A New Approach to Meditation: Feel Free to Fail
When I introduce mindfulness as a therapist, many of my clients groan and say, “I’ve tried it and I can’t do it,” or “I’m terrible at meditation,” or “When I focus on the moment, I no longer feel safe.” If this has been your experience, I hope to demystify mindfulness and encourage you to give it another go.
Here is my philosophy: there is no “right” way to practice mindfulness. If you’re like me, you’ll stop noticing the moment after the first exhale. The circus monkeys in your mind somersault into the ring, bang their drums, and shake their tambourines, all to the tune of March of the Gladiators. A voice materializes above you. “Notice your breath,” the voice says, and you’re filled with irritation toward the mindfulness facilitator (therapy can bring the rage out in all of us sometimes).
The way I made peace with mindfulness was to accept my failure. The whole point was to fail, realize it, and bring my awareness back to the moment. Once I accepted the reality that my mind traverses a thousand journeys all the time, I practiced mindfulness with less self-judgment.
But what if failing to notice your breath, a chosen mantra, or the space between your upper lip and your nose feels threatening? What if the moment or the quiet within us feels unsafe?
5 Senses & Your Mindfulness Practice
Try approaching mindfulness by using the five senses to plan for an upcoming stressful event, soothe yourself during a hectic moment (or afternoon, let’s be real), or calm your nervous system after a distressing experience. Prepare a list of favorites for yourself, a sensory “first-aid” box with immediate tools to use in a critical moment.
Sight: A treasured object that brings you feelings of positivity or calm. A beloved painting on the wall. The view from your bedroom window.
Sound: Music changes stress into calm or a sense of well-being. This might be classical, punk, metal, nature sounds, white noise, or the sound of your singing voice. The rustle of trees in your yard or the vibration of a hummingbird’s wings in your flower bed.
Smell: The most powerful sense for many, as olfactory memories can go back to our earliest moments. Choose smells that bring you feelings of bliss, like chocolate or flowers. Research essential oils and experiment. My favorites are clary sage, lemon, and spearmint.
Taste: If you love the smell of chocolate, you likely love the taste. Brew your favorite non-alcoholic beverage, and revel in its depth. Hold flavors on your tongue and mouth and notice what happens. If food is a trigger for you to binge, restrict, or otherwise contribute to stress, avoid this sense.
Touch: Observe the breath entering your lungs, the softness of skin, or the adventure of encountering all your nerve endings. Identify your coziest blanket and wrap yourself up. Purchase sensory tools with textures to hold, grip, run your fingers over. Pet or snuggle an animal companion. Run your hands under cold water.
Things to Consider When Practicing Mindfulness
Be sure to pick sensory tools that are not complicated by bittersweet or negative recollections and feelings, like memories of a lost loved one or an animal companion. Acknowledge the burden of the moment, cultivate compassion for your vulnerability, and surround yourself with a safe, peaceful sensory experience of your own creation.
Let yourself off the hook. Try mindfulness in tiny bursts. Let the monkeys have their fun—and then poke your head out of the circus tent and breathe. Laugh in the face of failure and start again. For those who fear the present moment, or what may come up when quiet, don’t journey alone. Practice with a trusted friend or therapist.
Allow yourself to fail. Be gentle with yourself when you practice any new skill, especially one that can bring up complicated feelings (or circus monkeys). Simple kindness turned inward can radically change your life. One tiny moment at a time.
A Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the state of California, Caitlin Billings specializes in treatment and therapy for complex trauma. Through this work, Caitlin aims to subvert societal expectations and pressures of idealism through embracing self-love and imperfection. Her memoir, In Our Blood, breaks the stigma around mental health professionals’ own mental health.