We are all masters of practice in that we are practicing something in every moment. We commonly practice unhealthy behaviors and behaviors that are not aligned with our personal life values. If we go around all day being self-critical, we will have a very negative self-image. If we practice behaviors that make us feel good about ourselves, our self-image will be positive. When our actions are aligned with our personal values, our self-image improves. There is a simple yet powerful question that will help you shift from unconscious, destructive practices that are not aligned with your personal values to healthful ones. Throughout the day, practice asking yourself the following question: What am I practicing in this moment? The purpose of asking this question is to become aware of what you are thinking, feeling, and doing and to give yourself the opportunity to try something else that’s more likely to enhance your well-being.
Here are some examples of answers that will come to you when you practice asking that question:
I’m practicing self-pity.
I’m practicing anger.
I’m practicing self-criticism.
I’m practicing gratitude.
I’m practicing avoidance.
I’m practicing seeing the light in other people.
I’m practicing reaching out to someone.
I’m practicing authentic self-expression.
I’m practicing assertiveness.
You’ll notice that when you ask yourself what you are practicing, in many instances you will discover that you are practicing a very healthy behavior, which will feel good. Are you aware of spending a lot of time practicing self-critical thoughts, or ruminating repeatedly over a familiar issue or problem? The more you practice this, the more you will continue to do it. You will ultimately get very good—expert, even—at something you really wouldn’t want to do at all if you were fully aware of how this practice impacts your health and happiness.
Here are some suggestions as to how you can become skillful in this practice:
When you find yourself feeling sad, you can ask: What am I practicing? The answer can help you to see that the reason you’re feeling sad is that you’ve been practicing ruminating over an event in your life that stimulates sadness.
When you find yourself feeling anxious, the answer is usually that you’ve been practicing assigning negative attributions to future events: When I talk to my partner tonight, I bet he’ll reject my ideas is one example. You have, in effect, been practicing inventing unpleasant outcomes that have no basis in reality.
When you find yourself feeling lighthearted, you have probably been practicing taking your thoughts lightly—in other words, not buying in to your thoughts.
When you find yourself feeling angry, you have probably been practicing blame.
Here is an example from my own life: While I’m shaving, a memory flashes into my mind of a provocative, antagonistic remark I made to someone fifteen years ago that resulted in some mutual discomfort. Now, many years later, I immediately feel shame and regret for having made that comment. Even though the words left my mouth long ago, I berate myself for being so insensitive today. My body tightens against my self-criticism. I feel stressed and contracted. Then I remember to ask the question What am I practicing? The question wakes me up from my old self-critical thinking pattern and allows me to feel compassion for myself for having experienced this interaction again.
This technique can be applied to feelings of helplessness or hopelessness as well, which are easy to experience if you have a chronic medical problem. If you experience them once in a while, they’re harmless, but when they represent an entrenched pattern they become pathogenic; they can lead to depression and become deleterious to your health. Once you learn to identify the pattern by asking yourself what you are practicing in the present moment, your experience becomes, Oh, I’m feeling that way again. With that awareness, you can develop the ability to change.
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I co-teach a course at College of Marin in Kentfield, California; Mindfulness-Based Self-Compassion (MBSC). For those who do not live geographically close enough to attend the class, this page can serve as a guide: http://larryberkelhammer.com/mindfulness-based-self-compassion/