How to stop being so down on ourselves

I was thinking the other day that perhaps it is no wonder self-hatred is a thing — if we have the inner poison of anger and spend 24/7 with ourselves, we are bound to get angry with ourselves sooner or later! self-hate 1

Someone I know, who btw is fabulous and has literally nothing wrong with them, wrote this to me:

Wow, self hatred, it is what it all comes down to! I make some headway, blessings get in here and there, but that is always what I slap back too. Of course, this blocks everything! I always feel like there is just this huge block to my creativity, imagination, like a numbness that I am increasingly aware of. It’s this, it’s self hatred. When I perceive anything as going wrong, or I say something I wish I hadn’t, or I perceive someone in a way that is not in the best light, I catch myself saying to myself, “I hate myself.” It’s fast, it’s constant. Keep these articles coming.

So, carrying on from Toward an empowered sense of self, I am keeping these articles coming.

To effectively get rid of self-dislike and indeed all delusions, we need to see how our sense of self changes entirely in dependence upon our thoughts. For this purpose it is very helpful to understand the relationship between our experience, view (or sense) of self, intentions, actions, and results/life.

A talented guest writer just wrote about this dependent relationship in this incredibly  helpful article, The meditation game changer. Please read it if you get a chance! I will now attempt to apply the same principles specifically to overcoming being so hard on ourselves.

Stack of pebbles in shallow water with blue sky background

  1. Experience

Our sense of self is shifting constantly, depending on what parts of the body or mind we are identifying our self with, or, to use a technical phrase, imputing our self on.

A person’s so called “basis of imputation” is in general their body and mind or, usually (at any given moment) parts of their body and mind. As my teacher Geshe Kelsang says:

We normally refer to our body and mind as “my body” and “my mind,” in the same way as we refer to our other possessions. This indicates that they are different from our I. The body and mind are the basis upon which we establish our I, not the I itself. ~ How to Transform Your Life (download the free ebook)

We have a body and we have a mind, but we are not a body and we are not a mind. However, even though they are not the same, we make the mistake of identifying our self as our body and mind, conflating the imputed object (the self) with its basis of imputation (the body and mind). For example, if my stomach hurts I may believe, “I am stick-figure-and-clouds-vector-14506555in pain”; and when unhappy experiences occur I may believe “I am unhappy.” This as opposed to “My stomach aches” or “Unhappy cloud-like feelings are arising in my sky-like mind.” 

Maybe this’d be fine and dandy if it didn’t lead to all our physical and mental suffering, over and over again, in lifetime after lifetime. As it is, imputing ourselves on painful experiences is not fine at all. It is the main thing standing in the way between us and inner peace and freedom.

For example, applying this to our sense of a never-good-enough-self, this self or Me is imputed on the basis of self-critical thoughts, which usually have two things in common: they’re very painful, and they’re founded on a feeling or experience that we’re not good enough. They may sound like: “I’ll never amount to anything,” “I’m so lazy,” “I always ruin relationships,” “I should have achieved a lot more by this stage in my life!”, “Look at me compared to so and so, no wonder I keep being passed over!”, “I’m a lousy cook/mom/dad/friend/worker/person.” Etc.

Also the disconnect between the self-imposed pressure to be impossibly perfect (from a worldly point of view) but feeling crummy inside can start at any age. As someone said to me the other day: self-critism 2

In these times, even when I observe my children and their friends (they are about 18 years old), there is so much self-hatred, doubts, and a very strong pressure to make everything PERFECT, to look perfect … sometimes it is overwhelming to observe that tendency. Maybe it’s because of all these Internet platforms, where everything looks perfect… I don’t know.

  1. Sense of self

Identifying ourselves with this painful limited experience/feeling/thought (of not being good enough) leads to a painful limited sense of self. So we need to stop doing it.

First we can check to see what we are holding onto or believing to be our “self”? What is Me? Who is Me? We have this so-called self-grasping ignorance where we hold our me, I, or self to be a fixed limited entity, independent of anything. As Geshe Kelsang puts it in How to Transform Your Life: “The object we grasp at most strongly is our self or I.” We have this sense of me or I somehow lurking IN our body or mind, findable in its basis of imputation. As Geshe Kelsang goes onto say:

This I appears to be completely solid and real, existing from its own side without depending upon the body or the mind.

This self is appearing solid and real, plus it is the only real me and the center of my known universe, so of course I have to serve and protect it.

But am I as solid and real as I appear? That’s the trillion-dollar question. The answer is priceless, in fact, because it will set us free after aeons of mental bondage.

grand canyon

Our sense of self changes all the time. Here’s an example. I was walking down the Grand Canyon last year on a narrow path with a ridiculously steep drop on one side. One moment I was all relaxed, chatting with friends – that was happy-Me, it felt real enough. The next moment a tourist brushed past me with his large rucksack and I found myself about to lose my footing … my sense of me suddenly changed, and that about-to-fall-to-my-death-Me also felt pretty darned real. Then I regained my footing and my sense of me changed into relieved-Me. Also real.

What does that say about our Me? In each of those 3 cases, that is who I thought I was. But if the Me that appeared so solid, fixed, and real actually existed as it appeared, ie, solid, fixed, and real, how could it change? Where did it go? If it existed from its own side, independent of body and mind, how could it vanish from one minute to the next?

But my sense of self did vanish and change — in dependence upon what? My thoughts. The self I thought I saw existing from its own side, independent of thought, was just the product of thought – relaxed thoughts, terrified thoughts, then relieved thoughts. This shows that the fixed or real me was never there to begin with. The self we normally see is a mental image – if we look for a real self that corresponds to the image, or is behind the image, it cannot be found anywhere.

(Meanwhile, everyone else also sees a completely different person when they look at us. My companions on the cliff edge could not see any of those 3 Me’s, which also indicates that those Me’s did not exist outside my view of them.) who are we

So if the self or ego cannot be found anywhere, who are we? Who we are depends on who we think we are which is, as mentioned, changing all the time. Because our thoughts change, who we are changes. Far from being independent or inherently existent, it is the opposite – our self is 100% dependent. Take away the thoughts and it disappears.

Which means we are not fixed. Which is really very good news. We can validly think, “There is nothing solid or intrinsic about me at all. I can and do change in dependence on my thoughts.”

Take away our deluded thoughts, such as our self-loathing, and our deluded suffering self will disappear.

