We need to develop a healthy sense of self based on something genuine. Fame won’t crack it, as this example from The Week shows, and nor, probably, will any other worldly concern, such as fortune or worldly enjoyments:
Maisie Williams says fame has had a negative effect on her mental health and self-esteem. Williams, who was 13 years old when she was cast as Arya Stark (in Game of Thrones) said there was a period of time where she was sad after becoming overwhelmed by the criticism on social media.
“It gets to a point where you’re almost craving something negative, so you can just sit in a hole of sadness,” Williams said.
While she has tried to move past what people have said online, Williams, 22, said she still thinks about comments that hurt her.
“I still lie in bed at, like, 11 o’clock at night telling myself all the things I hate about myself,” Williams said.
This is the last of this series of articles on overcoming self-hatred and toxic self-criticism. It follows straight on from this article, which looked at the first step for overcoming these delusions once and for all = changing our experience.
Step 2 ~ New improved sense of self
Allowing ourselves to feel even the slightest peace, we are changing our experience. We know too that this is the tip of the iceberg, from which we can deduce that there is a lot more peace where this comes from. Identifying with this peaceful experience is how our experience will grow. So we think:
This is me. I am peaceful! And there is a lot more where this comes from. I really do have boundless potential.
We are experiencing a new view or a new sense of self based on different feelings — feeling good about ourselves.
And on this legit foundation we can build – positive, wise states of mind, all the stages of the path to enlightenment of both Sutra and Tantra.
Another tip: Whenever we sit down to meditate, it’s always a good idea to start by tuning into a positive and happy mind that we’re already familiar with, so that our experiences are rooted in something we are already experiencing. We can use something or someone that we already find it easy to feel good about, such as affection for a pet or gratitude for a kindness. Anything that can move our mind quickly to peace and happiness will do, for we can then smoothly seguey from that into fully-fledged Dharma minds. We are not, in other words, obliged to start from scratch. More on that in this article, Start where you are.
It makes all the difference also to remember that whenever our mind is peaceful or positive in any way, we are alreadyconnected to the blessings of all enlightened beings, to enlightenment itself. We can develop refuge:
This peaceful mind, however slight, is my Buddha nature. It is already mixed with the peaceful non-deluded reality of my Spiritual Guide (Buddha’s) mind — love and enlightenment. It is me.
This open us up to even more blessings, with which we feel our minds fuse even more fully with positivity.
Step 3 ~ New improved intentions
If we are genuinely feeling, “I am a happy peaceful person, I have boundless Buddha nature,” what wishes and intentions will naturally arise from that? We will want to do well, we will want to share this with others, we will have more patient acceptance of ourselves and others. In other words, this new improved sense of self will now naturally lead to new improved intentions.
Step 4 ~ New improved actions
This in turn will lead to new improved actions or behavior, as we always follow our wishes or intentions. We will naturally try to fulfill this destiny. If we think we are peaceful, we will engage in peaceful actions. If we think we have boundless potential for love, wisdom, and compassion, we will be acting to realize those qualities, as well as enjoying the daily challenges that allow us to improve.
Step 5 ~ New improved life
And this will lead to a new improved life and experiences, in a virtuous cycle. Because our karma has also improved, this leads to longer-term good results as well.
To summarize, just telling ourselves we’re great doesn’t work. Nor does attempting to change our intentions or our actions while still identifying with being an inherently limited person. If we miss out on the changing of our experience, none of this is sustainable.
So, to those of you who have been meditating for years — if you find you are not changing as fast as you’d like, do check to see if this is because you are not changing what you are actually imputing yourself on/identifying yourself with. If we do change our experience — our basis of imputation — the rest will follow.
No one can give us freedom. We have to claim it. And thanks to meeting these Buddhist psychological and spiritual insights, we can get started right away.
“Look within you to find peace”
At any time we feel unpeaceful, including self-critical, we can ask ourself:
What version of myself am I relating to? And does it even exist?
We can dissolve that limited self away with breathing meditation or something stronger (as explained here for example), and identify with the resulting peace, freedom, and potential. Only THEN should we do our meditations.
