self-metta

The thing you may sometimes confuse with true kindness

Someone recently wrote to me sharing his reservations about the use of the word “love” to translate metta. Metta is a Buddhist word that is most often translated as “lovingkindness.”

I confess I used to translate metta as love, and did so a lot in the guide to the metta bhavana meditation practice that you’ll find on the Wildmind website. (This is something I’ll be addressing in an upcoming revision of the site.)

Nowadays I prefer to translate metta as kindness, which is much more accurate and less ambiguous. There are so many different forms of love, aren’t there?

What my correspondent had to say was as follows:

I don’t want to try to cultivate lovingkindness on top of habitual hostility. Sugary frosting to cover over the unpalatable.

It can seem like it is positive, but it leaves a trap underneath which can be triggered. If someone does something averse towards me, no matter how ‘lovingly friendly’ I have been, the trap will trigger into aversion, which sudden switch is very unpleasant and leads to attacking behaviors.

I appreciated this comment about the “sugary frosting” and the aversion that can so easily be triggered toward someone who does something we don’t like. It’s a common phenomenon. You hold open a door for someone and they don’t say thank you, and how do you feel? Many times annoyance arises. You offer someone advice and they dismiss it. Again, this can be annoying. One trigger I’ve noticed in my own life is that if I’m holding something out for a person to take, and they don’t reach out in response, I get pissed off, as if they’re rejecting or insulting me.

I think that a lot of the time when we think they’re being loving and compassionate, we’re actually “being nice.” The primary motivation for being nice is to be liked, which brings pleasant feelings. Being nice is transactional. We’re buying pleasant feelings by getting another person to appreciate us.

But when we get the opposite of pleasant feelings (for example it feels unpleasant when someone doesn’t say thank you or doesn’t accept what we’ve offered them) our instinct is to react with aversion. The person is no longer responding to our “being nice” in the way we want. They longer deserve our niceness. In fact they deserve our displeasure. We need to make them feel bad; they deserve it.

Our previous “niceness” was the “sugary frosting” my correspondent talked about. Our ill will is the “unpalatable, habitual hostility” underlying this.

I believe that this “being nice” is what the Buddha referred to, in Pali, as pema. The Pali-English dictionary translates pema as “love” or “affection.”

The important thing to note about pema is that it’s conditional. The Buddha gave an example of how this can work:

And how is love (pema) born of love (pema)? It’s when someone likes, loves, and cares for a person. Others treat that person with liking, love, and care. They think: ‘These others like the person I like.’ And so love for them [i.e. those others] springs up.

Here our love (pema) toward others is conditional upon them liking someone we like. If those others hated the person we love, the Buddha, said later in the same teaching, we’d generally end up hating them.

This is the “trap” my correspondent was aware of.

The Buddha talked about what happens when one “likes, loves, and cares for a person.” But that person can be us. We can think we’re a person that others should admire, like, and appreciate. And we might do what we can to show that we’re worth of that (including holding open doors, giving advice, and all manner of thing). And when others don’t seem to respond in a way that makes us feel good, we turn against them.

None of this has anything to do with kindness, or metta.

Actual kindness is based on an empathetic understanding that another person’s happiness and unhappiness are as real to them as ours are to us. When we relate to another in this way, we naturally don’t want to act in a way that causes them to suffer. We naturally want to act in ways that support their well-being. We’ll think about what would benefit them. We’ll talk to them in ways that show we care about their well-being and that make them feel affirmed. If we offer criticism, it’s not with a desire to hurt them but to help them feel happier in the long term.

And so if they act in a way that’s averse to us, and that doesn’t make us feel pleasure, and perhaps even makes us experience unpleasant feelings, we don’t seek to “punish” them. We still have their well-being at heart.

True kindness is unconditional. It only depends on our being aware that others are, just like us, feeling beings. It depends on our recognizing that they prefer, just like us, to be happy and not to suffer.

People say, “I’m very good at loving other people, but I hate myself.” And I think that a lot of the time the “love” they feel for other people is pema. They feel a lack of love for themselves, and so they try to be “nice” toward others in the hope that those others will show them appreciation.

