This post is part of our 100-Day Meditation Challenge.
This week one of my students described how she tends to talk to herself in a very harsh tone of voice — much harsher than she’d ever use with other people. And that’s a very common experience. In our own minds we often describe ourself as “an idiot,” tell ourselves that our actions were “stupid,” or limit ourselves by telling cruel stories about how people don’t like us and how we’ll never be good at the things we do.
We tend not to talk this way to others, or at least to a much lesser extent. Of course if we do there tends to be a backlash. We cause hurt, anger, fear. We probably wouldn’t have any friends and we’d be very unpopular with our colleagues if we talked this way to others as often as we do to ourselves.
Sometimes, though, we do talk harshly others. We feel free to speak in harsher ways to those we’re closest to. Maybe we feel that we can be ourselves, or perhaps we just can’t keep up a pretense of “niceness” for the length of time we’re with our families. Oh, and mostly your family’s not going to leave you if you’re harsh to them. Your children can’t (not until they’re older) and your partner probably won’t because they’ve invested too much in the relationship.
And some bosses feel they can behave this way. They have a power imbalance on their side. And once again subordinates are not likely to walk out of the door; they need the paycheck.
So it’s mostly when we’re with people a lot, and when the other people can’t leave, that we let rip with the negativity.
Well, who else are we with a lot? And who else can’t leave? Ourselves, of course.
I don’t think we ever quite get used to the abuse we give ourselves. I don’t think we ever quite manage to let it slide off like water off the proverbial duck’s back. I think on some level there is hurt, anger, fear every time we berate ourselves. And along with that goes physical tension, and unhappiness.
It’s very interesting when we consciously practice sending ourselves love. Say, for example, you’re meditating and you’re becoming aware of the body. And instead of judging the body for being tense, or for being in pain, or just for not feeling good, we do the opposite and send love to the body. We have what I call a “loving gaze” and look at the body the same way we would look at a sleeping child, or a lover. What happens? Generally the body produces pleasant sensations. There can be tingling, or feelings of energy, or pleasure. Sometimes the pleasure is local, and like a tingling flow of electrical current. Sometimes it buzzes throughout a whole muscle, or group of muscles. Sometimes it shoots around the body, like a firework display. Sometimes it fills the whole body, like a vibrant, pulsating cloud of physical delight.
I think this is the body loving us back. It’s like when a cat purrs when you’re stroking it. The cat is happy to be shown appreciation. And it shows appreciation back. When we love the body, the body loves us back.
Now it might seem odd to talk about the body as if it was a thing that is “not us.” But this is what Buddhism teaches. All of our experiences, and every part of us, is to be seen as “not me, not mine” (taṃ netaṃ mama, nesohamasmi). We think of “the self” as being a unitary thing. And how can a unitary thing relate to itself? But our selves are not unitary. The self is a collective of different parts, different modules, that coexist and cohabit, sometimes cooperatively and sometimes being in conflict. And when one part of ourself sends love to another, the other loves back.
We probably think, on some level, that being harsh on ourself is good for us, that if we punish ourself for “not being good enough,” we’ll start being “good enough.” But if this works at all, it comes at a price. Just as making colleagues or family members fearful, tense, or angry in response to your harshness doesn’t make life pleasant for you in the long term, so making yourself fearful, tense, or angry in response to your harshness isn’t going to bring happiness.
So try loving yourself. Love yourself, and your self will love you back.