As Arya Starck (Williams) puts it:
“Honestly, I want a normal life,” she said. “I don’t want any of this crazy, crazy world because it’s not worth it.”
Williams said the first step to finding her happiness is to stop trying to be who people want her to be, and instead, focus on being herself.
“It sounds really hippy-dippy and like ‘look within you to find peace’, but it is true,” she said. “At the end of your day, you’re making yourself feel this way for a reason.”
Just one last thing
When we impute ourselves on our pure potential, we can’t find that self either; which means we are not inherently pure. However, there are two good reasons for doing it anyway:
This basis of imputation is more valid because we can’t ever destroy our pure potential whereas we can completely eradicate our delusions.
It works a lot better – it leads to better intentions, actions, and results, which propel us toward growing freedom and the happiness of enlightenment.
And, if we want to make it even more effective, we can recognize that we are merely imputing this self on the basis of our pure potential. This self is mere name, not solid, real, or findable — but it functions very well.
That’s it, folks
In these last 7 articles we looked at the inner critic, where it comes from, and what’s wrong with it. We looked at how our whole life depends on our actions, intentions, sense of self, and experience. We saw first how NOT to break that cycle, and then HOW to break that cycle by getting in touch with our pure and kind nature, identifying with it, and building upon that experience. All this can start with the simplest skillful breathing meditation.
Thanks for reading! I hope you have found these 7 articles on overcoming self-criticism helpful — I have enjoyed writing them 😄 I’d love your feedback and comments.
To celebrate Buddha Shakyamuni’s Turning the Wheel of Dharma (Skt. Dharmachakra) Day, which also happens to be Venerable Geshe Kelsang Gyatso’s birthday, I thought I’d share some thoughts on the study programs in Kadampa Buddhism. Today, these are turning the Wheel of Dharma at hundreds of Buddhist centers around the world.
There are 3 programs — General Program, Foundation Program, and Teacher Training Program. They’re all great, but I will mainly be talking about the last two.
As you may or may not know, Buddhism has always put an emphasis on (1) listening to lots of teachings, (2) contemplating them to check they work in our own experience and transform them into our own idea, and (3) meditating on them to bring them deep into our heart where they will be a constant joy and protection, leading us all the way to enlightenment. Buddha gave 84,000 teachings of Sutra and Tantra, and basically the idea is to learn the jist of all of these and put them into practice 😊
I will be quoting Venerable Geshe Kelsang’s words from a talk he gave called A Wishfulfilling Dharma Jewel, and you can read the whole thing here.
At present in our Centers we have a Foundation Program and a Teacher Training Program. This is not a new tradition. In the past there have been other programs specially designed for Dharma students according to their particular circumstances.
All these programs involved studying a certain number of texts, memorizing material, passing examinations, and being awarded a degree or certificate. For example, the ancient Kadampa Geshes had a program in which they studied six texts. Later Je Tsongkhapa introduced a program based on ten texts, and later still Tibetan Monasteries such as Ganden, Sera, and Drepung introduced a program based on five texts.
Even for the 1,000 years before Buddhism got to Tibet, deep learning and meditation had always been integral to the Buddhist tradition – for example the famous monastic university of Nalanda in Southern India produced generations of famous master practitioners from the fifth to twelfth century CE.
Now Geshe Kelsang has made all these teachings and meditations accessible to us in the unwieldy modern world through modern books, teachers, centers, temples, and study programs. Most of us definitely don’t have the same kind of time for formal study that they had in the old days, so he has made the time we do have incredibly efficient, and put more emphasis on sustaining and deepening these teachings and meditations through mindfulness in our regular daily lives.
Geshe Kelsang said:
Inspired by my own experience, I developed a strong wish to introduce a similar program for western Dharma students so that they could reap the same results. However, I understand very clearly that the program designed for Tibetan Geshes is not suitable for westerners.
For one thing, most western Dharma students are lay people …
Recently I asked some of my teacher friends to tell me what they thought were the main benefits of the Foundation Program (FP) in particular, as this is the program that most people tend to join. I wanted to hear what they had to say in particular about the commitments of the FP and why someone might want to take those on. So here goes, their ideas and mine, all jumbled together.