  1. Intentions

Have you noticed how who we think we are determines what we want? If we wake up with negative thoughts about ourself, thinking we’re a waste of space, what do we want to do all day? Nothing edifying! But if we think we are kind, or grateful, or a Bodhisattva, we intend and act accordingly.

Therefore, for as long as we grasp onto a intrinsically limited painful unworthy self, our intentions or wishes will follow suit.

Because we always want to be happy and free from suffering, we feel that the way to do that is by serving and protecting this limited self. So we won’t, for example, attempt things in case we fail, or we crack the whip on ourself for fear that, if we don’t, the disapproval and rejection that seems imminent will become our reality.

  1. Actions

We always try to do what we want. Everything we do depends on what we want or intend. Therefore, these intentions or wishes to serve or protect this limited self in turn lead to actions such as self-sabotage or criticizing others, which may sometimes lead to brief relief, but no release. we do what we want

Even when we do something well, we won’t jump for joy but merely breathe a sigh of relief: we’ve escaped from being criticized or censored. But that relief lasts only until the next expectation presents itself. It’s the perfect setup for anxiety and depression. We are engaged in a self-fulfilling prophecy, a vicious cycle, in which the stress is unremitting.

People with a strong inner critic tend to have one thing in common: however great their success, they don’t feel it’s genuine. The inner critic won’t let them see their past achievements as ‘real’ for fear that, if they do, they’ll slack off and end up failing. So they may push themselves more, with diminishing returns, driven more by fear of failure or judgment than by inspiration.

We really don’t need to be hard on ourselves — our delusions are already doing a fabulous job at that. It’s one reason we still feel so stuck in samsara, even though we have everything we need right now to get out.

  1. Results/Life

 self-hateThese actions in turn create our life. We are reinforced in our lack of self-esteem, believing that self to be limited, in pain, and in need. It is a vicious cycle and, if we’re not careful, our whole life can go by like that.

Not to mention that each of our mental actions or intentions leaves a karmic potential in our root mind for similar experiences and tendencies in the future, leading to a longer-term and even more vicious cycle.

 Summary

 To summarize, this is all stemming from a painful experience that, because we identify with it, leads to a limited painful sense of self. This self doesn’t actually exist, there is just a mental image of it; but, believing that it does exist, we wish to serve and protect it, and then we act upon those wishes or intentions. Because we act upon them, we get the same results, the same underwhelming life, which in turn brings us more painful experiences and reinforces our limited sense of self.

We need to step out from under the dark shadow of these ignorant, self-destructive thoughts and actions. How? By shining the light of wisdom, wherein these dark shadows will have no choice but to disappear. More coming up in the next article.

Over to you … have you suffered from self-doubt or self-criticism? Do you recognize this process? Your feedback is very welcome.

Related articles

Saying bye bye to the painful limited self

Feel free to change your mind

Change our thoughts, change our world

 

 

 

The meditation game changer

A guest article. After great conversations with this long-term meditator and friend, I requested him to write an article on this subject. He kindly obliged. Hope you like it as much as I do.

8.5 mins read.

Road Warning Sign SeriesDoes any of this sound familiar to you? Maybe we’ve tried to change our view of ourselves, relating to our potential to change, our Buddha nature no less! We’ve been inspired by the Buddhist books and teachings, even meditated on them, yet we still feel stuck in a view of ourselves as someone who is fundamentally not changing and who lacks any real spiritual potential.

Something has been on my mind for some time now, which is why it is that we can sometimes be practicing meditation and Dharma for years but still feel we are not that much further along from when we started. And more importantly, is there a simple change we can make with the power to accelerate the process of deep and lasting spiritual transformation that we want? The answer is, thankfully, a resounding yes!

What’s going on

Perhaps without truly changing our view of ourselves, we are still trying to cultivate new intentions to live a more spiritual life. We have the intention to meditate daily and deeply, to be more consistently accepting, loving, and compassionate. Yet we never seem to quite get around to it, or at least never fully. Intention becomes “I intend”, ie, later, tomorrow!

With no genuine change in our intention, perhaps we are still trying to encourage or indeed force ourselves to change our actions. Maybe on the surface we try to act more like what we think a good Dharma practitioner or even a Bodhisattva should act like. Yet discouragement 1we find ourselves feeling stuck in habits of repression, distraction, worldly concerns, and many of the deluded and self-centered patterns of behavior we have always had, and increasingly desperately want to be free of.

In this way, our way of life can come to feel not that different to when we started out on our spiritual journey, with one notable exception: we now have the added burden of growing discouragement, feeling like a failing spiritual practitioner!

Why we can feel like we’re not really changing

A simple understanding to explore – helping us shed light on this problem and illuminate the solution – is that our present experience of life is what Buddha called a dependent-related phenomenon.

My teacher Geshe Kelsang says:

The definition of dependent related is existing (or established) in dependence upon its parts.

Meaning that, if it exists, it exists in dependence upon something else.

Now, consider this simple dependent-related sequence. From our experience comes our view, from our view comes our intention, from our intention come our actions, and from our actions comes our life. In this moment in time, our life exists in dependence upon these causes and conditions, not independent of them.

Our experience of life then reinforces our view, intention, actions, and life, in what is either a limiting and downward spiral or liberating and upward spiral of dependent-related change and transformation. This applies to all areas of our life, spiritual or otherwise.

Are you a swimmer?

As a simple example, if someone asks us ‘Are you a swimmer?’, our instinctive answer will very much depend on our experience. If we have previously tried to swim a few times or more, and it didn’t go well, naturally our view of our self (if not challenged) will be that we’re not a swimmer. Due to self-grasping ignorance we deeply identify with this belief as if it’s who we really are, inherently. In dependence upon this view, our intention and actions will naturally be to avoid swimming at all costs.

Without changing our experience, this downward spiral of limitation will continually reinforce itself, each time deepening our limiting self-identification and way of life, the life of a non-swimmer.

If we want to become a swimmer and try to change only our view, intentions, or actions without changing our experience, ultimately we will fail. This is simply because our attempts at change will be continually undermined by our default and deeply entrenched limiting self-identification: “At the end of the day, and no matter what I or anyone else says, I am just not a swimmer! Inherently!” Everything else will naturally flow from this.

