How Letting Ourselves Off the Hook Leads to Change

Written by: Jonathan Kirkendall ~~

In January, I was teaching a meditation program here at the DC Shambhala Center and was reminded of a very important concept that arises out of the teachings on mindfulness. During that first month of the Gregorian New Year that is usually awash with New Year’s resolutions to meditate more/smoke less/eat better/etc, I was very aware of its timeliness: the very first step in changing our habitual patterns is developing gentleness towards our selves and our experience.

Celebrating the Tibetan New Year gives us a chance to revisit our New Year resolutions, and to remember that the very first thing we need to do in order to change is to be kind to ourselves. Imagine that! Not beat ourselves up, not hold ourselves to a standard higher than we’d ever hold anyone else, not aggressively push through to the next level, not even make of list of things that need to change, but – develop gentleness towards ourselves.

The exact formula is actually this: kindness towards self plus daring to move beyond our comfort zone equals the ability to create the discipline.

This is where sitting meditation comes in. When we sit on a regular basis, coming back to our breath, getting caught up in story lines, then once again coming back to the breath, over and over again, we develop both the openness to our experience (kindness), and discipline to stay with what’s uncomfortable (daring).

When you think about it, we do this quite naturally with others. For example, combining feedback with kindness when we’ve worked up the nerve to confront a loved one, or the firm yet gentle hold on a child while we cross through traffic.

For me, combining gentleness/kindness/warmth with daring/taking risks is where the spark happens. Without those two together, the formula falls apart. If we’re just kind, we may be prone towards “idiot compassion,” letting ourselves (and others!) off the hook, getting mushy. If we’re just daring, we may become too aggressive, too harsh, too solid.  Each of these not only tempers the other, but it creates something larger – discipline, which, in the Buddhist teachings, is the seed of joy.

As we move deeper into 2016 and into the Year of the Fire Monkey, lets remember that we have both the softness of the heart and the strength of our backbone. With those two together, we can move forward to create the change we want in our lives.

Jonathan Kirkendall is a psychotherapist and senior teacher at the DC Shambhala Center and Program Manager for Youth Programs for the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors. He has a small private practice at Dupont: