You can always begin again

Were you thrown off course last week? Me too.

As of today, I’ve meditated for 40 days in a row. Each morning, I sit for 10 minutes and listen to a guided meditation in hopes of calming my racing thoughts. Some days, it’s relatively easy to do. Other times, quieting my brain seems impossible. No matter what, though, it feels good to take the time to keep a daily promise to myself.

I make all sorts of promises to myself. Some, I keep. Most, I break. My desk drawers are filled with half-finished journals. My yoga mat spends far more time rolled up than unfurled. And I've lost track of how many times I've vowed to stay off of social media for a week, only to immediately pick up my phone the next time I got bored.

Whenever I set a goal for myself, whether it’s walking 10,000 steps a day, keeping a gratitude journal, or embarking on a no-alcohol month, I tend to start off feeling mighty good. As soon as that resolution is broken, though—if I were to miss a day of meditation, for example—I feel pretty awful. My tendency is to throw in the towel. I messed up, and now my goal is shot.

But what if I was more gentle with myself? What if, instead of feeling like the promise was irrevocably broken, I simply decided to begin again?

Meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg instructs her students to “just start over” whenever they get off course. Did you get distracted by your thoughts? Just start over. Lose track of the number of breaths you were counting? Just start over.

It’s a gentle suggestion, and one that can be used often—especially at the beginning of a new year, when so many of us have high hopes for ourselves.

Last week, the first full week of 2021, I returned to work from maternity leave. Like many people resuming their jobs after the holiday break, I anticipated fruitful days of catching up on email, reaching out to colleagues, and getting a lot of quality thinking and writing done.

Monday was promising. Tuesday was a little less productive. Wednesday was a total mess.

That was the day of the attempted government coup. As Congress began proceedings to affirm President-elect Joe Biden’s victory, pro-Trump rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol. It was a horrible thing to witness. It was tense, scary, surreal—and wildly distracting.

As white supremacists climbed the Capitol walls and entered the building, my mind raced with terrible thoughts. I repeatedly opened and closed Twitter, searching for updates. Memories of my most anxious moments of 2020 came flooding back. My mood plummeted. Before long, my day was thrown completely off course.

I berated myself for not accomplishing more and spending too much time obsessively scanning the news. It’s only six days into the new year! How am I already slipping into bad habits?! 

I wasn’t alone. Social media was full of fears and self-flagellation. People lamented not being able to focus on work. Others decided to abandon their Dry January plans. Some folks seemed ready to give up on the year entirely.

It makes sense to be distracted by something as terrifying as a racist mob storming the Capitol. It is normal to get mad at the people who were complicit in that event happening in the first place. It is rational and healthy to be angry and upset.

What doesn’t make sense, though, is to turn that anger towards yourself. 

There’s a good chance that, like me, you faltered last week. You might have missed a work deadline, spent too much time on social media, or fell off the Dry January wagon. That’s ok. Instead of getting mad at yourself or deciding to abandon your goal, what if you practiced self-compassion and tried again the next day? What if you just started over?

As Salzberg writes, “If we fall, we don’t need self-recrimination or blame or anger—we need a reawakening of our intention and a willingness to recommit, to be wholehearted once again.”

The key to starting over is to be gentle with yourself. In meditation, it’s about simply observing the fact that your mind wandered, and, without judgment, letting those thoughts go. It’s a kind, loving, and versatile approach. Although it takes practice, it’s a tactic that can be employed whenever we find ourselves off track from whatever we were aiming to do.

So, yes, Wednesday was a mess. I didn’t get much work done, and spent too much time doomscrolling—something I vowed not to do this year. It’s not how I imagined I’d spend the first full week of 2021.

The good news is that I got to start over.

On Thursday morning, I put in my headphones and meditated for 10 minutes, just like I said I would. It wasn’t my best meditation—my mind kept replaying the previous day’s events—but it still felt good. No matter what, tomorrow always gives us a fresh opportunity to begin anew.



p.s. What’s something good for yourself that you’re doing lately, and how is it helping you? Perhaps you’re taking daily walks, mastering a new language, or also learning the art of meditation. Let me know! Reply to this email, leave a comment, or send me a message. I’ll share your replies in Friday’s subscriber-only newsletter.

New year, new goals

Time for some vulnerability and transparency: One of my 2021 goals is to increase the number of newsletter readers to 5,000 and the number of paying subscribers to 500. I’m currently at 4,085 readers and 332 subscribers.

This isn’t an arbitrary goal—though it is ambitious! I put a significant amount of effort into My Sweet Dumb Brain, and my time and money are in especially short supply these days. It’s time to earn more for those efforts.

I can’t do this without your help. Will you recommend My Sweet Dumb Brain to a like-minded friend or two? You can forward this newsletter, or share a favorite issue on social media. And if you haven’t yet become a paying subscriber and are in a financial spot to do so, please consider it.

Thanks to Allison for spreading the word last week:

As always, thanks to all of you for reading and supporting My Sweet Dumb Brain! Writing this newsletter is a true joy.

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My Sweet Dumb Brain is written by Katie Hawkins-Gaar. It’s edited by Rebecca Coates, who, instead of doing Dry January, is doing a dry “day-by-day.” Sometimes it helps simply to reframe your goals! Photo by Patrick Schneider on Unsplash.