Of course you can hate yourself in every waking hour of your day. But there’s only so much affirmation you can get from others. And even if others did show us affection all the time it wouldn’t make up for the lack of love you have for yourself. So you can never feel at ease with yourself by being nice to others, hoping to be appreciated in return.

When others aren’t sufficiently appreciative of you, you might be annoyed with them. But you’ll probably on some level hate yourself even more. Surely the lack of love you’re getting from others is a sign there must be something deficient about you?

My own experience was that it wasn’t until I started to empathize with myself — recognizing that I was a feeling being, and that my own happiness and unhappiness were important to me — that I found I could begin to empathize with others. The difference was quite noticeable: here was I, a feeling being; there was another person who was also a feeling being. My feelings were real and vivid to me; so were theirs to them. Here was I, preferring happiness to suffering; there was another person who also preferred happiness to suffering. Knowing these things, how could I act in a way that disregarded their well-being and happiness?

And it was then that I realized how much of my own “kindness” and “compassion” weren’t actually true kindness and compassion, based on empathy. Instead they were attempts to be nice, and to be liked, based on a lack of self-kindness.

I’m not saying it’s like this for everyone, but it might be the case for you too.

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Seven tips for people who struggle with lovingkindness practice

Photo by Debby Hudson on Unsplash

In the tradition I practice in, lovingkindness (metta bhavana) and mindfulness meditation are considered equally important, and yet my own informal surveys suggest that about a third of long-term practitioners have essentially given up on lovingkindness practice, doing it hardly at all, or skipping it altogether.

Often people have problems with the first stage, which is about cultivating lovingkindness for oneself. They look for (and are often encouraged to look for) feelings of kindness toward themselves. If those feelings fail to appear, they get anxious or despondent, assuming that they’re defective in some way.

In many cases, though, it’s the practice as a whole that they find difficult. Again, feelings of love may fail to appear. And when this happens people can take it to mean that they’re somehow personally lacking in love. That’s, of course, a depressing thing to think about yourself.

So there can be a sense of failure around the practice, which leads to self-loathing. This is of course the exact opposite of what should happen.

I’d like to suggest a few approaches to lovingkindness meditation that can take away that sense of failure, and help make the practice more accessible, effective, and rewarding.

1. Stop thinking of it as “lovingkindness” meditation.

“Lovingkindness” practice is what metta bhavana is commonly known as, but I don’t talk these days about cultivating lovingkindness. Instead I use the much more accessible term, “kindness.” “Lovingkindness” is not part of our natural vocabulary, and it suggests that we’re trying to bring into being something unusual. Using the word “kindness” reminds us that we’re simply connecting with a very familiar, everyday quality. And kindness is what metta is. Both kindness and metta begin with an empathetic recognition that a person is a feeling being who wants to be happy and doesn’t want to suffer. Having recognized this, we don’t want to act in ways that cause them to suffer, and we want to support their long-term happiness and wellbeing.

2. Start by sitting with kindness.

Right at the very beginning, as you settle in to meditate, bring qualities of kindness into how you hold your body. It’s not kind to hold yourself rigidly upright. Neither is it kind to force yourself into a posture that you think is “right” or “cool” but that doesn’t allow you to sit comfortably. Find a way to sit that supports kindness and relaxation. Let your muscles soften, especially as you breathe out.

At the same time, it’s not in your long-term wellbeing to slump or to lie down (unless you have an injury that you need to protect). So you’re aiming to find a balance of uprightness and relaxation. The words “dignity” and “ease” convey this very well. So sit with dignity and ease.

3. Regard yourself with kindness.

We all know how to look with loving eyes. We can remember times that we’ve looked with love at a child, a lover, a friend, or even an animal companion. At the beginning of a session of practice, remember experiences such as those. Notice the quality of your experience around the eyes in particular, and anyplace else they might manifest. Let those qualities persist, especially around the eyes, as you turn your attention inward to your own body. Observe your breathing human, animal body with the same fondness that you would have for a sleeping child or beloved pet. Don’t try to make anything happen. Just let it happen.

