I was at the dentist a couple of weeks ago and the hygienist applied a ‘plaque disclosing agent’ to my teeth. The idea is that this dye stains any ‘biofilm’ (stuff where bacteria can grow) on tooth surfaces and shows her where to do her work and get your teeth squeaky clean. She applied the solution and then offered me a mirror to see where (my freshly brushed and flossed teeth) needed extra cleaning.
The downside of (even good) habits
I was feeling not exactly smug, but certainly optimistic as I reached for the mirror. I’ve been a regular flosser now for several years. Prior to this I was a pre and post dentist appointment flosser. I would leave each appointment inspired and determined to floss, having just been reminded how important it was. My efforts would last for a few days, but then I would fall back into my usual routine of not flossing until 3 or 4 days before my next appointment. A few years ago, I really worked on making flossing a regular part of my routine. It’s become a good habit, something I do every day without thinking. Which is both good and, as the plaque disclosing agent was about to show me, bad.
I held up the mirror and took a look. Horror of horrors! I looked like the bride of Frankenstein! Now nothing against Frank, but good teeth is not what he’s known for. I looked terrible. My hygienist (bless her!) reassured me that I wasn’t ‘too bad’, but I had seen the ‘truth’. The condition of my ‘biofilmed’ teeth was a sobering dose of ‘self-awareness’.
My first response (after the embarrassment) was ‘How can I change what I’m doing? I want to do this better.’ Despite my daily (mindless) flossing, I was not getting the result I wanted. In my past there would have been some harsh self-criticism: ‘Why do I even bother flossing? I’m obviously bad at this/I’m useless.’ This time, however, my initial response was one of problem solving, not blame or shame. Practicing the vocabulary and attitudes of self-compassion in my meditation practice brought up a perspective of acceptance and the curiosity to problem solve. I shuddered and then laughed at the red stained teeth in the mirror. I asked my ever patient dental hygienist to remind me how to floss more effectively.
I still floss everyday, but now I do it purposefully, mindfully, scrubbing away much more ‘biofilm’ than before.
The power of Self-Awareness
Self-awareness is powerful tool with two edges. One edge is informative. It enlightens and motivates growth and improvement. The other edge of self-awareness involves a choice: judgment or self-compassion. Judgment tends to lead to short lived motivation or to negative emotions such as shame, apathy, and anger. On the other hand, self-compassion and acceptance leads to emotions that support change: curiosity, motivation, and kindness.
A bird needs two wings to fly
Jon Kabot-Zinn, a respected mindfulness teacher describes mindfulness as being like a bird which needs two wings to fly. One wing is awareness – seeing clearly what is present. The second wing of mindfulness is one of compassion – accepting what is, with kindness.
Self-compassion is a skill
We develop self-compassion by choosing our self-talk, practicing kind actions in our day-to-day life, and infusing our minds with the vocabulary and attitudes of compassion through meditation practices.
It's crucial to balance the sometimes startling and often unpleasant revelations of self-awareness with the skills of kindness and curiosity.