May 16, 2013
Self-compassion is not selfish (Day 35)
In his book, Living Ethically: Advice from Nagarjuna’s Precious Garland, Sangharakshita has some advice for those who feel guilty about wanting to be happy. I have to confess that I’d forgotten that it was possible to feel this way…
“How can we wish for the happiness of others if we are alienated from our own desire for happiness?
“Unfortunately, many of us in the West were given to understand when we were young that it is selfish to want happiness for onself, and we therefore feel unnecessarily guilty about wanting it. As a result, we can feel guilty even about BEING happy. ‘After all,’ the perverse logic goes, ‘with all my selfish desires for my own happiness, how could I possibly deserve to be happy?’ This further produces the still more perverse belief that if we are to make spiritual progress, we will necessarily have to subject ourselves to great suffering. Such a deep-down belief that you are undeserving, even basically wicked, will inhibit your practice of the Dharma from the very beginning.”
There are lots of connections with compassion and lovingkindness here, but the main one is the simple point that our kindness and compassion should include ourselves, and so we should learn to embrace our desire for happiness, and our desire to be free from suffering. Happiness here doesn’t mean one single thing, and it’s certainly not limited to going through life with a smile on your face. It includes joy, yes, but also a sense of meaning, and fulfillment, and purpose, and peace — including the peace of accepting being unhappy. We can be happy in the face of our own unhappiness.
Learning to embrace our desire for happiness is something I suggested earlier that we can do as a conscious act as we begin a session of lovingkindness practice. And learning to embrace our innate desire to be free from suffering is likewise something we can contemplate as we begin to cultivate compassion.
When we accept the truth that we want happiness, and that happiness is rather hard to find, that we want to be free from suffering, and yet can’t avoid suffering, we’re connecting with the most vital part of our being — that deep-down drive that gives rise to every action we perform. These desires fuel everything we do.
There’s a sense of vulnerability when we reflect in this way. After all, this being human is not an easy thing. It never has been and never will be. It is hard to wand happiness and freedom from suffering in a universe where happiness is elusive and suffering is almost omnipresent. Accepting vulnerability opens the heart. But there is always some part of us, when we open up to our fragility, that is willing to give us kindly support and encouragement as we go through life. And we all need such support.
And having connected with these truths, having opened the heart, having connected with the part of us that wishes us well, it’s not hard to do the same reflections for a friend, a suffering person, someone we don’t know, a person we have problems with — anyone. Any person we can think about wants to be happy, and finds happiness elusive, wants to be free from suffering and is held captive by suffering. But the miraculous thing is that there is some inherent part of us that wishes them well. There is some part that all of us come equipped with, as part of our evolutionary heritage, that resonates with the sufferings of others, and that wishes freedom, peace, and happiness for them.
It can be painful for many people to come through their resistance and to accept that happiness (whatever that may mean for them) is a worthy and right motivation and goal. There are layers of guilt that have been erected to prevent this very realization, and peeling away those layers can be agonizing. It can be hard to accept feeling vulnerable, for we can confuse being vulnerable with being weak, and so we try to hide our vulnerability from ourselves and others. But when we do so — when we pretend that we’re not suffering, that everything in our lives is sorted, our defenses become an armor that bruises and harms others. We become callous and cold and driven, and we’re unwilling to see the vulnerability of others. At our worst, we despise the fragility of others.
Accepting our own tender and fragile desires to be happy and to be free from suffering is the beginning of true compassion. And in the end there is no self-compassion or other-compassion. There is just compassion:
Looking after oneself, one looks after others.
Looking after others, one looks after oneself.
- The Buddha
Attānaṃ rakkhanto paraṃ rakkhati.
Paraṃ rakkhanto attānaṃ rakkhati.
PS. You can see a complete list all the 100 Days of Lovingkindness posts here.