Keep checking in with your eyes during the practice. If necessary, recollect again the memory of looking with kindness.

4. Empathy before kindness.

Kindness is based on empathy, but very few people actively cultivate empathy at the start of the practice. What I recommend is the following:

  1. First of all recall that that you are a feeling being. Your happiness and suffering are important to you. In fact these are your deepest concerns. You want to be happy (or to have some sense of wellbeing) and you don’t want to suffer. Feel the truth of this in your own experience.
  2. Recall that it’s often difficult to find happiness, and all too easy to suffer. And so you’re doing a difficult thing in being human. You’re not failing when you suffer; you’re being perfectly human.
  3. Knowing that you’re doing a difficult thing in being human, realize that you need and deserve your own support and encouragement. And the main way to provide that is by wishing yourself well, using “lovingkindness” phases.

You can repeat exactly the same steps for anyone else you call to mind in the practice.

5. Remind yourself that the point of the practice is kindness.

The “lovingkindness” phrases I was taught were, “May I be well. May I be happy. May I be free from suffering.” These tended to give me the impression that the point of the practice was to become happy. But the practice is about becoming kinder. Usually if we become kinder we’ll be happier too, but that’s not the main point. So now I usually say something more like “May I be well. May I be happy. May I be kind to myself and others.” This reminds me, over and over, what the purpose of the practice is. And the word “kind” can be a trigger for kindness. It can remind us of the experience of being kind, and thus bring qualities of kindness into our experience.

6. Give yourself time and space.

It’s not kind to bombard yourself with words, so when you’re repeating the phrases it’s important to give yourself time to digest them. So I’ll usually say one phrase on an out-breath, then take a full in-breath and out-breath, and another in-breath, and then say the next phrase on the following out-breath. This allows your being time to take in what you’re saying.

7. Forget about having “lovingkindness for all beings.”

When I was introduced to metta bhavana practice I was told that the purpose was to develop “universal lovingkindness.” Of course I wanted this to be possible, but it always seemed like a lofty goal. You don’t have to call everyone in the world to mind. In fact that’s impossible.

In the final stage of the practice I go back to the principle outlined in an early commentary, the Vimuttimagga (path of liberation). There the final stage of the meditation practice is described in terms of “permeation.” And so what I do is to permeate my awareness with kindness, so that anyone I encounter, either in the world of the senses or in my mind, will be met kindly. That is what universal kindness is. In other words, anyone I meet or think of will be met with an awareness that they are a feeling being, that they want to be happy, and that they need my support because they’re doing a difficult thing in being human.

If there is anyone around me that I’m aware of, I meet them with kindness. When there are people I’m indirectly aware of—for example if I hear cars or airplanes—then I meet those people with kindness. If I call to mind people from other places, then I meet them with kindness too. I simply embrace with kindness anyone who I happen to encounter with my awareness. So I’m not overwhelming my mind by trying to do the impossible task of wishing everyone in the world well.

So if you’re one of those people who struggle with “lovingkindness” meditation, these are seven very practical things you can do to help your practice go more smoothly.

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Kindness, good. Self kindness, better

I’m standing in the kitchen talking to one of my best friends. We’re both crying. And we don’t have much time.

The kids will be home soon. The visit will end. We’ll be back to communicating sporadically via time zone-challenged texts.

“I’m having this crisis of confidence,” she says. “At work. As a parent.”

“How come you can’t see yourself the way I see you?” I ask.

“I don’t know.”

“Go and see someone. Tell them you need to change the tape in your head. Tell them …

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Don’t try to like yourself. Just be kind to yourself

girl holding flower

The way to get past not liking yourself isn’t trying to like yourself more: it’s being kinder to yourself.

Last week I was having a conversation with a friend who was experiencing loneliness. She said she liked herself, but she also said at one point, “I have a sweet dog in my life. Maybe that’s all I’m allowed.”

I suggested that she might ask herself whether that was something she would say to a friend who was lonely.