The game-changer

happy-girl-swimmingTo transform this situation, and our lives, the solution is as simple as it is profound. All we need to do at the beginning is make a simple change in this dependent related sequence – which is to change our experience. We learn how to swim properly, then relax, and gradually gain consistent experience of swimming. All other positive changes will naturally flow from, and in dependence upon, this change.

In dependence upon this new experience, our view of ourselves will naturally change – we will start to identify ourselves as someone who is a swimmer.

In dependence upon this new view, our intention and actions will gradually and naturally change – we will find ourselves wanting to swim and doing it regularly and joyfully. As a result, our experience will get better and better.

In dependence upon this new and growing experience, view, intention, and actions, our life over time will become the life of a confident swimmer. A new liberating and upward spiral of positive change and transformation is established and continually reinforced on every new iteration. In this way, we elevate and accelerate this process of change.

How to elevate and accelerate our spiritual path

How can we apply this understanding to elevating and accelerating our spiritual path? The key is this: if we feel we are not really progressing spiritually, it is NOT because we are incapable. If we check, more likely than not we are trying to change our view, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso teaching 3intention, actions, and way of life without giving ourselves the time and space to immerse ourselves in that first and critical step, experience!

As Geshe Kelsang says:

Unless we make some time every day to meditate, we will find it very difficult to maintain peaceful and positive minds, and our spiritual practice as a whole will suffer. ~ The New Eight Steps to Happiness 

Conversely, if we do make some time every day to meditate, we will find it increasingly easy to maintain peaceful and positive minds, and our spiritual practice as a whole will flourish.

Start with peace

The essence of what is being explored here is how we can approach ALL aspects of our Dharma training for it to flow more naturally and effortlessly. Whether it’s building deep and stable refuge in our hearts, or gaining authentic experience of all the stages of the spiritual path of Lamrim, Lojong, or Mahamudra, we can use this approach to elevate and accelerate these trainings.

However, for the purposes of this article, let’s start with the simplest meditation and experience of peace. At the beginning of our daily meditation session – no matter how brief or extensive – we are encouraged to use a preparatory practice such as breathing meditation, absorption of cessation, or clarity of mind to help us gradually center in a calm, clear, and peaceful mind.

The key is, once we calm the mind and experience a noticeable degree of inner peace – even if it’s only a little bit — we give ourselves permission to take as much time and space as we need to abide with, and absorb more deeply into, that experience of a peaceful mind.keep calm and change the game

If you are anything like I was in the early years of my training in meditation, this preparatory stage felt more like an item on my to-do list before I got on with the rest of my sadhana.

I felt there was a lot I had to get through – before leaving for work – to fulfill my daily sadhana commitment, not realizing for some time that meditation can never be about ‘doing,’ rather it’s about ‘being’. Being absorbed in, and dynamically engaged with, an experience in our heart at every step from the moment we sit down to meditate and beyond!

Through giving ourselves the time and permission to abide and absorb a little in this way, we establish the experience of a relatively open, expansive, and peaceful mind. We then turn our attention to that experience and, crucially, identify with it as our innate and indestructible potential for great peace and happiness, our own Buddha nature.

This experience of peace alone does not transform our lives. However (1) the experience of inner peace that is associated with (2) the heartfelt wisdom insight that this is the peace of my own Buddha nature, my pure potential for the supreme and lasting peace and happiness of enlightenment, is the very basis for all deep and lasting spiritual transformation. Dharmavajra

Allowing ourselves to abide in that experience every day before, during, and after our meditation session is a key component to success in Dharma training. As a result of our increasing familiarity with this experience and correct self-identification with our Buddha nature, our view of ourselves will gradually and quite naturally change.

If we are feeling a little, or a lot, stuck in our spiritual life, it simply indicates that we currently lack this basic familiarity. As a result, we try to practice on the basis of our present default experience and view, which happens to be an ordinary limited self who isn’t changing, indeed can’t change.

This growing familiarity with our own Buddha nature is one we can all gain, and it will open the door to a whole new perspective on how we approach our Dharma practice. Instead of feeling like we are practicing in abstract, going through the motions in the hopes of some future “Aha!” moment, we will come to view our practice as a here and now dynamic and experientially-based engagement with our own path or journey.

In dependence upon this new view of our extraordinary potential, our intention will move from ‘I intend, tomorrow’ to the intention that is moving our mind Pagmacontinually and spontaneously to the full actualization of this pure potential; and over time not just for ourselves but for others as well.

In dependence upon this deepening intention, our actions will be increasingly in alignment – they will become the actions of someone who is joyfully dedicated to accomplishing this goal, coming from the confidence that I have the potential and that this is what I and others need.

Ultimately, this liberating and upward spiral of positive change will transform into the view, intention, actions, and life of a Bodhisattva – what is known as the Bodhisattva’s way of life – until one day we definitely realize our highest potential of enlightenment.

Over to you – comments and questions are welcome for this guest author.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Toward an empowered sense of self

5.5 mins read.

Buddha is not saying that we don’t have faults and limitations because of course we do (well I do); and we need to identify what these are if we are to have any hope of getting rid of them.

Carrying on from this article, Being kinder to ourselves and others.

If we are honest with ourself, we will recognize that at the moment our mind is filled with defilements such as anger, attachment, and ignorance. These mental diseases will not go away just by our pretending they do not exist. The only way we  can ever get rid of them is by honestly acknowledging their existence and then making the effort to eliminate them. ~ How to Transform Your Life

Identify our faults without identifying with them

self-criticismHowever, there is a world of difference between identifying our faults and identifying WITH them. Sure we need to improve, but we can’t improve at the same time as feeling bad about ourselves, or guilty, because this is creating a negative self-fulfilling prophecy.

Try picking up a glass of water. How heavy is it? Not very? Okay, hold it for 5 minutes. How heavy is it now? Hmmm.

In the same way as water becomes heavy if we don’t let it go, similarly our bad feelings become heavy and guilty if we don’t know how to let them go. It is possible to admit to our mistakes without feeling guilty. Guilt holds on. It keeps us stuck. It comes from a fundamental lack of self-acceptance.

We need to let go of our delusions not because they are inherently bad or because they make us inherently bad, but simply because they make us and others unhappy. As Geshe Kelsang says:

Just as mud can always be removed to reveal pure, clear water, so delusions can be removed to reveal the natural purity and clarity of our mind.

