And did you get what you wanted from this life, even so?
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself beloved on the earth.
–Late Fragment by Raymond Carver [written while dying of cancer]
Eleven years ago, I went through a painful divorce.
I was hurt and alone. The damage was irreparable and the choice to leave was inevitable, but I still felt like a failure. No one in my family had ever divorced. My grandparents had been married for seventy years; my parents forty. All my aunts and uncles had thriving marriages, my sister was (and still is) happily married to her college sweetheart, and my brother had just gotten engaged to the woman of his dreams. Marriage in my family was sacrosanct.
The prospect of upending my life was terrifying. But that was nothing compared to my fear of how the divorce would affect our three-year-old son Jackson. My life felt overwhelming. This was not how I imagined things would be. I felt exhausted and hopeless.
Each morning I’d wake with the same aching pit of fear and shame in my gut—my monkey mind swinging between ruminations about the past: “If only I had . . .” and fears about the future: “How am I going to handle it when _______ happens?”
I couldn’t seem to shake the self-judgment and sense that I had failed. There was no space for self-compassion. No space for self-kindness. No space for joy.
Friends, family, and colleagues all saw the pain I was in. Many offered support and ideas.
One of my meditation teachers suggested I begin each day by saying, “I love you, Shauna.” I immediately balked. Yuck! It felt so contrived, so inauthentic.
She noticed my hesitation and suggested, “How about simply saying ‘Good morning, Shauna’?” Then, with a wink, she added, “Try putting your hand on your heart when you say it. It will release oxytocin — which, as you know, is good for you.”
She knew the science would win me over. The next morning, when I awoke, I resolutely put my hand on my heart, took a breath, and said, “Good morning, Shauna.” Much to my surprise, it felt kind of nice. Instead of the avalanche of shame and anxiety that usually greeted me upon awakening, I felt a flash of kindness.
I practiced saying “Good morning, Shauna” every day, and over the next few weeks I began to notice subtle changes — a bit less harshness, a bit more kindness.
Some months later it was my birthday. I put my hand on my heart, preparing to do my “Good morning, Shauna” practice. An image of my grandmother came to me and the next thing I knew, I was saying, “Good morning, I love you, Shauna. Happy Birthday.”
The dam around my heart gave way and a flood of love poured in. I felt my grandmother’s love. I felt my mother’s love. I felt my own self-love. A sense of peace flowed through my body.
I wish I could tell you that my life has been a bubble of self-compassion ever since, and that I’ve never again experienced shame or self-judgment. But of course that’s not true.
What is true is that I continue to practice. Every morning, I put my hand on my heart and say, “Good morning, I love you, Shauna.” Some days I feel awkward, some days I feel lonely and raw, and some days I feel profound love. Whatever I feel, I keep practicing, and every morning, this pathway grows stronger.
This is the heart of neuroplasticity, what we practice grows stronger. So the key is to ask yourself “what do I want to grow?” As we draw near to Valentine’s Day it is a rich time to begin the practice of self-love, of actively cultivating kindness toward ourselves. You don’t need to do it perfectly, and definitely not at all at once. I invite you to begin with 5% more kindness, 5% more care toward yourself. Imagine how you might treat a dear friend, and perhaps try to bring a piece of this tenderness and compassion to yourself.
And the best part, you can begin right now. As Kabir says, “wherever you are is the entry point.” No matter what has happened to you, no matter what mistakes you’ve made, it is never too late to re-architect your brain for greater kindness, wisdom, and compassion.
About the Author
Shauna Shapiro is a professor at Santa Clara University, author, and internationally recognized expert in mindfulness and compassion. Dr. Shapiro has published over 150 journal articles and co-authored three critically acclaimed books translated into 14 languages, including her most recent book: Good Morning, I Love You: Mindfulness & Self-Compassion Practices to Rewire the Brain for Calm Clarity and Joy. She has been an invited speaker for the King of Thailand, the Danish Government, Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness Summit, the Canadian Government, and the World Council for Psychotherapy, as well as for Fortune 100 Companies including Google, Cisco Systems, Proctor & Gamble, and LinkedIn. The New York Times, BBC, Mashable, the Huffington Post, Wired, USA Today, and the Wall Street Journal have all featured her work, and 1.5 million people have watched her TEDx talk The Power of Mindfulness. Dr. Shapiro is a summa cum laude graduate of Duke University and a Fellow of the Mind and Life Institute, co-founded by the Dalai Lama. More information can be found at drshaunashapiro.com.