Is it possible for perfectionists to learn mediation?
I laid down on a roll mat, covered by a blanket. Ten of us in the room hoped the meditation session would hand us a key to unlock the door to our future. The door was currently keeping us trapped in a cycle of mental illness.
‘When you’re ready, close your eyes’, said a soothing voice from the group leader. She was the only person in the room not laying down. As my eyes closed, my self-conscious thoughts forced them back open again. “If you don’t feel comfortable closing your eyes, look gently at a spot on the ceiling.” I sighed with relief and stared at the cream-colored, smooth ceiling.
“Now, focus on your breath. Feel the air moving through your nostrils. Cool on the in breath and warmer on the out breath.” I felt the air moving through my nostrils. In this moment, a random fact came to my mind – we breathe 16 times a minute.
The inner dialogue
Mental calculations made that 960 breaths an hour. 23,040 in 24 hours. Over 8 million breaths a year.
Breathing in 8 million times a year, it came as a surprise to me that the feeling of air moving through my nostrils was a sensation so alien to me. Taking a moment to think about this, my attention drifted back into the room. “And now your calves,” said the group leader. The out-of-context sentence was followed by silence.
Meditation and Perfectionists
The silence seemed to continue forever as a fear rose within me. “I should’ve been paying attention. Now I have no idea what we’re supposed to be doing.” My inner monologue rambled. The thoughts stirred up anxiety within me. I curled up my feet in discomfort. “Now, focus on your thighs. If you feel any tension in them, gently release it.”
I tried to feel my thighs. But I couldn’t feel anything. My heart started racing as I tried tensing them to feel something.
“Focus on the areas where your thighs make contact with the floor.” I felt the skin where my thighs met the mat. A gentle pressure pushed the rest of my thighs in an outwards, bulging direction.
The bulging sensation overwhelmed me. I felt regret at the lack of control I’d had lately around food. As I imagined myself gorging on chips, I saw them going straight to my thighs. They outwardly showed the lack of control I felt within. My thighs had always been a “problem area.” I felt sad thinking about this. And I wondered if I was the only one in the room feeling so… fat.
The battle between thoughts
Rational thoughts washed into my mind. “Fat isn’t a feeling.” “There’s nothing wrong with eating chips.” “It’s healthy for your thighs to bulge a little when you lay down like this.” The anxiety in my chest stayed. It only became stronger when I heard the leader’s voice again.
“Now feel your chest.” Had I really missed from my thigh to my chest? What about the other thigh? Was I missing an entire meditation session, stuck in my thoughts? “I’ve failed,” said my inner monologue. The rest of the session was spent ignoring the instructions and feeling paralyzed. All I wanted was to get up and leave. But I didn’t want attention drawn to me.
After the meditation
I shuffled awkwardly as I replied, “Hi.”
She asked curiously, “How did you find it?”
“Well, to be honest, I couldn’t do it. My mind was going everywhere. I missed entire sections of what you were saying.” My eyes glanced at everything in my vision range except her eyes.
“That’s great Alex, really! It might be difficult, but the more you are distracted, the more work you can do. Bringing your attention back to my voice, as you did between thoughts, is what meditation is all about. When you miss a section, just congratulate yourself on getting back to my voice. It’s all about being kind to yourself.”
Back then, her hippy nonsense (as I thought it) washed over me. Though touched by how invested she seemed in me, I didn’t really understand what she meant. It was only later into my meditation journey that her words became my words. And I found myself giving others the same advice.
What happens when perfectionists try meditation
The human brain is wired to go off on tangents. We hear a word that reminds us of something and we go off track thinking about that thing. Our brains create networks of thoughts. Before we know it, we are following a thought path. It is common to become confused at where our attention went. And if you struggle with perfectionism, this can complication meditation.
The idea of meditation is that we:
- Notice when we are going down a thought path.
- Bring our attention back to our breath (or whatever we were focusing on before).
This means that when we catch our thoughts going in an unhealthy direction in everyday life, we can notice that and gently guide our attention away from it. We can develop new paths of thinking and direct our thoughts away from the old ones. This allows development of the way we think.
Being a perfectionist about meditation (as I was) doesn’t make sense. Because meditation is about accepting our imperfections.
Advice for Perfectionists on Meditation
Accept that our minds will go off on tangents. And do what you can to bring yourself back. The more your minds go off, the more you can bring it back. And the more enriching our meditation practice can be.
So next time your thoughts feel scattered and you’re trying to meditate, be kind to yourself. Celebrate that your brain is doing exactly what it’s supposed to do.
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