Photo by Herbert Goetsch

Before applying to work at Mindfulness Northwest (MNW), I added up the time I’d spent in MNW programs: over 200 hours, most of those in 8-week Mindful Self-Compassion and Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction classes.

Ask anyone in my life, and they’ll tell you I’ve suggested taking one of these classes. Not just friends & family – I’ve told cab drivers, hair stylists, even mumbled it to dentists! These classes changed my life, so naturally I believe strongly in their transformative power. Recently I began to wonder what exactly it is about the mindfulness classroom that has impacted me so deeply. Many answers come to mind, but one stuck out to me: the mindfulness classroom helped me find my authentic self.

My skepticism was probably quite palpable the first time I entered a mindfulness class (my therapist’s idea). While I wasn’t sure about this whole meditation business, as a college student working 30 hours a week, I came to look forward to my weekly 2.5 hours away from my phone and my endless to-do list. I started to notice what it felt like when the spinning wheels in my brain slowed down a bit.

Every week, the teacher warmly welcomed us to this unique, quiet space. While she had lesson plans and material to teach us, a big part of the experience was this sense of openness and friendly acceptance that she modeled and supported us in cultivating. Unlike any other space I’d been in, the intention was to simply be with ourselves, whatever that meant at any moment.

Photo by Yoann Boyer

Sometimes I was my skeptical self, sometimes I was sad. Sometimes I was in pain, sometimes I was blissful. The instructor made it clear that no matter what was going on for us, it was welcome here. She once described meditation as “being with what’s here right now, without trying to change what we don’t like, or cling to what we do”.

As I continued to practice re-orienting towards my experience in this way, things started to shift. Spending time being with myself, I started to see parts that I didn’t see before, including parts that I felt I should be ashamed of, and had unknowingly been suppressing.

Mindfulness Northwest teacher-extraordinaire and my friend, Carolyn McCarthy, likes to start her classes with this invitation: All of you is welcome. All of your identities, seen and unseen, known and unknown. All of who you are is welcome. All of HOW you are is welcome! Whatever you’re feeling, your body and mind, just as they are. All of you is welcome.

As I slowly started to believe that I might be able to welcome all of myself (including the parts I didn’t always like, or I thought were bad, or I was afraid of), I saw what I was not welcoming: my neurodivergence, my queerness, and my chronically limiting health issues.

Photo by Christopher Sardegna

It is not always easy to welcome (and eventually celebrate!) the parts of us that are culturally devalued. Being “a good person” doesn’t make us immune to the omnipresent messaging of our culture: that our worthiness is not inherent and equal to all others, but instead dependent on being a “productive” person who doesn’t stray far from “the norm” (white, straight, cis-gender, able-bodied, US citizen, home owner, neurotypical, etc.). For many of us, any unlearning of these ideas has to be continuous, as we are swimming in a cultural sea of these false messages on a daily basis.

And then there’s the reality that deviating from the norm comes with risks: from the judgment of others, to mockery, to physical violence. When belonging is our most primal need, it’s no wonder we can unconsciously suppress the things that could threaten this, even a little bit. It is risky to be who we are.

My ADHD made me “lazy”, “disorganized”, and “reckless”, so I did everything I could to behave “normally”. My queerness made me gay, so I pretended I wasn’t. My health issues made me “less productive” and “weak”, so I believed I was less productive and weak, and therefore worth less. It sounds banal, but anybody who has tried to be different than who they are knows just how painful it is to live in denial and shame of our true identity. I’ve come to believe it’s the core wound of our world.

Photo by Frank McKenna

What my mindfulness training gave me was another story: it gave me a way to first see these “seen and unseen, known and unknown” parts of who I am, and then it helped me begin welcoming all of these parts with loving arms.  

The mindfulness classroom gave me a place ​​– maybe for the first time in my life ​​–  where I was invited to welcome all of the parts of myself, including the parts that society whispers I should be ashamed of. The way that all of the MNW teachers I’ve had embody this welcoming attitude, through leading the classes with patient listening, humility, humor, and genuine compassion, led me to train as a teacher myself and immeasurably deepen my own ability to access these qualities. Welcoming all of who we are is a lifelong journey. But if I can help even one person get closer to truly believing that nothing about who they inherently are needs to change or hide in the shadows of shame (that it is all in fact wonderfully, imperfectly, brilliantly human, and worthy of limitless love and celebration!) I will consider my teaching a success.

Beginning to accept all of my identities is the most powerfully healing gift I’ve ever received. And to think that in some ways, that journey began by signing up for an 8-week mindfulness class. Little did I know that I would find myself gathering in a supportive, healing community, and hearing over and over again something that I hope every being can someday believe: All of you is welcome.