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Drifting off course and coming back with compassion

mindfulness self compassion Sep 16, 2022
A sailing boat in calm waters, sailing towards a sunset.


You know the feeling when there are things that you know you should be doing that help to keep you healthy, happy and in balance, but you have been struggling to do them for one reason or another? It could be that there are external factors going on in your life that are making it difficult to remain on an even keel- perhaps there are people who make your life difficult, a job that is demanding more from you that you feel is in your capacity right now or other demands that simply mean you have very little left 'in the tank' to make those constant corrections to your life journey that keep you on the path you want to be on. Or it could be internal factors such as stress, anxiety, depression or ill health that are making it more difficult for you to see the horizon amidst what feels like a disorientating storm.


I've recently felt like I was drifting off course.


My back has been sore because I haven't been doing my usual daily stretches.

I haven't been eating as well as I could be.

I've been wasting time and energy worrying about things that are outside of my control.

Regardless of the reasons why I've drifted from where I want to be, the real lesson is not in the veering off course it's in the coming back.



The thing is, storms come to all of us.

When we're in them- whether caused by internal or external factors- we often convince ourselves that we're the only one who ever experiences this. That we are 'bad' people because we can't see the way through when it seems like everyone else is navigating through life effortlessly. We berate ourselves for not doing more to take care of ourselves or for not being the best version of ourselves in that moment. 


In Buddhist philosophy this practice is often referred to as the 'Second Arrow'.

To explain:

Pain & discomfort are inevitable in life- we simply cannot avoid them, they comes to all of us. This is the first arrow.

Say someone cuts you off in traffic- arrow number one- a seemingly simple action that then sets off alarm bells within us. 

"How dare they do that to me!" "I'm in a hurry" "Now I'll be late"

Arrows two, three and four fly quickly in response to that first one. Perhaps this momentary slight against us by a stranger sets our mind to remembering all the times we have felt disrespected by someone before? Friends bailing on us, family letting us down, co-workers taking credit for our work? Arrows five, six and seven ensue.


Before we know it a veritable barrage of arrows are being flung into the air. We are wound up and on edge as we try to dodge the flying arrows.


The thing is, after arrow number one, which was launched into the air by someone outside of our control- every other arrow that ensued was launched by us.


When it comes down to it, we cannot control that first arrow. There will always be pain and suffering in our lives that is unavoidable. But we can bring our awareness to this tendency we all have to cast those subsequent arrows- at ourselves, at others or simply shooting them into the air indiscriminately with no real regard for where they land. With awareness, comes the possibility of change.


So how does this relate to drifting off course?

Well, often what happens when we realise that we aren't doing all the things we want to do to take care of ourselves- eating well, exercising, fostering healthy relationships- rather than simply taking the helm and correcting our course, we often become self critical- "I am so weak because I can't turn down that last glass of wine". Or we figure we may as well throw in the towel and allow ourselves to totally let go the second we veer a tiny bit off course "I've already eaten too much, I guess diet starts Monday!".

Compassion comes when we remind ourselves that even the most experienced captain will always have to make small corrections to their path in order to stay on course. That the ocean is constantly changing and we just need to notice we've drifted off course and with out judgement, correct our path. That if we find ourselves in one of those storms that seem to be lasting longer than usual, we learn to say to ourselves "this is miserable, but it will end"; and when it does, navigating our way back on track. Without judgement. Without arrows.


Mindfulness as a practice teaches us how to notice these moments in our lives that we veer off our chosen course, without judgement. For even the most mindful of humans, is still human. And each of us will encounter storms in our lives that take us off course. Learning how to notice the storm, sit with the discomfort of knowing we aren't where we want to be and then simply making the corrections needed to get back on course- this is a skill, but also a wonderful side effect of being more mindful.

Being mindful doesn't make you perfect.

Being mindful doesn't mean you will never drift off course.

Being mindful simply means that when you do drift off course, you are better placed to notice this, without judgement and return to your chosen path with grace and compassion. The 'return to baseline' is quicker and less painful than before.


So today I am choosing to embody my own mantra that I say frequently in my meditation classes:

It's never too late to begin again.


Because it really isn't. So today I am.



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