You wouldn’t do that, would you? To say to someone, “Maybe the universe doesn’t want you to have anyone in your life but your dog. Maybe you’re meant to be lonely,” would be very unkind and hurtful.

What does liking yourself mean?

First, liking means that something gives you pleasure. You like food that you find pleasurable. You like people it’s pleasurable to be with.

But what does “yourself” mean!

Your self is an incredibly complex thing, full of contradictions. It contains love and hate. It contains patience and anger. It contains compassion and cruelty, ignorance and delusion, intelligence and wisdom, happiness and pain.

“Yourself” isn’t one thing. In liking “yourself” are you liking all of the things I’ve mentioned? Are you finding all aspects of your being pleasurable? Probably not!

Maybe “liking yourself” means that on the whole you like what you see when you turn your awareness toward your own being. But what happens when you are forced to see the uncomfortable stuff, as my friend was? What happens when you see the loneliness and the neediness (as in her case)? What happens when you see harshness and self-hatred? It’s hard to like those things (and I’d argue you shouldn’t). More likely, you’re going to not like them. And that’s going to be a source of conflict and pain.

You might, in order to preserve the sense of “liking yourself,” ignore the parts of you that you don’t like, and end up with a skewed sense of who you are. I don’t think that’s very healthy.

It’s also possible, as my friend found, to “like yourself” (i.e. to find your being as a whole to be pleasing) but be unkind to the parts that of yourself you can’t like. And then, often, people switch to disliking themselves as a whole.

I think we cling to the ideal of “liking ourselves” because we’re aware of the pain that is caused by not liking ourselves (or parts of ourselves). In wanting to like ourselves we hope to find inner harmony — a break from inner strife. The aim is noble.

But I’d suggest that “liking yourself” isn’t a particularly rational aim to have in life. You can like parts, but not all, of yourself, and so we can never have self-liking without self-dislike. In fact, the pursuit of the one, as we’ve seen, can lead to the other.

But you can be kind to all of yourself, including what you don’t like.

You can see the parts of yourself that are hateful, angry, cruel, and deluded, and offer them kindness. You can see your own pain, and relate to it with compassion. And this brings the inner harmony that we try, but fail, to get from liking ourselves.

Being kind to ourselves means developing patience and understanding. It means recognizing that having hate, anger, confusion, etc. isn’t a sign of failure, but simply a part of being human. None of us asked to be born with these tendencies. We all have them. They’re something that we all have to work with. So there’s no point blaming ourselves.

Being kind also means recognizing that harshness and self-blame are counterproductive. We might think that in being harsh on ourselves we’re training ourselves to be better in the future, just as some people think that beating children or animals is “corrective.” But the best examples of child-rearing and animal training tell us that harshness and punishment tends to be counterproductive in bringing about positive change.

Self-kindness doesn’t require us to “like” the more troublesome and destructive parts of ourselves. We don’t have to pretend that they are good for us. And we don’t have to pretend they don’t exist. Self-kindness allows us to accept who we are, not as something fixed, but as something we’re currently passing through on our journey through life.

But how do we cultivate greater self-kindness?

One thing we can do that helps with self-kindness is recognizing that we are not our feelings, and we are not our habits. We are not defined by those things. They’re merely temporary manifestations within our being.

But we can cultivate kindness toward the difficult in ourselves by connecting with some painful habit or feeling, and then doing three things:

  1. We can place a hand where any difficult feeling, such as hurt, anger, or craving is manifesting in the body, and let it rest there tenderly, offering kindness and reassurance. The more primitive parts of our being respond to touch in much the same way as a frightened animal.
  2. We can look with kindness on our difficult habits and feelings, seeing them with loving eyes. You know how unsettling and threatening it is to have someone look at you with hostility, or even with a blank, emotionless gaze? You know how it makes you tense and defensive? The same applies when it comes to observing your own being. Having a kindly gaze (something I teach on my forthcoming guided meditation album) helps us to feel more at ease with ourselves.
  3. We can talk kindly to ourselves. We can say things like “It’s OK not to be perfect. We all mess up. I know you’re suffering, and I wish you well. I just want you to know that I love you and want you to be happy.

