I used to will myself out of bed every morning to sit on a cushion and observe my breathing for at least 20 minutes — rain or shine, in sickness and health, and, once or twice, in record-breaking heat waves. And I admit that I was a tiny bit of a snob about the whole thing. I Meditated (yes, with a capital M) and believed wholeheartedly in what the practice gave me: insight, awareness, and emotional resilience.
But things changed. You know, life happened: new jobs and opportunities surfaced, I had kids and moved around the country. And meditation’s prominence waxed and waned in my life. Specifically, it waned, after a recent move to a much colder climate than sunny southern California, at a moment when I also found myself solo parenting.
And while I did feel bad about it, like I was some sort of spiritual delinquent for not dragging myself out of bed on those increasingly dark and cold mornings, the bad feelings didn’t quite provide the motivation needed to jump on the meditation train again. Problem was, I also found my self-awareness and sense of grounded presence slipping away, too.
So, I pivoted. Adapted. Found a workaround.
Shortly before I awaken my kids for school, my alarm chimes. I yawn, turn on the bedside lamp, and set a timer for 10 minutes. The extra effort of switching from my alarm to an app feels important; it’s a meditation timer, I remind myself, not a snooze button.
Then I lie back in my warm, comfy blankets, wrap my arms around myself, and give a little squeeze. I intentionally tune into my body and my heart center and try to locate the sense of home deep within — you know, that fully grounded, fully embodied sense of simply being.
Yes, I cuddle with myself.
And while it may sound strange, the practice meets my needs. When life gets so complicated that to-dos stack up faster than I can type, and as chilly fall mornings lead to downright cold wintry ones, I crave a forgiving practice. A short practice. A warm practice.
(And if it happens that I fall back asleep for a few moments during the designated self-cuddle time, I let it go.)
The intention of turning inward, of loving myself, and of learning to be fully at ease in my own skin all have real benefits. In fact, the effects are quite similar to my old sitting practice. But is this real meditation?
I posed this question to Dr. Kristin Neff, associate professor in Human Development and Culture at the University of Texas at Austin and author of the book Self-Compassion. She told me that the physical act of putting arms around myself with loving intent is likely activating my parasympathetic nervous system.
Often known as the “rest and digest,” mode — the one where oxytocin and naturally occurring opiates are released into the bloodstream — parasympathetic activation means that we feel calm, connected, and cared for.
Dr. Neff tells me that instead of starting with the mind, as in formal meditation, my practice begins with the body through what she calls self-support, a form of self-compassion. She often teaches people to access self-compassion through actual touch, such as placing a hand on the heart, or — yes, wrapping one’s arms around oneself and giving a little squeeze.
She compared my practice to formal meditation by pointing out that I’m going through a different doorway (the body instead of the mind) but still arriving at a similar place.
Maybe my practice’s doorway doesn’t lead precisely to the same place as with meditation, adds Dr. Neff, but it’s in the same wheelhouse of that place: calm, centered, aware, and loving toward myself and my struggles. That’s where I want to be.
When I ask her whether she and her colleagues would consider self-cuddling a legitimate meditation practice, she says, “I think we can let go of the idea that one is better than the other. Better is whatever works most effectively.” We gain more benefit from a practice that we enjoy and do consistently than out of one we don’t enjoy and do inconsistently.
Dr. Neff adds that, if I were to add in a short sitting meditation session after my self-cuddle, I may find more ease with the practice. Citing a 2016 study, she says that after completing self-compassion exercises, sitting meditation became more accessible for research subjects.
Maybe I’ll get back there again.
But here’s the thing: I can do this self-cuddling thing — in my life, right now. And while I’m not saying it will be my forever practice, or that formal sitting meditation doesn’t have clear benefits, I agree with Dr. Neff that there are many ways to cultivate calm awareness. For now, this happens to be the perfect one for me.
Danielle Simone Brand is a freelance writer, focusing on topics of parenting, health, and culture. She lives with her husband, their two kids, and a loud terrier in Boise.