5.5 mins read.
Call me biased, but I can’t help thinking that Buddha Shakyamuni is the best psychologist who ever walked the earth. Yet he is also transcendent, visionary. His vision is not just about us all feeling better, but about us all being our very best self, which just happens to be enlightened.
Following directly on from this article, How to stop being so down on ourselves.
A friend of mind recently went through the stuff of nightmares, a hellish trauma. This only happened in November, but she feels that with Dharma she should have “got over it by now,” and is upset with herself for feeling constant flashes of anger, fear, and sadness. Instead of accepting these unpleasant thoughts as entirely normal post-traumatic weather in a sky-like mind, she is buying into them and feeling they define her; and therefore she feels she is failing at being a “good Buddhist.” It will be hard for her to move beyond this horror if she keeps beating herself up, and her Buddhist practices and meditations will just be overlayed onto a sense of an inadequate self. I am glad we had a chance to talk yesterday because this is exactly the kind of problem we are dealing with here.
The last 4 articles have been about toxic self-criticism or self-hatred, what’s wrong with it, and where it comes from, including the relationship between our experience, sense of self, intentions, actions, and life. Now, with all this practical insight, we’re ready to give it up once and for all.
So how do we? First it might be helpful to see how NOT to.
Option 1. Change my view of self?
But this doesn’t work, any more than it works for someone else to tell us we’re great if we’re not feeling it. Maybe we talk to ourselves in the mirror: “You’re wonderful! You can do anything!” But our experience tells us otherwise. Affirmations or pep talks in the mirror won’t work if we’re feeling crummy inside.
Option 2. Change my intentions?
So maybe I should change my intentions or wishes?
But that doesn’t work while we are holding onto a limited view of self because what we want depends on whom we think we are, our sense of identity. So, for example, if we feel we’re a really hopeless person, we cannot help but have underwhelming wishes that hold us back from realizing our potential. This in turn makes us feel even more hopeless.
Option 3. Change my actions?
Often we try to change our actions through sheer will power, for example by forcing ourselves to do things outside our comfort zone, things that are supposed to be good for us. However, this is a stretch and not sustainable because there is a gulf between our head and our heart. It generally winds up with us having to control or suppress our actual wishes, which can make us feel hypocritical or more conflicted. For example, if we feel we need to be on a diet but are identifying ourself as an overweight loser whose only comfort is food, we may lock the fridge door but then give in and stuff ourselves later.
To summarize, what we do depends upon what we want, which in turn depends upon who we think we are.
So what CAN I change?!
Given this, what do we need to change in order to get rid of self-hatred and other delusions? We have to change our EXPERIENCE. And this starts by getting in touch with our peaceful, pure, and boundless nature. It is not a case of, “Whatever! I can’t do this, it’s not me!”, believing that our lack of peace and incompetence is our very nature. Look what that leads too! We need to know our real nature or potential versus doubting it.
In How to Transform Your Life (free here), Geshe Kelsang explains:
Buddha compared our Buddha nature to a gold nugget in dirt, for no matter how disgusting a person’s delusions may be, the real nature of their mind remains undefiled, like pure gold. In the heart of even the cruelest and most degenerate person exists the potential for limitless love, compassion, and wisdom.
We need to discover who we truly are. This can be as simple at first as doing a short breathing meditation and giving ourselves some moments to identify with the result. When we disconnect from the external world and the internal chatter, we discover an innate peace of mind and goodness. We have changed our experience to one of relative happiness and contentment. We start to get what Buddha means about our mind being like a limitless sky.
If we sit with this for long enough (as a guest writer explained beautifully here and I plan on exploring more in the next article), we come to realize we have developed a new view of ourself. We have changed our basis of imputation. And we can build upon this with many virtuous and wise states of mind, all the stages of the path of Sutra and Tantra if we so desire.
Just as I was writing all this, I overheard a conversation at the next table in this Denver café – a young woman was sharing with her friend how she hadn’t been invited to a social occasion: “I don’t like it; it makes me feel small. Who does she think she is?!” The other commiserated animatedly with some swear words and distasteful “facts” about the unfriendly person; and they both laughed.
To serve and protect our unworthy small self, to try and make ourselves feel bigger, one strategy is to be down on somebody else and ideally get other people to agree with us.
What her friend could usefully say to empower her is, “Look at the limited self you’re holding onto right now. It’s not actually you. It is a fake sense of self. Just let it go. You can be the master of your own moods.” But instead they are both now pinning all the frustration about the way she feels on the b**** friend who didn’t invite her; and that person of course is out of their control so there is no solution there.
As mentioned all over the place, there are two problems here. The inner problem can be solved by dissolving away the limited self by realizing it’s not actually there, and identifying with her natural self-contained happiness and boundless potential instead. On that basis, maybe she can find the courage to talk to her b**** friend, making an attempt to solve the outer problem, but in a calm way, without feeling on the defensive. If she does that, her friend is also more likely to listen.
The next installment is here.