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Mind the trap of self-improvement.

Apparently, I needed this reminder yesterday.

For those of you who don't know, I work part-time at a mental health hospital here in Portland. Yesterday, I attended a coworker's "Compassion” task group where we were invited to make two small cards – one for ourselves and one for another patient who could use kind words of encouragement. This message ended up on my card:

dear phenomenal friend,

you are just right

exactly as you are

Ahhhh, yes of course. I know this. And yet, so often my mind gets caught up in its tacit, relentless mission to achieve “perfection.” My “flaws” are brought into the foreground and it feels like everyone, myself included, can see them so clearly.

My imperfections define me and I begin to close off from the world. My light shines a little less. My playfulness and verve dim and the flavor of lived experience becomes insecure and uninviting.

I forget that said flaws are just perceptions. They’re just ideas in my head, not objective facts. Yes, there are things I work on and hope to see change, but the older I get the more I realize that what I need most is acceptance. These words – you are just right, exactly as you are – are powerful if you let them in. Meditation practice can help us ease into this space of “non-dual” perfection. Perfection not dependent on an "if this, then that” equation.

Many new meditators fall into the trap of making meditation another project. Another self-improvement exercise. Yes, meditation makes us better humans, but what we may not realize is that when we approach the practice from a goal-oriented perspective, we create a subtle yet persuasive form of self-aggression. At the core of the practice is the message "you're not enough."

This is not meditation.

The good news is, this is merely a habit of mind – continually dicing up the world into good/bad, right/wrong, yes/no – that we can change through intentional practice.

The key is to unlearn this habit of the mind that turns everything under the sun into a project. How do we do this? We just sit. To clarify, we’re not floating like flotsam. There’s energy and intention involved with our sitting. We're actively engaged in opening up to the present moment. And each time we discover our mind has shifted back into doing or optimizing or project management mode, we can invite a sense of ease into our experience by relaxing the body and letting go of the tension that arises with this "not enough" and "must do more" attitude.

When you find your practice is characterized by fixing, achieving, trying to get somewhere, I hope your remember this, my dear phenomenal friends:

You are just right, exactly as you are.


About the Author

Ryan is a clinical social worker, mental health therapist and qualified MBSR instructor with over twelve years of meditation experience. He holds a masters degree of social work with a focus in mental health from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He studied neuroscience at the Center For Healthy Minds and trained with the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts medical school.

He has brought mindful awareness into schools, hospitals, nonprofits, and corporate settings as well as to adolescents, seniors, leaders, teachers, veterans, and health professionals in the US. Ryan currently works as a mindfulness-based therapist at a local psychiatric hospital and provides guided meditation and instruction throughout Portland in a variety of secular settings for all ages and skill levels.

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