Becoming our own Protector
I agree with Socrates, the unexamined life is not worth living. Studying Dharma consistently guarantees our getting to know ourselves and our lives a lot better, and overcoming all our faults and limitations. This gives our life a spiritual dimension, and a vision far less ordinary.
As Geshe Kelsang says:
With wisdom and Dharma experience we can bring our deluded minds under control. We can reduce our attachment, anger, jealousy, and so forth, and subdue our self-grasping and self-cherishing. By controlling our deluded minds we will come to experience permanent peace day and night. We will bring about a permanent cessation of human problems in particular and of samsaric problems in general. In this way we will become our own protectors.
The commitments of the FP involve attending every class for the enrolled book, reading ahead, memorizing the root text and main points of the commentary, discussing, doing pujas (chanted prayers), and taking an exam.
Their overall purpose is so that our practice is not stop/start but regular and consistent, leading to guaranteed results. Buddha’s example for this kind of steady effort is like leaving water in a pot on the stove to boil at a low heat rather than moving it on and off a high heat such that it never gets around to boiling.
Mixing our minds with Dharma
In a busy, distracted, ofter overwhelming world, it’s only too easy for other stuff to get in the way; so committing to attending each class (or catching up with the recording and study summary in a timely manner) moves us past that problem. It helps us fulfill our wish to help ourselves and others.
We go deeper than in drop-in General Program classes because each class can build upon the one before it, presupposing knowledge, and shifting the responsibility of learning from the teacher to the student. And then we start to change.
This is good for the group, as we all literally stay on the same page. It becomes teamwork. The team is strong and unified and so everyone likes being on it. It is also good for the teacher as they don’t have to repeat the same points each week for people who weren’t there, and can take all the students more deeply into the material.
Reading ahead is a bit like toasting bread into which the hot butter of Dharma can easily soak during the class. That’s my analogy anyway! We come prepared with questions and looking forward to hearing the commentary on what we’ve already read and studied.
At the end of discussion the students come up with creative ideas together on what to practice in the meditation break to transform our everyday lives. We can troubleshoot how to practice Dharma throughout all our activities, lifestyles, and challenges. There are so many examples of people practicing Dharma in all walks of life, and we can learn from each other’s practical wisdom.
As Geshe Kelsang puts it:
The nature of western people is to study something one day and to want to put it into practice the next. This is a very good quality because they are always trying to gain practical experience of what they study.
Scale the highest mountain
One friend sent me this:
The Foundation Program is an opportunity to turn intellectual understanding into insights that authentically move our mind. For example, we understand intellectually that real or lasting happiness cannot be found outside out mind, and yet we still have a strong pull to find happiness from outside. FP is a chance to make a lasting change on our mind so that we genuinely want to find happiness from within.
We do this by giving more structure to our practice and spiritual development. FP is the opportunity to go through the training the mind teachings in depth, discuss, ask questions, and meditate on them. We make a commitment to study in this way so that, when difficulties come, we already have the structure in our mind to transform them. We have internalized the meaning. This means we will be able to actually transform adverse conditions in real time which is so much more difficult without this foundation.
FP creates the “foundation” for lasting happiness in our life. It’s an opportunity once or twice a week to reconnect deeply with our intention to improve our mind. We learn to consistently rely on Buddha and his teachings to solve our inner problems. We learn to trust and grow with our Sangha friends who are on the path with us. It’s a much more enriching way of experiencing this inner transformation.
As Geshe Kelsang says:
Our present understanding and experience of Dharma is quite superficial. We are like someone who has entered a huge food store and seen many things but sampled only a few. We may have received many different teachings from many different Teachers, but we have taken in very little, just a few morsels. Therefore our actual experience remains superficial. There is a gap between us and the Dharma. It feels as if Dharma is there and we are here. Our mind is not mixed with Dharma and so we cannot apply it in our daily lives.
As a result our ordinary everyday problems remain. For example, we may have received many teachings on Lamrim and read many books. Intellectually we find it relatively easy to understand and we accept it all, but we find it difficult to integrate into our daily lives, and so we cannot use this Dharma to solve our daily problems. When we study Dharma our mind remains passive, like someone watching television. It does not engage in the subject and mix with it. Therefore our daily life and our Dharma remain completely separate and unrelated.