These things, done together, constitute a powerful self-kindness practice.

The funny thing is that if you stop trying to focus on liking yourself, and instead place more emphasis on being kind to yourself, you’ll find you experience less self-dislike. Our deepest fear is that we are unlovable, but when we practice self-kindness we discover that there is no part of us that is unworthy of compassion and kindness.

Self-kindness is transformative. It allows us to recognize that we can’t be perfect, and that it’s therefore OK to be imperfect. It allows us the freedom to be patient with our own being as we gently strengthen what is best within us, and as we make the effort to let go of unhelpful habits that cause us and others pain.

And if we can learn to relate kindly to what we find difficult in ourselves, then we find that we become more skillful in relating to what we find difficult in others. The kindness that begins in ourselves does not end there, but permeates all our relationships and our entire lives.

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Lovingkindness: Connection before cultivation

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At the moment we’re fundraising to cover the costs of bringing out our newest CD, “Harnessing the Power of Kindness,” (publication date August 2016) which of course will also be available in MP3 format. We’re asking people to buy a copy in advance to help us pay for the upfront costs. Here’s a link to our Indiegogo crowdfunding page, where you can read about the perks we’re offering to donors.

One of the emphases in the guided meditations on this album is what might be called connection before cultivation. Basically this is the principle that cultivating kindness (or lovingkindness, if you prefer) is easier and more effective when we first connect empathetically with the person we’re wishing well (and that can include ourselves!).

This isn’t the way I was taught to cultivate metta. I was encouraged, more or less, just to connect with my experience and then to start wishing myself, and then others, well.

What I do now makes my practice much more effective and really brings it to life.

I start by empathizing with my deepest desire, which I believe is everyone’s deepest desire: to be happy, or to experience some kind of peace or state of wellbeing. I do this by simply reminding myself, “I want to be happy,” and connecting with the truth of that statement in my experience. Usually at that very moment it’s true that I want to be happy.

Now I empathize with the fact that it’s not easy to be happy. Suffering happens all the time. Happiness is elusive. I do this just by remembering how hard it can be to find happiness.

Put together, these two facts — that we desire happiness and yet happiness is elusive — mean that this human life we live isn’t easy. This is what we’re empathizing with.

This difficulty in navigating a world where we desire and need something that is elusive isn’t a personal failing. It’s an intrinsic part of being human. So I like to say that we’re doing a difficult thing in being human.

Having recognized all the above, I can now see that as I go through life I need support. I need encouragement. I need kindness. And while it’s lovely to receive these from other people, the one person I’m with 24 hours a day is myself! And so “cultivating metta” becomes the act of wishing myself well as I do this difficult thing of being human. This is how empathy and kindness work together.

Without this kind of empathy as a basis, it’s much harder to wish ourselves well.

Having empathized with myself, it becomes much easier to empathize with other people. Everyone else is in the same situation as myself. They all want happiness and find it elusive. They’re also all doing this difficult thing of being human. When I reflect on this my heart becomes tender. Seeing that we’re all in the same existential situation, I want to offer kindness, support, and encouragement to others. And that’s how metta arises.

This is just part of the approach I take on “Harnessing the Power of Kindness.” I’m pleased with the guided meditations on it since they include my latest and most effective approaches to cultivating metta. I’ve been doing this now for over 30 years, and I’m always looking to see what works.

We have 13 days of fundraising left, and we’re getting close to our goal! I’d really like to see this project succeed, and I hope you do too! I do hope you’ll help support this crowdfunded project to help bring more kindness and compassion into the world.

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Be kind to everyone, but trust only those who deserve it

Recently someone asked me what she should do if she couldn’t trust a person she was being kind to. In the past she’d tried to be compassionate to a roommate she didn’t trust, and had even felt herself to be in danger. She didn’t say what the exact circumstances were, but it sounded scary.

