50 Mindful Steps to Self-Esteem: Everyday Practices for Cultivating Self-Acceptance and Self-Compassion, consists primarily of simple, brief mindfulness practices for you to settle into each morning, perhaps before your customary cup of tea or coffee, and to sprinkle throughout your day—at work, at home, or wherever you may go. There are meditations to foster and deepen your awareness and compassion; journaling exercises for you to note which actions lead to feelings of positivity and which lead to feelings of negativity; and activities for you to play with and enjoy.
By starting where you are, with a spirit of curiosity, you’ll find that your moments of mindfulness lengthen and, over time, become a “way of being.” As you travel through this book and cultivate qualities for mindful self-esteem, you’ll be introduced to the formal practices of meditation—both in stillness and in movement—and the informal practices of applying mindfulness to everyday life as you pay attention, on purpose, to the present moment. The practices will train your mind to stay with your experience: not feel the need to do anything to change how you’re feeling. You’ll come to know yourself as you look deeply into your habitual reactions and not lose yourself in self-critiques, comparisons, and feelings of unworthiness; you’ll come to know how things really are, not how you interpret them to be. You’ll uncover your wholeness and your wisdom.
Try This—Formal Practice
By focusing your attention on your moment-to-moment experience, you’ll learn how to “work with” what’s actually present: apply neutral attention so you can turn toward that which you resist. You’ll bring the intention of staying fully present to your meditation, so you can come to intimately know what you’re attending to and how it naturally unfolds. This will loosen the hold of the idea that you must look outside yourself for a permanent sense of self to forever legitimize who you are.
The breath, body, thoughts, and emotions are common objects of attention in Vipassana or Insight meditation. The following meditation focuses on the breath.
Meditation on the Breath. Sit in an upright, relaxed position, whether in a chair or cross-legged on a pillow, and gently close your eyes. Allow your body to be held and supported as you rest your weight and feel the contact of your body with the chair or pillow.
Notice your breath naturally occurring. Gently bring your attention to your breath, and bring your intention to be fully present for this practice. You may notice sensations related to breathing: your belly may inflate and deflate; your chest may rise and fall; or your whole body may subtly expand and contract. Perhaps you notice that your nostrils and upper lip feel cool when you breathe in and warm when you breathe out. Instead of moving your attention from one part of your body to another, maintain your focus wherever your breath feels the most organic, animated, or lively.
Come into intimate contact with each and every breath, noticing how each breath is special in its own way. Observe the depth and duration of each breath; the space or pause between the in-breath and the out-breath; and how the out-breath is slightly longer than the in-breath. Pay attention to the qualities, feeling, and rhythm of your breath. As you sense your breath, turn toward it so you can open to the full experience. It may feel as if you’re riding on the waves of your breath, floating on its current, being massaged by your breath, or dancing with it.
During this exercise, know that the mind naturally wanders. It’s easy to get distracted and lose touch with what you’re doing. When this happens, just make a mental note: Thinking. Then gently but firmly lead your mind back to your breath—feeling each unique and ever-present breath sensation. Know that the intimacy you’re establishing with your object of attention—in this case, your breath—is a kind of closeness you’re forming with yourself.
As you learn to keep your attention on your breath, honor your intention to stay with it, return to your breath when your mind wanders, and not judge your breath or try to change it, you’re cultivating such qualities of mindfulness as non-judgment, non-striving, and patience. When you’re ready, open your eyes and end this meditation, but continue to stay mindful of your breath through your day.
Try This—Informal Practice with Journaling
Acceptance is a state of open receptivity, a willingness to invite in even the most unwelcome guests, and an ability to turn toward that which you resist. The more you embrace suffering and come to know it, the less you’re compulsively driven by avoiding it. You experience a certain “lightness of being.” Paradoxically, you move toward discomfort, rather than away, in order to break free.
The following informal practice helps to cultivate acceptance by noticing what you are resisting. This practice also includes journaling: putting your thoughts on paper, so you can slow down your thinking, step back, and gain perspective, clarity, self-knowledge, and emotional healing.
Notice your resistance. You’re resisting whenever you’re trying too hard, fighting against what’s happening, or ignoring what’s happening altogether. Are you struggling to lose weight, racing down the street before the light turns red, or procrastinating on that dreaded task of paying bills? How do you notice resistance in your thinking, how does resistance influence your emotions, and how does resistance feel in your body? Next, notice what happens when you turn toward resistance with acceptance. What thoughts are connected to acceptance, what emotions result from acceptance, and how does acceptance feel in your body? Write what you’ve learned in a journal entry.
In stories about Buddha, there is a demon or nuisance named Mara who uses deception, attack, and disguise to create fear and confusion or try to tempt Buddha away from the spiritual life. In the story of one attempt to keep Buddha from enlightenment, Mara sends his three beautiful daughters (representing thirst, desire, and delight) to seduce Buddha. In another attempt, Mara sends his army to throw deadly weapons at Buddha.
Yet in his many fabled encounters with the different forces of Mara, Buddha manages to perceive the demon not as an enemy but as a friend. Rather than seeing Mara as throwing obstacles in his way, Buddha sees these situations as tests that bring him insight into the nature of life and ways of getting trapped (Chödrön 2000, 65).
There are said to be four forms of Mara, one of which is the Mara of emotion. The following activity uses art to symbolize this force.
The Force of Mara. Name an emotion that you sometimes feel so strongly it sends you into a swirl of doubt and confusion, drains your confidence, and washes away your basic wisdom. If you imagine this emotion as Mara, what does he look like? Is he fear, cloaked as a monster who comes to devour? Is he confusion, masquerading as a trickster who distorts the truth? Is he depression, disguised as a potion to dull your senses? Is he anger, concealed as spears and daggers?
When tempted by Mara, your “enemy,” how do you harden around him and shut down? When you’re afraid, do you become passive and weak? When you’re confused, do you become scattered and anxious? When you’re depressed, do you become withdrawn and rundown? When you’re angry, do you become blaming and hostile?
When visited by Mara, your “teacher,” how can you soften to him and open up to learn from what he’s telling you? Are you afraid because you’re scared to fail (or maybe succeed); confused because you keep yourself busy to avoid your feelings; depressed because you don’t deserve to be happy; or angry because you feel like a bad person and blame yourself for not being perfect? What do you need that you’re not giving yourself—forgiveness? Understanding? Attention? Fun? Creativity? Curiosity?
Draw a picture of a powerful, unwholesome emotion as the illusory force of Mara. Invite Mara to attack in his best disguise, with great force or cunning seduction! Use vivid colors, heavy lines, and jagged edges. When you’re done, complete the following sentences and write them beneath your picture:
When Mara is my enemy, I shut down by…
When Mara is my teacher, this is what I understand…
This is what I need…
May you always be transformed by the presence of Mara!