Spiritual bypassing

Geshe Kelsang talks all the time about our innate purity, our Buddha nature, and our need to identify with it; but sometimes people don’t pick up on this, which is partly why I’m writing these articles. The other day someone in Germany pointed out, accurately I think:

Western people are different. Like you described it in the article, we learned always to put the blame on ourselves. Perhaps because of that Christian tradition (or what the church made of it), you’re guilty, small, and so on. I don’t really know. When we follow the Buddhist spiritual path we learn so much about delusions, uncontrolled minds, negative karma, and so on; and we are always told to purify our bad baaad karma, to tame our monkey mind. This is all clearly necessary. But I often ask myself, how can we love others honestly if we don’t take the first step to accept ourselves? We need more teachings on self-compassion.

burdenWithout skill, spiritual practitioners can indeed beat themselves up with guilt and feeling small while “pretending” to be good Buddhists or Christians or whatever – and this disconnect eventually leads to hypocrisy, or burnout, or abandonment of their spiritual practice. People can even use their Tantric practice as pure escapism from an unworthy sense of self, completely missing the point. It is no accident that one of our commitments as trainee Bodhisattvas is to “avoid pretension and deceit;” and I would argue that this is highly useful when it comes to talking to ourselves.

Buddha has covered this lack of self-worth from every angle. For example, I think renunciation is deep love and compassion for ourselves; we want true and lasting happiness and freedom for ourselves. However, here we are talking about our pure potential-filled self — not the painful, fixed, limited self held by self-grasping and self-cherishing, which in any case can never be made happy because it doesn’t exist.

And Geshe Kelsang is very clear about never identifying with our delusions, but always with our pure nature so that we can feel happy with ourselves while overcoming our faults. For example, as it says in How to Transform Your Life:

While acknowledging that we have delusions, we should not identify with them, thinking, “I am a selfish, worthless person” or “I am an angry person.” Instead we should identify with our pure potential and develop the wisdom and courage to overcome our delusions.

self-likingHow could it be put more clearly? Moreover we come to experience extraordinary self-confidence and happiness with ourselves as a Bodhisattva and blissful Tantric Deity, if we learn how to do it right. In Tantra, we totally identify ourselves with the result of our spiritual practicereality itself, the bliss and emptiness of a Buddha’s mind — and work to overcome our faults in that light, never while identified with a small intrinsically ordinary self that doesn’t even exist.

Becoming someone we like

From letting go of our painful thoughts in breathing meditation, as mentioned in this article, we can then go onto see that there is nothing fixed or immutable about us — through changing our thoughts, choosing better, wiser ones, we can become whom we want to be. Buddha and his followers have been saying this forever, and research abounds these days on the impact of positive vs negative thinking on ourselves and others, and the fact that we have the potential to transform ourselves by changing our habits of mind.

We can, for example, ask ourselves what advice we’d give to a good friend if they were suffering from the same low self-esteem, and then start to take that advice ourselves. We can even observe ourselves through the eyes of enlightened beings and Bodhisattvas who know the truth, that we are not our delusions, that we are basically great and full of potential – as it says in How to Transform Your Life:

It is because they distinguish between delusions and persons that Buddhas are able to see the faults of delusions without ever seeing a single fault in any living being. Consequently, their love and compassion for living beings never diminish.

A healthy sense of self

empowered selfWhat we really need to do is to reidentify who we think we are, which is called in Buddhism “changing our basis of imputation.” We can change our sense of who we are from someone who is inadequate to someone we really like and respect. Then we can enjoy our own company all day long, encourage ourselves to do great things, and like and respect other people more.

We need to develop a healthy sense of self, an empowered sense of self, based on something genuine.

To do this, it’s really very helpful to understand the relationship between our experience, sense of self, intentions, actions, and life. That next installment is here, How to stop being so down on ourselves.

Meanwhile, over to you! Please keep the feedback coming, it’s been helpful. 

Related articles

Silencing the inner critic

How much can a person really change? 

The relevance of inner peace

 

 

 

Being kinder to ourselves and others

7.5 mins read.

I thought we’d start by looking at why we really need to do something sooner rather than later about this inner critic — or inner bully — which is always putting us down.

not way to relate to potential
Not the way to look at our potential.

Carrying straight on from Silencing the inner critic. 

As part of anger, it is a toxic inner poison, so no wonder it leads to so many problems. Anger is a distorted unrealistic mind, so how can it serve any useful purpose?

Destroying our confidence, self-dislike and over-critical self-judgment blocks our creativity and inspiration, and therewith can sabotage not just our careers but our spiritual practice.

It deadens our relationships – keeping us trapped in relationships where we might put up with the other person criticizing or abusing us, because we feel we “deserve” it.

A quick Google search shows that it leads to shame, sadness, self-doubt, fear, hopelessness, irritability, frustration, and learning and memory problems. We get depressed, suffer from lower energy, experience constant anxiety, and engage in self-destructive behaviors. For example, if we believe we are hopeless and cannot stick to a diet, we may just as well eat those six donuts – it’ll provide temporary relief at least!self-hatred like cancer

We become our own worst enemy, but it doesn’t stop there – it can make us criticize and complain about others as well, making enemies of them. This can be because, when we are feeling irritable, everything appears irritating. Then people don’t like us and we end up liking ourselves less too, in a negative spiral.

Constantly complaining about others or ourselves is bad for our mind and for our body (Google it!). Experiencing anger and frustration causes our body to release the stress hormone cortisol, which contributes to higher blood pressure and cholesterol, a weakened immune system, and the risk of diabetes, heart disease, and obesity. Need I go on?!

Putting others down can also be an attempt to distract ourselves from our own perceived inadequacies, or an attempt to bolster our own self-esteem. If we liked and valued ourselves, would we really need to put others down to raise ourselves up? No self-respecting person actually feels the need to do that.

Toward a healthier society

Collectively, I would submit, a lack of self-respect and self-liking has led to a painful lack of respect and liking for others on a societal level. This incredible new documentary on PBS recently examines the century following America’s Civil War, and has affected me quite deeply. (If you live outside the United States, it is available for purchase on DVD here.)

Reconstruction

Among many other things, this 4-part series shows me how oppressing or dehumanizing other people to deal with our own feelings of inadequacy leads to frightening hypocrisy, self-deception, and societal problems; and how it is little wonder that so many African Americans experience not just less opportunity but also report to feelings of low self-esteem, given this nation’s long violent history of systemic racism. This documentary has given me a far clearer picture of the factors at play in many of the problems faced in America today.

