article in Tricycle magazine titled “If the Buddha Were Called to Jury Duty” by Mark Epstein, the author writes, “Conventionally, right speech refers to how we speak to others, but I also believe it can help us pay attention to how we speak to ourselves.” This got me to thinking about self-talk and how we treat ourselves.
It is safe to say that all of us without exception have some kind of internal dialogue going throughout each day. For most of us it is, in fact, a pretty constant companion from the moment we wake until we fall back to sleep. The most common reason people give for their perceived inability to meditate is that they can’t quiet their constantly chattering minds. Those of you who have a meditation practice know that this is not really what it’s all about, but I’m going to leave that aside for now and focus instead on the internal dialogue itself.
Throughout this blog I have often pointed to the fact that we are our own harshest critics. In fact, most of us would never treat other people the way we routinely treat ourselves. We hold ourselves to impossibly high standards and then mercilessly berate ourselves when we fail to reach them. The fact that they were unrealistic to begin with rarely enters the conversation. We compare ourselves to others who we are certain are doing better and tell ourselves we are failures because we can’t measure up. Or we will find some external source to blame. In other words, we could have been perfect if it weren’t for ______ (fill in the culprit du jour). Most of us are doing the best we can with what we have to work with in any given moment. And none of us – without exception – is perfect. But instead of acknowledging that fact and moving on, we will often poke and prod at the wound of our inability like a toothache and just keep reinforcing that negative perception. The “should haves, could haves, would haves, ifs, ands. and buts” are rerun ad-nauseum in our mind’s eye until we feel incapable of doing anything right.
It is interesting to me that it seems almost like human nature to focus on the negative. During my years of teaching and training, whenever evaluation requests are distributed to participants, 99% could come in saying “this was the best course I ever had in my life”. But then 1 person says, “This was horrible. A total waste of my time.” Instead of focussing on the positive majority, trainers will inevitably worry about the 1 or 2 instances of negative feedback. As the expression goes: negative experiences cling like velcro while the positive ones repel like teflon.
Turning negative thinking into positive is a practice. There are many articles that tout this concept. For example positive self-talk is used by athletes to improve performance. According to Psychology Today: “Positive self-talk is not self-deception. . . Rather, [it] is about recognizing the truth, in situations and in yourself. . . One of the fundamental truths is that you will make mistakes. To expect perfection in yourself or anyone else is unrealistic.” The Mayo Clinic suggests that positive self-talk can help relieve stress. This article presents some ideas to help you practice. For example, if you are thinking “I can’t do this because I’ve never done it before”, you can change that to “this is an opportunity to learn something new”. Or “this is too complicated” can change to “I’ll try it a different way.” Or “I don’t have the resources” can become “maybe I can get creative – necessity is the mother of invention.” Of course, there are more, but you get the picture.
So to bring this back to the season we’re in and to my favorite topic – mindful movement, if you find yourself lamenting lack of time, funds, patience, skill or any other perceived shortcoming, recognize this as an opportunity to practice turning the negative self-talk around. Remind yourself that all of the generosity you want to express during the holidays needs to begin with your own self-compassion. You can’t give what you haven’t got. If you don’t take care of yourself first, you will be no good to anyone else. Be kind to yourself and everyone around you will benefit.