Being kind to someone means treating them as a feeling human being who, like us, has a deep-rooted desire to be happy and an equally deep-rooted desire not to suffer. It means empathizing with the fact that happiness is elusive and that suffering is all too common. Bearing these thoughts in mind makes it harder to be unkind to the other person and easier for us to treat them with empathy, kindness, and compassion. It becomes easier to care for their wellbeing.

Trust means knowing or believing that someone can be relied upon. It might mean that they can be depended on to look after our best interests. It could mean that they can be relied upon to tell the truth. It might mean that they can be relied upon to do what they say they will.

I think generally we can in fact trust most people, even complete strangers, but when there’s a history of dishonesty or manipulation, or when you pick up on a bad vibe, it’s best to err on the safe side.

But kindness and trust don’t necessarily overlap. We can treat everyone kindly, but a person may have a track record of not caring for our wellbeing (possibly even of being cruel or exploitative), or of being unreliable, or of being untruthful. Under such circumstances it might be very unwise to trust that person. They simply haven’t earned our trust. They’re not trust-worthy. Trusting everyone is what we call “idiot compassion.”

But you can still be kind to a person who isn’t worthy of your trust. Knowing that they’re a feeling being, you don’t have to want them to suffer. You may have to say or do things that make them unhappy (like saying “no” when they ask if they can borrow money) but you don’t do that with the intention of making them suffer. In fact if we’re being kind we may say “no” to another person because we want them to be happy! We don’t make people genuinely happy by enabling their vices.

I’m not saying, incidentally, that it’s easy not to have ill will for someone we distrust, just that’s it’s possible and that it’s what we should aim to do.

It sounds to me that the woman who asked this question had got herself into an enabling or codependent situation. Not wanting to appear cruel, she didn’t want to stand up to the other person. Wanting to be kind, she didn’t want to say no. But she was confusing trust and kindness.

If we fear that the other person is trying to exploit or harm us, we need to be very careful. Some people want to rip us off or even physically harm us. Sometimes we need need to be kind to ourselves by getting the hell out of Dodge! We should be kind to everyone, but in some cases we should be kind from a safe distance.

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We can teach our brains to feel more compassion

wildmind meditation newsMindful.org: Scientific evidence shows that we can train the brain to feel more compassion—for others and for ourselves.

Another science-based reason to try loving-kindness meditation! In a study conducted at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Center for Investigating Healthy Minds (directed by Dr. Richard J. Davidson, who was featured in Mindful’s August 2014 issue), participants were taught to generate compassion for different categories of people, including both those they love and “difficult” people in their lives.

After only two weeks of online training, participants who practiced compassion meditation every day behaved more altruistically towards strangers compared to another group taught to simply regulate or control …

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For people who hate their bodies

Image adapted from a Creative Commons licensed photograph by reway2007Not many people like their bodies. The typical reaction from looking at oneself naked in the mirror lies somewhere on a spectrum from mild disappointment to outright revulsion, with a bit of disbelief thrown in (how did I get so old? where did those wrinkles come from? where’s my hair gone?)

I had a little epiphany the other day, though. I’d been talking with my girlfriend, who I adore. She’s beautiful. Really beautiful. And she’s also afflicted by doubts about her attractiveness. So when we were talking she was going over some of the things she didn’t like about her appearance (wrinkles, etc) and I’m, like, “I don’t care. I love those things about you. You’re beautiful.” Well, you know what it’s like when you love someone unconditionally. There’s just a complete acceptance of the whole of them. So that’s one thing.

Then I walk into the bathroom to get ready for bed, and see myself naked in the mirror. And a quick series of criticisms of my body flashes through my mind. Some bits are too skinny. Some bits are too flabby, too hairy, not hairy enough… My overall response could be summed up in the word “Yuck.”

And then I caught myself. Why can’t I give myself the same uncritical love that I give to my girlfriend? I mean she thinks I’m attractive, so why can’t I just accept that?

So I started telling bits of my body that I love them. I patted my belly fondly and said “I love you.” I did the same as I touched my thinning scalp. And as I laid a hand on my man-boobs.