In a section on overcoming self-cherishing in The New Eight Steps to Happiness, Geshe Kelsang says:

It is often so painful to admit that we have faults that we make all manner or excuse rather than alter our exalted view of ourselves. One of the most common ways of not facing up to our faults is to blame others.

America has a lot of amazing qualities and I love it, but I have been thinking how white-washing our history is not helping us to stop demonizing each other, let alone to love and respect one other; which we need to do if we are to have any hope of a fair and peaceful society. I was not brought up here so it may be less surprising that much of this documentary was news to me, but I watched it with an African American friend who told me that he learned very little of this history of slavery and its aftermath in school in Texas. Other American friends, black and white, old and even young, in the south and in the north, have also told me that the US educational system has been highly selective with its facts about the Civil War and Reconstruction, that they were fed a lot of propaganda. But until this history is widely explained and acknowledged, I can’t see how it can go away.

dirt under carpet

We need to acknowledge our delusions in order to overcome them, otherwise we are fooling ourselves, as it says in Eight Steps, …

… like pretending that there is no dirt in our house after sweeping it under the carpet.

I was struck in Berlin’s monuments of how owning the faults of the past has allowed people to learn what not to do moving forward, to claim back some self-respect as a society, to heal, and to move on. What’s to stop us doing something similar in America?

The past is like last night’s dream, it has gone. So I don’t see all this so much as sorting out a solid, real past so much as using the past as a mirror for recognizing the patterns of thinking and behaving that are still alive in us today, so we can deal with them in ourselves and in our society. If we look in the mirror and find there’s nothing to fix, that’s great; but I think there is value in looking. Or else, you know what they say about history repeating itself??!

In terms of making external improvements to our society, people come up with different ideas, political or otherwise, some more effective than others. If we use Buddha’s teachings, known as Dharma, to solve our inner problems – in this instance, solving the problem of self-hatred and low self-esteem – I reckon that this in turn will make our outer actions more successful and compassionate wherever we stand on politics. mirror to the past

Anyway, this is a deep subject to wade into, but, like I say, the documentary has been eye opening; so I just wanted to throw some of my thoughts out there to continue a conversation about how Buddha’s radical ideas can help society.

What’s the Buddhist solution to self-loathing, then?

It doesn’t work to push these self-critical thoughts away or suppress them any more than it works to squish a jack back into the box and expect him to stay down. We can’t just tell ourselves to shut up. So what can we do?

In a similar way to dealing with anger directed toward other people, we can follow this advice from How to Solve our Human Problems:

To solve the problem of anger, we first need to recognize the anger within our mind, acknowledge how it harms both ourself and others, and appreciate the benefits of being patient in the face of difficulties.

First off, of course, we need to become aware that those critical thoughts are there and that they are harming us and others, but without panicking. We are not our thoughts. We are like pure boundless sky. We can learn to patiently accept what is going on with our thoughts with a view to letting them go.

clouds in skyAs explained more in this article, we have thoughts, ideas, memories, etc; but we are not these. You’ve heard of all that mindfulness-based stress reduction therapy that’s around these days? It is based on Buddha’s wisdom that we are not our thoughts.

In Great Treasury of Merit, Geshe Kelsang explains about examining our thoughts as a precursor to meditation practice:

Sometimes the mere act of examining the mind, if it is done conscientiously, will pacify our distractions. At the beginning our mind is very much orientated towards external phenomena and we are preoccupied with worldly affairs, but by bringing our attention inwards to examine the mind it is possible that these conceptual distractions will cease.

It’s very interesting and revealing to turn our attention from outward to inward. Try it and see. It doesn’t take long to notice that, after all, we are not our thoughts. There is space there, space between us and them. I don’t have to follow them, I don’t have to be helplessly swept up by them, I don’t have to identify with them, I don’t even have to think them. How is it possible to let them go? Because they are just fleeting thoughts and they are not me. I can let them all go, for example using a breathing meditation or dissolving them back into the clarity of the mind from which they arose.

This is just the first step — there is more here about how, with this as a first step, we can develop a more empowered sense of self.

Over to you … there are 4 more articles in the pipeline already written, including this one; but I can incorporate your feedback if you leave it for me in the comments below.

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Silencing the Inner Critic

6.5 mins read Happy Easter everybody! It’s a good time to slough off any stale self-limiting sense of self and arise as someone altogether more incredible. I hope this article helps with that. For starters, how much do you like yourself?! Someone told me she was dismayed recently to hear her 5-year old express self-doubt … Continue reading “Silencing the Inner Critic”

6.5 mins read

Happy Easter everybody! It’s a good time to slough off any stale self-limiting sense of self and arise as someone altogether more incredible. I hope this article helps with that.

low self-esteemFor starters, how much do you like yourself?!

Someone told me she was dismayed recently to hear her 5-year old express self-doubt and self-loathing. She was trying to figure out how he came to feel that way given that she is always trying to encourage him; but we agreed that these days self-doubt is prevalent and can be picked up anywhere, including by kids.

This young mother went onto say that she herself suffers from low self-esteem so he may be picking it up from her.

Do you ever feel overly self-critical? Do we all feel like that sometimes? Most of us are not immune to identifying with a painful, limited sense of self and experiencing a resultant self-loathing.

Where does it come from?

I am going to come up with a few theories here, numbered a-d. Please feel free to add to these in the comments.

 a. External conditions

Being overly self-critical can come from other people criticizing us a lot and us internalizing that feeling of unworthiness. It could have started in childhood with an influential adult in our life saying stuff like, “Shame on you! There’s something wrong with you! You’ll never amount to anything.” And, not knowing better, we then started to repeat those insults in the first person.shame on you child

It could arise from cultural or societal put downs, such as racism, sexism, or homophobia, where again we internalize these harsh voices and repeat these narratives to ourselves.

Self-criticism can also come from life events we find hard to deal with — for example, if we are fired we might feel unworthy and useless, letting our job (or lack of it) define us. If we are rejected we can feel unlovable because the person we love doesn’t love us back  and, internalizing this, we conclude it must be our fault.

b. Repetition

Whatever conditions encouraged it, self-criticism is negative self-talk that gets stronger with repetition.

