There were times years ago when it was simply painful to sit with myself in meditation because I disliked myself so strongly. And that self-hatred would also spill out into my relations with others in the form of intolerance, ill-will, and a preoccupation with judging. Someone who had been practicing quite a lot longer than I had been (I was a relative beginner at the time) suggested that I do a lot more lovingkindness meditation.
So for quite a long time I did the metta bhavana meditation on a daily basis. But somehow even that wasn’t enough, and so I came up with a way of doing the practice that helped me with my self hatred (or low self-esteem, as people call it nowadays).
What I did was to take the first four stages of the practice and apply them to myself. That may seem at first glance like a selfish act, but it wasn’t really. In order to become a more compassionate being I had to learn to live with myself first, and so the question of selfishness doesn’t really arise — in helping myself I was helping everyone around me.
The first stage I did in the normal way — I just wished myself well.
In the second stage of the meditation practice, where we normally cultivate lovingkindness for a friend, I called to mind all the qualities I liked in myself. These were the parts of myself that I was friendly towards. And I’d name these qualities and wish them well.
For example, I respected my own intelligence and so I’d repeat: “May my intelligence be well. May my intelligence be happy. May my intelligence be free from suffering.” I’d do that for the whole of the second stage of the practice, sometimes spending the whole stage on one quality that I appreciated in myself, but more often calling to mind a few different qualities. That seemed to be the most useful way to do the practice — calling to mind as many positive qualities as came to mind. But if I could only think of one thing then I’d wish that part of myself well for the whole 10 minutes or so.
In the third stage, which is generally where we wish a neutral person well, I’d think about qualities that I hadn’t yet developed, and I’d wish those parts of myself well. Those qualities were neutral in the same way as people I haven’t yet met are neutral — they were parts of myself that I hadn’t yet developed a relationship with, just as neutral people are simply people that you haven’t yet established a relationship with. So I might repeat something like, “May my confidence be well. May my confidence be happy. May my confidence be free from suffering.” This stage was pretty easy — there were plenty of qualities that I wanted to develop but didn’t think I had in any great degree. It didn’t matter if I already had the quality to some degree — as long as I felt I needed to develop that part of myself much more than it was developed already then it was suitable for inclusion in this stage.
Sometimes I’d include in the “neutral person” stage qualities of mine that other people had expressed appreciation of but which I didn’t really appreciate much myself. I can’t remember what those were in any great detail, but sometimes someone would tell me that I was friendly, for example, while that wasn’t the way I thought of myself.
In the fourth stage — the stage where we usually cultivate lovingkindness for someone we have difficulty with — I’d call to mind those parts of myself that I didn’t like. I’d say things like “May my ill-will be well. May my ill-will be happy. May my ill-will be free from suffering.” Those qualities were my inner “difficult people.” There was no shortage of these! I found it very beneficial indeed to wish these troublesome parts of myself well. In this stage of the practice some genuine compassion for myself would often emerge.
Lastly, I’d conclude the meditation in the usual way by spreading my well-wishing into the world in wider and wider circles.
So in the middle three stages I was relating to different parts of myself as if they were other people — people I liked, people that were strangers to me, and people I was in conflict with. This seemed to offer a deeper way of working with the practice than the normal first stage, which involved a more general sense of cultivating lovingkindness towards “myself.” It takes that idea of “myself” and deals with it in more detail and deals with it in, I found, a more useful way.
I’ve sometimes suggested when others are afflicted with self-hatred that they take the same approach I did, and so I’m offering up this modified approach to the metta bhavana meditation in the hope that some will find it useful.