"Keep coming back. Keep coming back to the meditation cushion, mindfulness, the practices of mind-training. None of us are doomed!"

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Episode 70 -- December 14, 2020

You are Worth the Effort: Training Makes the Difference

Many of us use the end of one year and the beginning of the next as an opportunity to make resolutions and set goals for ways we want to change or improve ourselves in the months to come. This can be yet another opportunity for disappointment and shame, or it can be a time for clarity and change. In her book A Kinder Voice: Releasing Your Inner Critics with Mindfulness Slogans, Thérèse Jacobs-Stewart offers a simple solution to the many ways we talk ourselves into false beliefs about our aptitudes and gifts: practice. Nothing comes without effort, and that truth applies to the habits of mind and heart addressed by meditation and mindfulness as well as physical exercise regimens. Silencing the voices of doubt and criticism that come from within takes practice. Best of all, there can be joy in these efforts—even when they're difficult and take time. We get to treat ourselves with kindness as we work. Happiness is worth the effort.

It has been edited for brevity.

Training Makes the Difference
One of my personal stories is that I'm "chubby and uncoordinated." My dá used to compare each of us kids to the other growing up. My older sister was the athletic one, I was the "brainy" one, and my younger sister had the great personality. My brother was just "the boy," exempted from all household chores but taking out the trash. Characteristic of alcoholic families, our roles were rigidly cast.

Because athleticism had already been taken, I was seen as not having any. This led to ridicule for not being as physically graceful as my sister, who excelled at any physical challenge. She won tennis trophies, played basketball, rollerbladed, cross-country skied, and canoed. Me? I "ran like a girl" and kept dropping the ball when playing catch in the backyard. To which my dá said, "What the hell's the matter with you? Why can't you be like your sister? Any dummy can catch a ball." By the time I was ten years old, I withdrew from games with kids in the neighborhood and started reading books in my room. Alone.

Back in my day (the 1960s), every high school student had to complete the Presidential Physical Fitness Test as part of their physical education. In case those weren't your days, here's the context: Research in the 1950s showed that Americans were out of shape and in poor health compared to Europeans. The findings got President Dwight Eisenhower's attention and he formed the President's Council on Youth Fitness. Later, President John Kennedy upped the ante and created the Presidential Physical Fitness Test. If you passed, you got a very cool Presidential Physical Fitness Award badge to sew on your jean jacket.

I failed, miserably, and got a "D+" in physical education that year. (What is a D-plus anyway? A D is a D! It was a fail in my book.) I would have been top in my class if not for that grade. It relegated me to salutatorian, and all I felt was bad that I should've done better.

Not so long ago, I told my granddaughter Julia about my D in phys-ed. She said, "How is that even possible, Grandma? Doesn't a person get a C just for showing up to gym class? I've never even met anyone who got a D in physical education." We both laughed until our sides ached.

Indeed, it's a funny story now. It wasn't then. I had so deeply internalized the shaming from my growing up that I couldn't do five push-ups at the age of fourteen. I hated gym class, didn't want to try any sport for fear of looking stupid, and came to believe that I was truly deficient in the coordination department.

It took until I was in my thirties and started taking ballroom dancing classes that I realized the story was a myth. I could dance! Not at first, of course. It took training and effort. I had a great teacher who encouraged me. I practiced, sometimes until my feet blistered. And then I won a few competitions. The training worked. The old story fell away.

Athletes have known for decades that training makes a difference. Some even say it makes for most of the difference when it comes to performance in sports. But the idea that we can train our minds for greater happiness is relatively new. Indeed, it was mind-blowing to me: What? There are practices and tools for re-wiring the brain—for changing our emotional habits for the better? I'm not stuck with the propensities I acquired from early life? I'm not resigned to live with a harsh inner critic taking up residence in my mind? Today I know that the answer to all these questions is yes.

One person who gains hope from these possibilities is my client Bridger. He is a sweet young man, father of a new baby boy, and a recovering addict with a history of relapsing. His latest relapse to using drugs and drinking was a few months ago, shortly after his father's suicide. His father suffered from depression, his grandfather suffered from depression, and his great-grandfather suffered from depression. All of them committed suicide. Bridger suffers from depression and his inner critic is something fierce, prone to bouts of hopeless despair and immense frustration with the injustices of the world. He has a heavy, heavy legacy to overcome.