In 2005, the National Science Foundation published research on the number of thoughts we have, concluding that the average human being has about 12,000 to 60,000 thoughts per day. And, get this, they also concluded that about 80% of those thoughts are negative and 95% are exactly the same repetitive thoughts as the day before!

The person who pointed me to this statistic asked me whether training the mind in meditation meant that we switched out those 60,000 negative or uncontrolled thoughts with 60,000 positive thoughts. Pondering this, I would say that we don’t have that many thoughts once we start training in concentration and finding our happiness in peaceful, positive states of mind. For example, we can learn to stay focused on love all day. What do you think?overthinking

This as opposed to the young multitasker with the split-screen, thoughts flitting all over the place – “what number shall I put in this Sudoku box? Which email shall I reply to now? Do I even like this music? Who’s that texting me? Why did he say that to me? Will I ever get a job I like? I’m hungry” – amounting to surely tons of thoughts in even the short time I was covertly observing her. The number of thoughts we have, I would wager, is going up every year as our mind becomes more and more outward orientated, constantly seeking happiness in a multiple of things outside ourselves.

Buddha called an uncontrolled mind a “monkey mind” precisely because it’s jumping all over the place from one object to the next (as well as grabbing stuff or chucking it around). Our mind can only focus on one object at a time – so in multi-tasking the mind is simply moving rapidly from one object to the next and back again. Distractions and over-stimulations like these are literally the opposite of concentration, a single-pointedness in which we focus on one object at a time, eventually for as long as we like.

Add to all this the discovery that 9 out of 10 thoughts are reportedly out of our control and you can see why we have a problem on our hands. Is it any wonder that our uncontrolled, repetitive, negative, over-thinking monkey mind is causing us to feel bad, mad, or sad all day, and in life after life? Including all those repetitive self-bullying thoughts!

c. Anger directed inwards

Self-dislike or self-hatred is actually part of anger, anger directed inwards, which exaggerates our faults and edits out our good qualities. We are talking to ourselves about ourselves in ways and at a rate that we’d quite possibly never put up with from someone else. If someone was following us around all day telling us we were hopeless, we could at least lock ourselves in the bathroom for a few minutes respite. Not so much when we are doing it to ourselves.

In How to Solve our Human Problems, Geshe Kelsang gives the definition of anger:

Anger is a deluded mind that focuses on an animate or inanimate object, feels it to be unattractive, exaggerates its bad qualities, and wishes to harm it.

Then he explains how this works in terms of being directed toward someone else, giving the example of a partner; but I think it also works just as well with anger directed toward ourselves, so I’m going to use his words but switch out partner for ourself.

For example, when we are angry with ourself, at that moment we appear to us as unattractive or unpleasant. We then exaggerate our bad qualities by focusing only on those aspects that irritate us and ignoring all our good qualities and kindness, until we have built up a mental image of an intrinsically faulty person.

self-hatredThat self we are relating to is a mental image. That’s it. There is nothing actually there. There is nothing behind that image. It is a reflection of our thoughts. The sooner we realize we keep projecting mental images of a painful, limited self and believing they are solid, the sooner we will be free not just from self-anger but from all delusions and suffering.

We then wish to harm ourselves in some way, probably by criticizing or disparaging ourselves.

Naturally, if we have set our self up as the problem, the only way to get rid of our problem now is to somehow belittle or get rid of this dislikeable self. But how is that supposed to work?!

Self-dislike arises from inappropriate attention, which means that it is not relating to something or someone who actually exists, but to an hallucination, a projection. Anger edits out everything good about ourselves, leaving all redeemable qualities on the cutting room floor, because it can only sustain itself by focusing on faults. As Geshe Kelsang puts it:

Because it is based on an exaggeration, anger is an unrealistic mind – the intrinsically faulty person it focuses on does not in fact exist.

This is why we cannot solve the problem created by anger with anger itself. Anger only sees faults, so as soon as a solution or redeeming quality appears, “Oh, I’m not so bad! I’m quite nice really!”, anger starts to fade away.

 d. Ego-grasping

We can see from this that at root, self-criticism, like all anger and other delusions, grows from ego-grasping — projecting and then believing in a distorted sense of self, believing it is inherently existent or real. In this case the distortion is a sense of an intrinsically unworthy or dislikeable self, whom we consequently dislike and put down. Luckily, thanks to Buddha’s deep and eminently practical psychological and spiritual insights, this is something we can remedy.

Next installment is here.

Update: A quick request to those of you who are leaving great comments on this article on Facebook — please leave your feedback here as well so I can address it or use it in the next 4 articles 😃 (Yep, 4, already in the pipeline.)

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Pausing in the pursuit of happiness to be happy

9.5 mins read.

elephant in water.jpegSetting some time aside for a relaxing meditation session every day, even 10 or 15 minutes, is likely the quickest and most effective way to start mastering our minds (aka choosing our thoughts).

Carrying on from this article, Getting started with mindfulness.

And we can think of it more as a mini-vacation than yet another onerous commitment. Effort in meditation is likened to an elephant plunging into a lotus pool to find relief from the heat of the midday sun. In other words, meditation doesn’t have to be another item on an already over-subscribed to-do list — it is more like the space between items. If we take this time, we’ll find our to-do list a lot more manageable because feeling busy is a feeling, a state of mind.

I think pretty much most people can find 10 to 15 minutes in the day for concerted spiritual practice? It is true that we have a lot of stuff on, but I still don’t think we are always too busy to meditate so much as too distracted or attached to doing other things.

Not being here now

Without a skillful meditation practice, our mind will keep on being blown all over the place by our thoughts and whatever else is going on, like a balloon powerlessly buffeted by the wind. We are in danger of remaining totally caught up in fleeting external circumstances to the neglect of enjoying the deep and stable peace we have waiting inside.

Nowadays it seems as though there is even more pointless thinking going on. We can spend our entire day distracting ourselves if we’re not careful (talking to myself here). And this brings me to the main reason I am writing this article today, which is, once we have established some peace in our heart, how can we take advantage of the gaps in our day to keep that going 24/7?

First off, how do we know there are numerous little gaps in our day? How do we know, all told, that, however busy our lives might feel, we have more time than we realize to relax and feel peaceful if that is what we really want?!

Because those gaps are all those times we get on our phones!

