self-metta

In lovingkindness practice, don’t look for love; look with love

mother looking lovingly at her baby

I remember one time, not long after I’d first learned to meditate, I was being guided through the lovingkindness (metta bhavana) meditation practice. And the instructor asked us to turn our attention to our hearts, to find the love there, and then to radiate that love to all beings.

Uh, oh! There was no love to be found in my heart! “Why is there no love in my heart?” I wondered “Is there something wrong with me? Maybe I’m a horrible person. I guess I must be,” I concluded!

Thus began a 20-minute spiral into despair and self-loathing. Probably not what the meditation instructor had in mind.

A few weeks later a friend described exactly the same thing happening to him. I’ve since heard the same story from others.

The central problem here is that we’re looking for the wrong thing, or at least we’re looking for it in the wrong place. We’re looking for some kind of feeling down there, in the body — in the heart, often, where we tend to experience feelings connected with love.

But we should be looking with love, not for love.

Kindness (Love) Is About How We Relate

In lovingkindness practice we’re trying to develop kindness. (You can call it “love” if you want. I’ll sometimes use “love” and sometimes say “kindness.”)

Kindness is an attitude. It’s a way of relating in which we value others’ well-being. You could say it’s a way of regarding or looking — looking with respect, cherishing, and support.

When we relate, regard, or look with kindness, pleasant, warm feelings arise. But those feelings are not themselves kindness. They’re physiological sensations. They’re feelings. They’re nice feelings, but they’re just feelings. They can be important because they help us to value kindness but they’re not kindness.

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But they arise because we’re looking or relating with kindness. If we try to look for those feelings without first relating or looking with kindness (again, call it love if you want) we’re putting the cart before the horse. It’s possible we’ll find those pleasant feelings, but only if we’re relating with kindness already. Or if we’re on the verge of doing so.

Kindness or love (in the sense I’m using those words) are not simply feelings. They’re active desires (or volitions): we desire the well-being of another, for example. We want them to feel happy and at ease, which is why we treat them with kindness and respect, and don’t say hurtful things to them.

Recall Looking With Loving Eyes

When we’re cultivating lovingkindness, what’s much more effective is to connect with the experience of looking with love: of having kind eyes. We can do this by remembering what it’s like to look with love or kindness.

It doesn’t matter what the memory is of, as long as it’s a loving memory. It can be a memory of looking at a child, or a pet, or a lover. Take your pick,

When you recall something like that, you’ll notice that your eyes become permeated with the qualities of love: cherishing, valuing, warmth, softness, openness, gentleness, caring, and so on.

Actually it’s not just your eyes that become filled with those qualities, but your mind. And when you turn your mind toward an awareness of your own being, those qualities become directed toward yourself. You find you’re regarding yourself with warmth, care, cherishing, and so on. Turn your mind toward another person, and those qualities (which are permeating your mind) become directed toward that person.

Looking With Love Rather Than For Love

When we’re doing lovingkindness practice in this way we don’t need to look for love “down there” in the heart. We’re already looking with love from “up here.”

And now, if we bring our awareness to the heart, we may well find that there are warm feelings there too. And that’s great.

Skip the whole part about connecting with kindness, and you’re liable to find little or nothing going on, heart-wise.

If you find that the “loving eyes” thing isn’t working for you, it may well be because you’re unconsciously doing something that’s blocking kindness from arising.

Unblocking Our Love

So you can gently inquire: What could I do, right now, to show a little more kindness?

Maybe that means relaxing physically. Maybe it means smiling. Maybe it means relaxing mentally, so that we’re not trying too hard, not judging ourselves for “not being good enough.” Maybe it means allowing ourselves to be at ease and to be playful.

Let go of those barriers to love, and you’ll naturally become kinder.

Summing Up

In lovingkindness practice, it’s often not a very good idea to go looking for feelings of love in the heart. Start by recalling what it feels like in and around the eyes when you look with love. Then when you turn your attention elsewhere, those feelings are likely to follow, because it’s your attention itself that’s permeated with kindness.

If those feelings in and around the eyes don’t arise, or if they do but they vanish when you turn your attention toward yourself, gently ask yourself what you can do, right here, in this moment to be kinder. Let your attitude soften, and you’ll find you’ve become kinder. And that’s what the practice is about.

Love is not what we look for. It’s what we look with.

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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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Four steps to self-empathy and self-kindness

Karina Vorozheeva on Unsplash

One thing that’s changed my life more than any other is the practice of self-empathy. Simply hearing the term for the first time was a revelation for me, since I immediately recognized that I wasn’t in fact empathetic toward myself. It had never even occurred to me to have empathy for myself. And this was despite the fact that I’d been, at that point, practicing lovingkindness meditation for more than two decades.