And you know something? It feels great saying those things. Criticizing ourselves is almost as painful as being criticized by others, but giving ourselves affection, appreciation, and acceptance is often even more moving than receiving those things from other people, because it’s something we so rarely do. So I’ve been doing this ever since. You might want to try it too.

If there’s an inner voice telling you that this is silly or doubting that you can really love those bits of yourself that you tend not to like, don’t suppress that voice or try to argue with it. Just let the thoughts come and go.

Bear in mind that this is something you might want to repeat often. After all, you might have criticized your body tens of thousands of times, so perhaps it’ll take you a while to get into the habit of doing the opposite. But do try it. I’d love to hear how you get on.

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Why you don’t really hate yourself

MarmorherzLots of people struggle with self-hatred. They find they constantly judge themselves, talk to themselves harshly, and even do things to themselves that are harmful. It’s very painful to be this way.

But I want to tell you: you don’t really hate yourself.

In the deepest core of your being you love yourself. In the deepest core of your being you want everything for yourself that you want for those you hold most dear. In the deepest core of your being you want to be happy, to be well, and to be at peace.

And everything you do — everything — is a strategic attempt to find happiness, wellness, and peace. That’s the motivation behind every action you take, including your acts of self-hatred.

If you hate someone else, your motivation is usually something like this: by being unpleasant to them they’ll go away and not bother you any more, and then you’ll be at peace, and you can get on with being happy. Or they’ll stop doing that thing that annoys you, and then you can go back to being happy.

Those motivations of ours aren’t usually very conscious, because conscious self-examination is a relatively recent arrival in our being, evolutionarily speaking, and so many of our strategies are not clearly thought out, but are automatic and habitual. And so we often use strategies that just don’t work. The person you’re unpleasant to often can’t or won’t go away. They may be unpleasant back at you. And so your strategy to find peace and happiness ends up destroying your peace and your happiness even further.

If you hate some aspect of yourself, then usually the motivation is similar to those above. Maybe you messed up: “Oh god, what an idiot I am!” you yell at yourself, in the privacy of your own head. You treat yourself like a child who needs to be punished so that it won’t repeat an error. You do something good but you tell yourself it wasn’t “good enough.” If you can just be unpleasant enough to yourself, then maybe you’ll stop making mistakes. You’ll do better. Then you’ll be happy.

This is also a strategy that doesn’t work. You can’t find happiness through being harsh on yourself. You can’t create a sense of inner peace through setting up a conflict with yourself. But we get stuck with our failed strategies of self-hating behaviors — repeating them over and over. Hating yourself didn’t work that time? Try a bit harder at hating yourself next time!

But the key thing is that self-hatred is a strategy. And it’s a strategy for meeting a deeper desire for well-being, peace, and happiness. And that deeper desire for well-being, peace, and happiness is the love you have for yourself.

Self-hatred is self-love gone wrong. Self-hatred is your natural desire for happiness expressing itself in a strategy that can never work.

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This is, I hope, encouraging. Because it’s not you, in your core, that’s the problem. It’s your strategies. And you can change your strategies. Strategies, in the great scheme of things, are relatively superficial. When you mess up, you can learn accept that you messed up without recrimination. You can learn that you don’t need to be harsh on yourself to prevent yourself making mistakes. You can learn, as animal trainers well know, that rewards are more important motivators than punishments like harsh self-talk. You can learn to be kind to yourself. You can practice lovingkindness, and learn the arts of being patient, accepting, and kind toward yourself. You can learn to be compassionate to yourself when you’re suffering.

It’s not necessarily easy to do all this. In fact it’s not easy. It even can be very painful in the short-term (we’ll often give ourselves a hard time for giving ourselves a hard time), although in the long-term learning to be kind to ourselves brings great happiness. You can expect a bumpy ride at first. But the only thing more painful than learning new strategies for finding happiness is to keep going with strategies that never have worked and never can.