Smartphone-AddictionThe average American looks at their Smartphone for 3.5 hours a day! We might possibly be enlightened by now if we’d been using that 3.5 hours for mini-meditations instead.

And today in Madison Wisconsin, on what might have once been a nice lazy Sunday afternoon, I saw someone in a café with one of those new split-screens – Sudoko on the left, email on the right, and big headphones on her head. And of course the phone plonked right between her and the computer, apparently a perfect sign that she is a Millennial as opposed to a Gen X’er or Baby Boomer (who position their phones slightly off to the side.) In that scenario, there is literally not a spare moment to stare aimlessly into space like I feel we used to do in the old days, much less check in on her mind. I surreptitiously watched her for a while, and it was full-on diversion. It looked exhausting. I wanted to unplug her. No wonder this report found that people don’t even like to be left alone with their own thoughts for more than 6-15 minutes.

A Kadampa teacher emailed me this the other day:

“On a recent meditation retreat, I asked assembled students to share their favorite “evasive maneuvers” from the present moment, the ways we all hide out from having to be here with the direct simplicity of right now. People said all kinds of funny and not so funny things. In a discussion group later in the weekend, one student wondered why nobody had brought up Twitter, Facebook, and other social media. Another student joked ‘Our teacher asked us what our individual evasive maneuvers were, not our shared ones. Everyone’s addicted to Facebook.’”

split screen
“more productive” or more distracted?!

I am not a Luddite, by the way. I actually relish the opportunities afforded by modern technology. It is not the technology that’s the problem but our strong attachment or addiction to it. Buddha predicted these degenerate times wherein our uncontrolled diversion-seeking would become stronger and stronger – and aptly called this “the desire realm”.

Why to turn inwards instead of phonewards

We apparently tend to check our phones 80-150 times a day. In an international poll taken by Time magazine, one in four people reported checking their phone “every 30 minutes, 1 in 5 people every 10 minutes.” I read that Apple and Google themselves are now coming up with Apps to stop people from being so addicted to their phones … Apps that switch off after a certain length of time, for example, because we are now seemingly incapable of switching them off ourselves.

This attachment has consequences.

addiction to smartphoneStudies are showing a direct correlation between this addiction and addiction to alcohol, drugs, overeating, and so forth – that it lights up the same areas in the brain. It is leading people to insomnia, the light from the screens ruining our much-needed rest. There is a spike in anxiety, depression, and so forth. Among teenagers, it is causing a spike in suicide.

Let alone our children, and let alone the lost art of looking other human beings in the eyes, we are apparently not even paying attention to our cats and dogs anymore! Our furry friends are suffering neglect and boredom borne by our addiction.

None of this is conducive to deep peace or frankly any peace — instead this addiction is making people feel more inadequate and insecure, making us feel worse about ourselves. Our creativity is diminishing because the silence in which we used to pop with great ideas has been taken over by scrolling and tapping.

In the age of attachment we are worryingly inclined to look for happiness outside of ourselves. This could be our last day – so do we want to spend it scrolling on our phone or do we want to spend it in peace and meaning?

kittenThere’s another downside too. In the old days, when there were a few minutes here and there in the day, we might use them to run errands, and end up with more time to do the things we love. Now the chores pile up till we have to spend a whole day catching up, leaving less free time. People also don’t feel they have the time to volunteer their help so much these days, or to spend time in real-life community; even though these activities are proven to make us feel happier and more connected.

As explained more in this article, Are you busy?, I don’t think people are necessarily much busier than they used to be – we are just distracted all the time, so our minds feel busier, we don’t feel we ever have enough time, we get totally overwhelmed. We don’t have a time deficit so much as a mindfulness and concentration deficit.

We can check for ourselves — as soon as we have a gap or pause in the day, waiting for a meeting or traffic lights or the kettle to boil, or even strolling down the road, what do we do? Something on our to-do list? Stop to smell the roses? Not usually. Instead we get on our smart phone and start scrolling downwards or sideways, searching for happiness. “Well, that’s underwhelming. But maybe it’s on the next screen! Or the next? Or the next?”

Have any of us actually found happiness and freedom yet in our phone?!

Have any of us found joy, love, connection, or meaning?

Surely we need to pause in the pursuit of happiness to just BE happy!

An idea that can help

We are up against weapons of mass distraction, but we can beat this.

WeaponsOfMassDistractions.jpgNext time there is a pause in the day — ie, you’re about to reach for the phone — reach inside yourself instead. See if you are feeling peaceful and, if you are not, do a bit of breathing meditation or reacquainting yourself with your meditation focus for that day. “What is going on in my mind? I will now improve it.” Feel present. Feel the love. Feel the freedom of peace.

Then go back about your busy day, but still using mindfulness, alertness, and concentration as explained in this last article. 

Buddha said:

From concentration comes peace.

This means both immediately, as our mind is virtuous and peaceful, and in the long-term, as we are familiarizing ourselves with positive objects and so creating causes for peace. The result of concentration is peace. It always is. Even if our mini-meditation is not perfect, we are still creating the karmic causes of peace in our mind every time we go in and not out.

With these mini-meditations we can gradually master our thoughts and remain peaceful and happy regardless of what is going on in our day. We can remember that our mind is like an infinite clear sky and we don’t need to be all mixed up in the thunderclouds or fog but instead abide in the peaceful clarity that always lies beyond. This is our refuge or safe haven. We can relax into that space for a minute or two, and in this way it will gradually become the background of our being so that we are not so quick to get upset and agitated.

Happy_HeartBy the way, please don’t be perfectionist whenever you meditate – expectations are pre-meditated resentments. The entire sky doesn’t have to clear before we can relax into a more peaceful space, even a slight parting of the clouds will do. Some days will of course go better than others – we can just recognize that whatever peace we do experience is the tip of the iceburg, or a gap in the clouds, indicating our vast capacity for boundless space and happiness.

Changing our sense of self

Based on this new peaceful experience, however slight or relative, we can identify our sense of self differently, such as by genuinely thinking: “I am an inner being, peaceful, not caught up in all the external appearances that whizz by.”

We can also think, validly, “I am a meditator.” And what do meditators do?!

This inner peace and self-identification will make it easier for us to stay patient and calm. We won’t have so much itchy attachment to the things outside us. We will have room for love and wisdom. We will feel far more alive.

