“You, yourself, as much as anyone in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection.” ~The Buddha
Bodhicitta. Metta. Loving-kindness. Compassion. Whatever you call it, this is what spiritual practice is all about, right? Long story short, the teachings instruct us to generate these vast motivations and wishes that all sentient beings be free from suffering and experience true and lasting happiness.
It sounds wonderful, doesn’t it?
So why is it that so many of us are still unhappy, even after years of sitting on the cushion? Why do we still struggle with depression, anxiety, fear, and even self-loathing?
Now, I’m not the first practitioner to point this out, but the main reason is that we forget the most important word in these prayers, aspirations and practices: all.
This, as they say, means you.
This would seem easy, wouldn’t it? To include ourselves in this great wish for limitless happiness seems to be nothing short of the most common sense. After all, you want to be happy, don’t you?
But the truth is, this is very hard for us here in the west. At a very deep and wounded level, we don’t really think we deserve any of that. So even though we might spend a great deal of time thinking about others, we wholeheartedly neglect ourselves.
At least I do.
You see, before I discovered Buddhism and meditation, I was a drug addict. During those twenty-three years of madness, clinging, and sorrow, I hurt a lot of people. But mostly, out of self-loathing and shame, I hurt myself.
When I finally made the choice to give recovery a real shot, I had to begin the long, slow, and always painful process of making amends, not only with my friends and family, but also with myself.
I started this process by making a whole-hearted effort to care for myself. I swallowed my pride and sought out the help I needed.
I went to therapy and recovery meetings. I started to take care of my body through diet and exercise. But most importantly, I learned how to tell myself three simple words:
I love you.
This was the most difficult thing of all, but once I got used to the idea that I was worthy of my own love, I began to get the strange and wonderful feeling that I was becoming my own best friend.
Five years later, I’m still building this friendship and, like any other relationship, it takes work, care,mindfulness, and patience. I have to remind myself every day that despite all my shortcomings, I truly amworthy of love and kindness.
This new relationship with myself hasn’t always been easy. There are still days when the old reflexes kick in.
Without even thinking about it, I find that I’m being too hard on myself and that I’m not giving myself enough room. Then I feel tight and tense as I start to sink and feel that old unworthiness creeping back in.
But over the years, I find that I’m more able to catch myself before I fall too deep down that hole.
Through mindfulness and habituated practice, I’m now able to remind myself of the truth: I’mnot a terrible person. I’m not unworthy. I’m not unlovable. And it’s then that I can begin the relatively easy climb out of a hole that used to always go so much deeper.
This has not been easy, but I’ve found that the practice of loving myself has not been impossible either. And gradually, I’ve realized that all the effort I’ve put into it has been worth every drop of sweat.
So give this a try:
Before you sit down to meditate or do any kind of spiritual practice, find yourself a mirror and a quiet place. Use whatever techniques you know to get yourself into a relaxed state.
Now take a good, long look at the person there in that mirror. Who is s/he really? Look deep into his/her eyes and find the human being there, the person who is, like all sentient beings, just doing the best s/he possibly can.
Be gentle. Be kind. Be soft. Be friendly. And as you do all of that, generate a feeling of warmth and love for that person and tell him or her with all your heart:
I love you. May you be happy. May you be at ease. May you be free from suffering.
Say this again and again, all the while looking deeply into your eyes.
This practice is not always all fuzzy-warmie-happy-time. It’s possible that many hurt feelings, shortcomings, and fears will come up at this point. It’s okay. Cry if you need to, then just let it all go as you remind yourself that you are deserving of love, just the way you are.
We can’t expect to go from wounded to healed and whole overnight. It takes time, work, patience, and a lot of help. We have to put in the hours and make the effort to care for ourselves.
We have to find the ways and methods that work best for us, seeking out the best help, kindness, and guidance that are available.
But if we stick with this practice of loving ourselves, I think we’ll find that we’ve built ourselves a solid foundation for deep and truly meaningful spiritual lives.