Bridger came to me to learn mindfulness for his depression. He sat in the brown leather chair in my office, tearing up. He has never had more than three months of sobriety and he was coming up on ninety days the following week.

"I feel like I am doomed," he said. "I don't want to be like my dad, but how can I be any different? Sometimes I feel like I just don't want to be here and it would be easier to just check out. But, I don't want to do to my son what my dad did to me. Can I really change how I am?"

My response was intense. I shared the story of one of my first Al-Anon meetings where people told me I could be happy in spite of my family. I talked about the research that says we can rewire our brains and etch new neuropathways for different and better emotional habits, even as adults. I cited findings about the plasticity of the adult brain. Then I said, "It won't be easy and it won't be fast, but you can do it if you are willing to train in mindfulness. It's like the Twelve Step program says: Keep coming back. Keep coming back to the meditation cushion, mindfulness, the practices of mind-training. None of us are doomed!"

Train ...
Train ...
What does it mean to train the mind? ...

Training the mind for happiness is going to take work. Ancient meditation masters tell us through this slogan to "just do it" if you want the benefits. Take radical responsibility for the state of your mind and be willing to make an effort. Keep coming back to the mindfulness practice, to the meditation cushion, to the present moment.

Who among us hasn't heard that "practice makes perfect"? Athletes and musicians and dancers do it all the time. We accept this adage without dispute when it comes to their areas of performance. And, the idea that practice is necessary has never been a controversial concept in the scientific literature. In fact, a study that looked at the performance ability of violinists showed that the best musicians accumulated at least 10,000 hours of training. Those classified as merely "good" or "least accomplished" were found to have done only 8,000 or 5,000 hours of practice, respectively. Peter Keen, director of performance at United Kingdom Sport, adds that it usually requires at least 10,000 hours of deliberate practice for an athlete to become elite.

Ten thousand hours is typically two to three hours of practice a day for eight to ten years of your life! That's amazing devotion. How can we expect that less is asked of us when training the mind? How can there be any "softer, easier way" to train for an athletic pursuit? Or to achieve musical proficiency? Or to master a dance? Training the mind and re-wiring the brain is no less an effort, no less a "failure" when not achieved.

Inner critics don't go down easy. Still, we want them to. "Not enough time" is a refrain in our culture. The Dalai Lama says, "The problem in the West is people want enlightenment to be fast, to be easy, and if possible, cheap." By cheap, I don't think the Dalai Lama means money. He means cheap in the sense of You know, just meditate casually and it will work.

I thought so, too, until doing an about-face some years ago. Rather than trying to tuck meditation time into my busy life—and failing—I decided to organize my life around my meditation practice. Now I often do it first thing in the morning, schedule it into my calendar, and let go of something else instead, like social media, TV, or even housecleaning. Many evenings, I turn off the computer at 9:00 to meditate. After years of practice, I am still unable to hold my intentions perfectly. Yet I'm practicing, putting in the hours, and reaping the benefits.

Biochemist turned Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard says:

You don't become a good pianist instantly; we're not born knowing how to read and write, everything comes through training, and what's wrong with that? Skills don't just pop up because you wish to be more compassionate or happier. It needs sustained application. But it's joy in the form of effort. Everybody who trains to do something, musicians, sportsmen and so on, says there's a sort of joy in their training, even if it seems to be harsh. So in that sense, it does take time. But why not spend time? We don't mind spending 15 years on education, why not the same to become a better human being?

Indeed, there is joy in the effort of building a kinder voice.

About the Author:
Thérèse Jacobs-Stewart, a licensed psychotherapist for more than thirty-five years, was among the pioneers in recognizing the similarity between Twelve Step recovery programs and the ancient Buddhist path of mindfulness. A noted lecturer and retreat leader, Thérèse is a recognized expert in contemplative meditation techniques and compassion-based cognitive psychotherapy and is the author of Paths Are Made by Walking: Practical Steps for Attaining Serenity (2003), Mindfulness and the 12 Steps (2010), and A Kinder Voice: Releasing Your Inner Critics with Mindfulness Slogans (2016).

© 2016 by Thérèse Jacobs-Stewart
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