Case study

A young woman, who said I should call her “Case Study Kaitlin,” told me the other day that she grew up with all technology all the time, but then went cold turkey a month ago. As a result, she said “I have never felt more alive, peaceful, or concentrated.” And this is what prompted her to seek out meditation classes. 

54421012_1286016704910489_8453803795372048384_nIf we use our day like this, taking advantage of the gaps to maintain a continuum of mindfulness, alertness, and concentration, I think we will find that we all get results. As Geshe Kelsang says:

If we train in meditation systematically eventually we can eradicate all the delusions that are the causes of our sufferings. Day and night and life after life we will experience only peace and happiness.

Meditation enables us to become comfortable with silence, too; though that might have to be the subject of another article. Meantime, Google “benefits of silence” if you want to find out how important it is.

Coffee/tea & meditation first thing in the morning = can’t be beat

And to conclude this article, here is a practical nugget for you …  Some months ago I bought myself a cheap alarm clock and, come bedtime, put my phone in another room. I was woken in the morning by a screech instead of a dulcet ringtone, but I was good with that because, with no phone to reach for, I found I had no addiction tingle in my hand. It came easier then to just get on with my day and my meditation without an urge to check wake up happy“vital” messages first. So I have been doing this by and large ever since; it feels good to have reclaimed that first-thing-in-the-morning space and time. Plus it’s a lot easier to set compass for the rest of the day.

Over to you. Comments on how you sustain inner peace in this technological age are very welcome.

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Getting started with mindfulness

5 mins read.

Without mindfulness, alertness, and concentration, our unpeaceful, uncontrolled thoughts (aka delusions) will keep running the show forever. In other words, we won’t be able to stop our suffering.

crazy elephantCarrying straight on from this article, Improving our focus 

In Essence of the Middle Way it is said that we need to bind our elephant-like mind to the stake of our virtuous object with the strong rope of mindfulness and use the hook of alertness to subdue it. ~ Joyful Path of Good Fortune

A “virtuous object” or an “object of meditation” can be a state of mind, such as love, or an object that is not a mind, such as impermanence or a mantra. (It is not an object of sense awareness such as a tree or a candle). You can read more about objects of meditation in Joyful Path. 

Breathing meditation, such as the simple one explained here, is a good place to start training in mindfulness, alertness, and concentration (MAC). The objects of other meditations, such as love or impermanence, require contemplation to find and to hold; but we are always breathing, so even if we lose our object of meditation, the breath, we can get back to it immediately.

Mindfulness functions both to keep the mind on an object that has not been forgotten, and to bring back to mind an object that has been forgotten. ~ How to Understand the Mind

For example, if our object of meditation is the breath, (1) mindfulness lets us resist the temptation to follow our other thoughts so that we stay with the breath; and, (2) when our attention does drift and can be found wandering to pizza, mindfulness brings it back to the breath.IMG_5353-EFFECTS

I think this is an important point: it doesn’t matter how often our mind wanders — even if that is a hundred times — provided that we notice and bring it back to the next breath, for this is still strengthening our mindfulness. In other words, however busy or distracted your mind feels, you are still meditating and improving.

As mentioned in the last article. the ability to notice that our mind has wandered and has forgotten or is about to forget its object is called “alertness”. Alertness is said to be like a spy or lookout that reports back to the generals of mindfulness and concentration.

If we don’t notice and bring it back, that’s just business as usual, namely our regular uncontrolled thinking! But consciously bringing our attention back to our breath, breath after breath, and focusing clearly on it is training in MAC. And we’ll soon see how much more calm, clear, and peaceful our mind becomes.

Which is what we need, because most of our thoughts are not necessarily that calm or peaceful. Often, they are grumbling or boring or distracted or worried. We don’t want to think them, but we cannot help it.

If we are not in a state of deep peace all day long, or if we lack mental space and clarity, this is a sign that we need more MAC.

colorado mountains 1

It doesn’t take much to get started

It only takes 10-15 minutes a day training like this to make the difference.

You can be confident that it all gets easier and more effortless with practice – you’ll get better at it if you do it, for sure, not of course if you don’t. If you practice breathing meditation consistently — 10 or 15 minutes a day being plenty to start with — there will definitely come a time when you can plop your mind on your breath like plopping down a glass of water, and it’ll stay there till you decide to move it. Blessed relief.

With improved MAC, gradually you’ll be able to set your mind on any object you have learned about and keep it there, including loving-kindness, compassion, or emptiness, so that you are experiencing these peaceful, wise states of mind all the time! At this point, as Geshe Kelsang explains:

If we train in meditation, our mind will gradually become more and more peaceful, and we will experience a purer and purer form of happiness. Eventually we will be able to stay happy all the time, even in the most difficult circumstances.

You’re not a lost cause

Just one more thing, in case you’re wondering …  you’re not a lost cause

lost causeSometimes when people start out meditating they complain that they’ll never be able to settle on their breath, that they’ll never be able to get their crazy minds to meditate, that basically they are a lost cause.

So in case you are one of them, I would like to point out two things:

  • However busy your mind, every time you bring your attention back to your breath, you are improving at meditation, as discussed above.
  • Long before you get really good at single-pointed concentration, and even when your mind is still going a hundred miles a minute, you can also practice mindfulness, alertness, and concentration in your daily life, and this is still the practice of meditation. In fact, as we spend most of our time out of formal meditation sessions, it is arguably the most important part of meditation practice.

Meditation, “gom” in Tibetan, translates as gaining familiarity with positive ways of thinking, and this can be happening throughout our day. So, as an example, if we don’t get mad when someone criticizes us, but see them as suffering and/or kind instead, we are training in meditation.

We are using alertness to be self-aware of what thoughts we’re having, catching inappropriate attention or negative thoughts early so they don’t spiral out of our control. We are using mindfulness to remember a positive state of mind such as patience or love and to forget the inappropriate attention we’re paying to that person’s faults. We are using concentration to focus on that patience or love.

55557087_10219170703363321_5996375554738094080_o

And, eh voila, this is how we take control of our own mind and behavior, and this is how we stay peaceful and happy. It is also the practice of moral discipline, which in turn greatly advances our concentration once we’re back on our meditation seat.

Next part of this topic coming up shortly – how to keep mini-meditations going throughout the busy day.

Meanwhile, over to you. I would love to hear your experiences of employing mindfulness, alertness, and concentration both on and off the cushion.

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