Crayons on the table
Photo by Sonia Lynne Sia

How comfortable are you with changes to a usual routine?


For instance, our childhood caregivers likely taught us to wash our hands before eating or to remove our shoes before entering a house. Maybe at school our teachers encouraged us to raise our hand to ask a question or to stay inside the lines when decorating a coloring book.

But routines like these can also beg for change sometimes, too. Then what?
Maybe a good friend forgot their mask at home, and you chose to meet with them anyway. Or perhaps you heard the ice cream man at the park that first sunny day, and the last thing you worried about was lathering your hands with soap and water. In those moments, flexibility and spontaneity felt like the right move to make.
Can this same flexibility and spontaneity transfer to our mindfulness practices, too? Or are we going rogue when our version of a practice takes a unique twist compared to what we’ve been taught or what we’re used to?
I’ve been asked this question – directly and indirectly – while facilitating Mindful Self-Compassion (MSC) sessions. Like good students, we all want to be sure we’re doing the practices right, especially when we’re in the learning process. So, if we feel a pull to move in a bit of a different direction, our usual-way-of-doing-things can feel a bit tweaked…which can cause us to wonder if making an adjustment is ‘right’ or not?
For example, what if formal sitting meditation has been your go-to: it’s what you were taught and the practice with which you’re most comfortable. Let’s say you started by setting aside five minutes each day for quiet practice and have diligently establishing a routine sit that lasts 10 – 15 minutes most days.
But what if one day you sense that your body needs to move instead of sitting to meditate? Or your mind begins to rehearse phrases from a long-forgotten poem or song rather than focus on your breath? Or instead of your usual loving-kindness phrases, you have a favorite color or image that comes to mind?

Could it be that these may be opportunities when we can be flexible with yet another of our well-learned routines? What if we go ahead and tweak our practice to fit us and the situation a little bit better? In other words, what if we ‘color outside the lines’ of our mindfulness practices every once in a while?

And adult and child coloring in a butterfly image

Photo by Lucas Alexander

Think about it: when you open a typical coloring book, the outlined pictures beg your crayons or colored pencils to bring them to life. You get to add your personal flair to the illustration using whatever colors and strokes of the crayon you would like.

As a child, I can totally remember adults telling me to stay in the lines and keep my picture neat. But even when we illustrate outside of any coloring book’s perfect lines, the printed images remain intact…there’s just a little orange or purple – or whatever color – now flowing past the outlines…but the main template is still there beneath it all, isn’t it?

So it is with your MSC practice, even when you make it a little easier or more pleasant to fit your style or the moment.

As the developers of MSC, Drs. Kristin Neff and Chris Germer, often encourage in their training materials, it can be quite helpful to customize the MSC practices to fit our individual needs. The authors suggest that the little tweaks we make here or there personalize a practice for us, can make it easier for us to do, and are likely what help us keep returning to that same practice again and again.

Webster’s says that to tweak something means “to make a minor adjustment to”. So how can we color outside the lines while still maintaining the integrity of a MSC practice’s original intent?

The answer is as individual as how you or I would use our crayons in the same coloring book.

Crayons in a container

Photo by Aaron Burden

Simply noticing what’s here in the body, the emotions, the mind as we prepare to practice is key. In fact, last month when I recognized that I felt like moving rather than sitting for my Affectionate Breathing practice, I asked myself the quintessential MSC question, “What do I need?” And before I knew it, my Affectionate Breathing practice became a walking meditation. I chose to synchronize my steps with my breathing as though the ocean of compassion was flowing around my feet soothing me through a tough situation.

Another time, I asked myself what I needed and ended up including music during a mindful movement exercise. It helped me move a little more freely and rhythmically with what I was going through right then.

Sometimes even choosing to do a different practice than usual might be just what we need. Or setting an intention to mindfully eat lunch while sitting at the table or on the step outside – rather than in front of the tv or computer – may breathe some ease and pleasantness into our meal.

Like learning to take off our shoes or wash our hands as children, there is purpose behind the routines we establish in our mindfulness practices, too. But coloring outside of our usual meditation lines every once in a while doesn’t have to be extreme or mean we’re going rogue. In fact, gently tweaking a MSC practice to make it more comfortable may be just the thing to encourage us and our practice in some creative, colorful ways.


Catherine Duffy works at Mindfulness Northwest as a Mindfulness Instructor.

Drawn and painted butterfly with paints and paintbrushes lying around
Photo by Elena Mozhvil

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