My lack of self-empathy showed itself in the way I could be down on myself when I was struggling. I took being unhappy as a sign of failure, as if I was meant to be happy all the time. At one point my not-very-conscious habit of self-blame led to me being overwhelmed by depression, since I was responding to feeling unhappy by making myself feel even more unhappy.

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Over the years, I got better at being understanding toward and supportive of myself. In fact I now see the cultivation of self-empathy as an indispensable prerequisite for cultivating self-metta—kindness toward oneself. And since kindness for oneself is the basis of kindness for others, self-empathy is therefore the foundation of the entire practice of lovingkindness.

Probably the best way to explain self-empathy is to say how you can cultivate it. It’s easier to understand when you see it in action.

1. Recognize Yourself as a Feeling Being

So first, recognize that you’re a feeling being. You are wired to feel. You feelings are important to you. You can override them for a while, maybe even for a long time, but there will be a cost in terms of a diminished capacity to enjoy life, a sense of emotional brittleness, and difficulty in connecting with others in meaningful ways. It’s quite common for us to suppress an awareness of ourselves as feeling beings in the service of pursuing goals like work. Having self-empathy involves accepting that it’s OK to feel.

2. Sense Your Deepest Needs

Next, recognize that, deep down, you want to be happy and want to avoid suffering. This is an instinct that all sentient beings have, and it’s among our most primal instincts. Feelings have evolved as a way of helping us to survive by moving toward potential benefits and away from potential threats. We’re wired to do this, although again we can suppress or ignore those drives, and can see feelings as a source of weakness. Having self-empathy involves having a sensitivity to our emotional needs.

3. Understand That Life Is Challenging

It’s difficult to have our desires for wellbeing and to be free from suffering in a world where wellbeing is frequently elusive, and where various forms of suffering visit us all too commonly. Empathy can involve recognizing that we’re doing a difficult thing in being human. You’re not failing when you’re having a hard time, you’re just being human. You’ve been set up by your evolutionary past.

4. Offer Yourself Kindness and Support

Putting this all together, we start to think of it as natural for us to give ourselves support and encouragement as we encounter life’s inevitable difficulties. As the Rev. John Watson said in the 19th century, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” And who, out of this “everyone,” do you encounter most often?

That person is, of course, yourself.

We’re already offering ourselves a considerable amount of support just by empathizing with ourselves in this way, but there are many ways we can show ourselves kindness. For example I make a practice of talking o myself (usually internally) when I’m having a hard time. The standard lovingkindness phrases—things like “May I be well, may I be happy”—can be useful, but using natural language is even more so. So I might say something like “I know you’re anxious right now, but I’m here for you. We’ve been through this before and we’ve always come out the other side.”

Another way of showing kindness is to have a kindly inner gaze. Think of how you might look at a beloved sleeping child, or a dear pet, or at a lover (not when you’re sexually aroused, but when you’re feeling particularly loving toward them). Sense the qualities that arise in your gaze as you do these things. And then turn that same quality of attention inwards as you observe your own body and feelings. To look at ourselves with this kind of fondness, tenderness, and appreciation communicates a sense of being supported. And when we feel supported we’re better able to weather difficult times.

A third way to show ourselves kindness is through touch. Your first instinct when a loved one is experiencing grief or some other form of suffering may well be to hug them or place a hand on their arm or shoulder. I’ll often just place a hand on my heart. I might do this at the same time as I talk to myself and regard myself with kindness. This is all very sustaining.

Some people assume that developing self-compassion will make you soft. The opposite is the case. Research shows that individuals who have the best developed self-compassion skills are the most emotionally resilient. And learning to turn toward and accept painful feelings is challenging, to say the least.

What I’ve found over the years is that the more I’m able to be empathetic and kind with myself, the stronger is my empathy and kindness for others. Just as I want to be happy, so do others. Just as I want to be free from suffering, so do they. Just as I often need support as I go through life’s challenges, so also do they. And so this sense of empathy for others communicates itself as kindness, which may be expressed simply in the way we look at them, or in words, or touch, or in helpful actions.

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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 …

Read the original article »

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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

heart-shaped stone on a sandy beach, close to the foam of an incoming wave

One of the emphases in my teaching of lovingkindness 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.

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Seeing yourself with loving eyes

Father cherishing a newborn baby

A lot of people have difficulty wishing themselves well, even in lovingkindness meditation. Here’s an approach that might help.

Imagine that you’ve been transported back in time, and you have the opportunity to hold yourself moments after your own birth. How would it be to cradle that tiny body in your hands, to see this small being, newly emerged into the world, so full of potential?

What would you want for this tiny version of yourself? I’d imagine you’d want him or her to grow up healthy and happy, to have the resilience to deal with life’s difficulties, and to be a kind and ethical person.

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What would you feel? Love? Protectiveness? Joy? Care? Awe?

Would you have any anger or resentment against this newborn you? I presume not. Any blame? I doubt it.