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Meditation as an act of love

lantern with heart-shaped window illuminated by a candle inside

“Don’t meditate to fix yourself, to heal yourself, to improve yourself, to redeem yourself; rather, do it as an act of love, of deep warm friendship to yourself. In this way there is no longer any need for the subtle aggression of self-improvement, for the endless guilt of not doing enough. It offers the possibility of an end to the ceaseless round of trying so hard that wraps so many people’s lives in a knot. Instead there is now meditation as an act of love. How endlessly delightful and encouraging.”

– Bob Sharples, from Meditation: Calming the Mind

If you’re participating in the 100 Days of Lovingkindness, it’s because you want to become a nicer person, right? I’m right there with you.

Here’s the thing, though. Anytime we take on a practice with a goal in mind, we can get subtly sidetracked. We sit on our cushion and try to feel more warm-hearted. We try to think kinder thoughts. We try putting ourselves in our difficult person’s shoes. All that trying can make us a little tight, maybe even anxious. We’re striving to reach some imagined wondrous state that isn’t where we are now. And that probably doesn’t feel all that good. Or kind.

Hmmm…. what’s wrong with this picture?

What if you dropped all that self-prodding and just loved yourself, as you are? Rather than trying to make yourself into something else, how about just being loving, right now? When we stop reaching for that something else (which is a subtle form of self-flagellation), we can touch down into that “endlessly delightful and encouraging” place. And there you are. There’s the lovingkindness you were seeking.

Meditation isn’t a tool we whip out to help us achieve some goal off in the future. It’s a way of being that draws out our inherent nature – which is aware, warm, open, kind. Can we embody those qualities, right now?

OK, that’s easy for you to say, you might be thinking. What if I’m depressed or don’t like myself? What if I really don’t want to be where I am now?

Well, no matter how bad things are, we all have some sense of what feeling good inside is like, don’t we? What if just for one moment, you set aside all those yammering unhappy thoughts – maybe imagine putting them in a box off to the side – and giving yourself a break from them for even just three seconds. Doesn’t it feel good to stop beating your head against the wall? What if you took a deep breath, and felt what it’s like to relax those tight, wound-up muscles in your body? If you have a dog, go pet him and note how it feels when you get those adoring eyes back at you.

See what I’m getting at? No matter how depressed or unhappy you are, there’s something inside you that knows what it’s like to feel good. Why not go visit that place in your mind and body? What can you do, in this moment, that would be a simple and kind thing for yourself?

And what if those nasty self-critical or cynical thoughts keep intruding? First, you can forgive yourself that they arose. Blame doesn’t belong here at all. But from this moment forward you could choose not to buy into those thoughts so much. How about labeling them as just another thought, and loosening your grip on them a little? Old habits take a long time to unwind. You can be patient. They’ll subside eventually, as long as you don’t indulge them. But remember, NO beating yourself up!

What if you’re ill, in pain, or grieving the loss of a loved one? And you can’t find any way to feel comfortable in your own skin? Then you could imagine how you’d respond if a friend showed up at your doorstep in your current state. What would you do for her? Wouldn’t you want to give her a hug, sit her down, and show her how much you care? How about doing the same for yourself? Can you sit yourself down and give yourself a metaphorical hug? Maybe even have a good cry if that feels good in its own way?

What if you’re bored with your practice? Well, you could ask yourself, what’s the kindest thing I could do for myself right now? Am I falling prey to a habitual tendency to seek distractions? Do I want to recommit to my longer-term intentions? Can I turn my attention in a kind way to something I know feels pleasurable and interesting (as described above)? Or would I prefer to give myself a break today, as an act of kindness, and keep my sit shorter than usual?

So those are some examples of ways to BE kindness, instead of seeking it out. The real challenge of this practice is to find a genuine connection to an experience of gentleness, forgiveness, warmth, caring, and nurturing, — right now, no matter what state you’re in. And the emphasis is on “genuine connection,” as opposed to “find.” True, it might take some exploring and experimenting to figure out what’s most helpful for you. But if you do it with an attitude of warm, open curiosity, that in itself becomes an act of kindness.

When we respond to everything with this sort of soft touch, lovingkindness gets rooted more deeply into our being. It becomes more and more the way we just are. And that’s how we get there without trying.

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