For people who have never experienced much warmth, having affection for the self can be close to impossible to imagine, so it is important to make the discovery process as simple as possible.
We make it easier if we don’t begin by trying to like our whole grown-up self all at once with all our layers of guilt and shame. Instead, we will begin small (sometimes small as in a young part of the self, and sometimes physically small, like a single cell) and come at this question from as many different starting points as possible.
Sometimes your brain will be surprised into self- warmth, sometimes there will be some modeling of how to direct your attention to make self-affection a little easier, and sometimes the stories and language used will encourage you to develop tenderness for yourself, so that you don’t have to do it all alone.
A Guided Meditation: Breathing (1-5 minutes)
This breath practice can give birth to the first glimpses of hope of having warmth for oneself.
Before you begin this meditation, do this breath experiment so that you become more familiar with your own relationship with your breathing: start counting your breaths.
See how many breaths you can count before you forget that you are counting and catch yourself thinking about something else.
What took you away from your counting? Can you identify the emotional tone of your distraction? Is it worry or anxiety? Is it shame? Is it a flood of emotions and sensations that might drown you if you stop running, if you stop the distracting flow of your daily life?
If you find that there is a lot of emotional pain, or that it is unbearable or boring when you try to count your breaths, reassure yourself that this makes sense, because without loving acceptance for yourself, your brain might not be a pleasant place to rest.
If you experienced pleasant focus and relaxation with your attention on your breath, then you are already well along the path of healing and well-being.
Now we’ll actually start the guided meditation. Try following along and breathing again, this time with a clear intention of warmth for self.
Notice that you have a body. You have elbows, and toe knuckles, and ear lobes, and you have a torso. And your torso is where your lungs are, and where you are bringing breath and life-giving oxygen into your being.
Now, notice that you are a breathing being, and that you might be able to feel the sensation in your body where the movement of your breath is most alive. Stop for a moment and close your eyes, to see if you can feel the breath coming into you and going out of you.
Where can you feel that sensation the most? In your nose, your upper sinuses, your mouth, or your throat? Is it in your lungs? In your ribs?
Wherever the sensation has the most intensity, invite your attention to rest there. (If you would like a way to track your focus, you can count breaths to see how long you can stay with the invitation to keep your attention on the sensation of your breath.)
Whenever your attention wanders, as attention does, gently and with warmth invite it to come back to your breath.
Your attention always wants to make sure that you are focusing on whatever is most important, and in the beginning of learning meditation, it usually believes that almost anything else is more important than your breath.
Thank your attention for its commitment to keeping you going with its alertness to what it thinks is important, and see if it is willing to come back to the sensation of breathing.
You may find yourself noticing other body sensations, like discomfort, aches, or pains. Acknowledge that your attention is trying to help you, and find out if it is willing to come back to your breath.
Sounds or changes in your environment may pull you away. Using warm acknowledgment, bring your attention back to your breath.
You may find that you are trying to plan your day. Gently and with kindness, invite your attention to come back to the sensation of breathing.
You might express the warmth by saying, “Hello, attention, how are you doing? Did you get distracted by something you thought was really worrisome? Did you want to contribute to my well-being and take care of me? We can worry about that later. I wonder if, right now, you’d be willing to come back to my breath?”
You might notice your voice tone in your thoughts, bringing quiet, respectful, and affectionate notes to the sound you make inside your own head. You might not speak with words at all, instead visualizing a gentle hand affectionately nudging your attention back to your breath.
Repeat this reunion of attention and breath several times, and see if this feels any different from how you have done a guided meditation in the past.
Whenever it feels right to you, thank your attention for its efforts, and let the lens of your focus expand out to include your body as a whole, and a sense of yourself being part of your world.
What sounds do you hear? How does your body feel? Can you feel your feet on the floor? What are your hands doing?
Let yourself gently wiggle or move a body part as you bring yourself fully back to whatever your attention would like to move toward in your regular life.
Why Practice This Meditation?
How was this meditation for you? What was it like to attend to your sensation of breathing with warmth? Was it possible to have kindness for yourself?
Can you feel a little more affection for yourself and for your attention after experiencing this meditation?
Or, did you have a sense that you might have done this meditation “wrong”?
So often people are more critical with themselves than with anyone else. When we look at the brain from the outside, we are inviting the inner judges to rest for a bit by giving them information about themselves and about what it means to be human.
Often when people are first invited to count their breaths, they don’t even make it to two. Even counting to one, there can be horror at having to stop and experience the inside of the brain.
It can be a rocky and inhospitable place where the self is not welcome. Before people learn about the possibility of self-warmth, they can spend years white-knuckling through guided meditations, battering away at themselves for doing it wrong, while continually restarting their count and judging themselves for not being able to focus.
For such people, breath meditations can leave them in the middle of their own rockslide of shame, self-contempt, horror, depression, and bewilderment.
It is not until these people are specifically invited to bring their attention back to their breath with warmth and gentleness, with something like the meditation that we’ve just done, that they can begin to make it to a count of two or even three without falling into their own personal hell.
As people begin to have a deeper sense of the possibility of loving themselves with warmth, their relationship with the inside of their own head can begin to change, and they can start to be at peace with and even welcome invitations to be quiet and pay attention to themselves.
I live in daily gratitude to Bonnie Badenoch, author of Being a Brain-wise Therapist, a beautiful book on bringing all these concepts into healing relationships, for first introducing me to a similar breath meditation in a university class on the science of the interpersonal brain.
The warmth in this exercise caught me by surprise and transformed my relationship with myself. It is something that I still practice multiple times every day.
Excerpted from Your Resonant Self: Guided Meditations and Exercises to Engage Your Brain's Capacity for Healing by Sarah Peyton. Copyright © 2017 W. W. Norton & Company.