You don’t have to time-travel to have this experience. This is what it can be like to have self-compassion and to be kind toward yourself. This is what it can be like to hold your own being in awareness, and to regard it with care, tenderness, and appreciation, to accept yourself as you are, to see yourself as newborn in every moment, to want nothing but the best for yourself.

Next time you feel hurt, or unsure, or anxious, or ashamed, try imagining that the hurt part of you is like a tiny baby that’s in need of reassurance. Give yourself loving attention. Hold yourself with tenderness, with kindness.

When we relate to ourselves in this way, it’s easier to regard others too in a similarly compassionate and kindly way. Self-compassion is not selfish—it’s the first step in being genuinely compassionate to all beings.

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Inviting Mara to tea

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
Some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!…
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
—Rumi

One of my favorite stories of the Buddha shows the power of a wakeful and friendly heart. The night before his enlightenment, the Buddha fought a great battle with the Demon God Mara, who attacked the then bodhisattva Siddhartha Gautama with everything he had: lust, greed, anger, doubt, etc. Having failed, Mara left in disarray on the morning of the Buddha’s enlightenment.

Yet, it seems Mara was only temporarily discouraged. Even after the Buddha had become deeply revered throughout India, Mara continued to make unexpected appearances. The Buddha’s loyal attendant, Ananda, always on the lookout for any harm that might come to his teacher, would report with dismay that the “Evil One” had again returned.

See also:

Instead of ignoring Mara or driving him away, the Buddha would calmly acknowledge his presence, saying, “I see you, Mara.”

He would then invite him for tea and serve him as an honored guest. Offering Mara a cushion so that he could sit comfortably, the Buddha would fill two earthen cups with tea, place them on the low table between them, and only then take his own seat. Mara would stay for a while and then go, but throughout the Buddha remained free and undisturbed.

When Mara visits us, in the form of troubling emotions or fearsome stories, we can say, “I see you, Mara,” and clearly recognize the reality of craving and fear that lives in each human heart. By accepting these experiences with the warmth of compassion, we can offer Mara tea rather than fearfully driving him away. Seeing what is true, we hold what is seen with kindness. We express such wakefulness of heart each time we recognize and embrace our hurts and fears.

Our habit of being a fair weather friend to ourselves—of pushing away or ignoring whatever darkness we can—is deeply entrenched. But just as a relationship with a good friend is marked by understanding and compassion, we can learn to bring these same qualities to our own inner life.

Pema Chödron says that through spiritual practice “We are learning to make friends with ourselves, our life, at the most profound level possible.” We befriend ourselves when, rather than resisting our experience, we open our hearts and willingly invite Mara to tea.

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Facing the demon of self-doubt

Krampus, Santa's demonic twin

Someone wrote to me the other day, asking for advice regarding how to deal with a bout of self-punishing doubt:

I just started regularly meditating about a month ago. I’m scared to continue now though. I had a sudden feeling of self-resentment and I felt it so deeply. I remembered the bad choices I have made in my life and felt so unworthy of love and compassion. I felt unworthy of the meditation itself. I felt like I was the most selfish person in the world. I can’t even begin to describe how painful it was.

What she’d described is what we call the “hindrance of doubt.” There are five of these hindrances, which are mental patterns that stop us from being at ease with ourselves. They are (1) craving, (2) ill will, (3) anxiety, (4) lethargy, and (5) doubt, which is the sneakiest of them all.

Doubt tells us stories that sap our confidence. This woman’s thoughts of unworthiness and of being “the most selfish person in the world” are doubt’s modus operandi. Sometimes the doubts are about our practice, but more commonly they’re about ourselves.

Doubt is the hardest of the hindrances to recognize, because the stories we’re telling ourselves “hit below the belt” emotionally and leave us feeling vulnerable and exposed. We totally believe the stories we’re telling ourselves, and have difficulty questioning their validity.

See also:

It’s very important to learn to recognize the patterns through which doubt expresses itself, and to remind yourself that this is just doubt—that it’s not reality you’re describing to yourself. It’s just a story.

When you do that, you’re less inclined to believe what you’ve been telling yourself. Having a thought like “I am unworthy of love” isn’t actually much of a problem if you don’t believe it, and if you recognize that this is just some frightened part of yourself trying to “protect” you from positive change.

And I do think that the function of doubt is to “protect us.” It may be a fear-based response to some difficulty. By telling ourselves we’re not capable of meeting this challenge, we take away the possibility of failing. It may also arise from a fear of positive change, however. Habits we have that are going to be eliminated act like sub-personalities and try to prevent change from happening. My guess is that this is what was going on with this woman: after a month of meditation, parts of her were fearful of change.

Don’t be afraid of doubt. Recognize that it’s just a story, and don’t take it seriously.

There are huge benefits to doing this. Often when we’ve recognized doubt and chosen not to believe it, there’s an immediate upwelling of energy and confidence in ourselves and our practice. On the other side of doubt lies faith.

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