Why is this? It is because we are not studying systematically according to a specially-designed program. If we just pick at Dharma randomly we will never gain a deep and stable experience, and our wisdom will never become like a full moon.
Geshe Kelsang has always said we should not view commitments as “heavy luggage” (Ed: it’s more like a purse).
We are simply making time for the things we actually know are good for us and love to do. I read a study the other day where a large group of women were questioned on how much time they spent meditating and so on versus watching Netflix – they replied that although they felt far better when they were meditating, they still spent about 5x more time on Netflix.
As Geshe-la puts it:
We should try to memorize the important points of the subject and combine whatever we understand in a practical way with our daily activities. We also have to observe the various commitments of the program. These commitments are designed to help us accomplish our aim. Without them there is a danger that we will be distracted by laziness or other circumstances and not complete our studies.
Any meaningful relationship requires commitment. For example, what would a marriage be like without any commitment? Or our job? Or working to combat climate change, or improving social justice, etc.? I think we find things more meaningful or of benefit when we have some commitment to them; and we get more done.
The FP commitments are also largely a commitment to each other. If everyone turns up and gets with the program, the group becomes stronger. If attendance is sporadic, the group weakens and our fellow students’ Dharma experience suffers.
One friend puts it like this:
On FP we come to experience in our heart (1) who we truly are, and (2) who we can become, and (3) more importantly, who our family, friends, and everyone else can become. Not through hearing ideas that it’s easy to soon forget, through dropping in on General Program (GP), but through a relaxed, consistent, dynamic engagement and deepening experience of Dharma and meditation on FP. FP closes the gap between the teachings we hear and experiencing them in our heart.
If we signed up to be a doctor with the goals of (1) having a good life ourselves and (2) benefitting others, but then didn’t turn up to classes consistently or seal that understanding through exams, out in the field we’d quickly realize we’re not equipped to fulfil our goals. From this point of view our 7 years in medical school would feel meaningless, because meaningful just means we feel we have accomplished or are accomplishing our goals.
In a similar way, to derive the greatest meaning and fulfillment from the time we have chosen to spend on FP, the commitments and exams are not rigid rules, but rather helpful guidelines and opportunities to accomplish the goals of (1) having a good life ourselves and (2) benefiting others. Or, in Geshe-la’s words, 1) to be happy and 2) to make others happy! In this way taking the commitments to heart is the best way to make our time on FP FEEL meaningful for us (not to placate the teacher or program coordinators) and be beneficial for others.
As Geshe-la explains from his own experience:
I studied this program at Sera Monastery. When I completed it and was awarded my Geshe degree, I felt as if I had reached the summit of the highest mountain. My faith and experience had increased considerably and I felt great confidence in teaching others. My mind was very happy and I felt completely free from problems.
Become a really good meditator
We learn how to have a regular practice that is sustainable at home, know what to meditate on clearly through structured study, and build up self-discipline. Plus being there for other meditators in the FP group.
On the Foundation Program we can learn to meditate very well and always know what to meditate on — we learn how to do analytical meditation (contemplation) and placement meditation (single-pointed meditation) on every aspect of Buddha’s Sutra teachings. This leads to results, confidence, and joy.
The power of discussion
Discussion is a particularly important aspect of the program because we can help each other greatly by sharing our experience and understanding of Dharma.
Discussing with each other resolves our doubts, increases our understanding, and shows us what we don’t yet understand. Talking about gaining a realization of emptiness in particular, Geshe Kelsang says in The New Heart of Wisdom:
If we develop doubts or cannot accept what is taught we should discuss the matter with others. In this way, our understanding will become clearer and clearer. We should not keep doubts hidden inside our hearts — we need wisdom in our hearts, not doubts!
Geshe Kelsang has said that, in terms of his own understanding, he got 50% from the teachings and contemplations and 50% from his discussions with others! Which is quite a statement given how much he understands. He also gives some great advice on how to discuss in this talk.
The Foundation Program builds the spiritual community so everyone ends up with more friendship and support. Connections strengthen due to weekly study, discussion, meditation, and so on; and once an FP group has been studying together for a while, people connect with each other at a deep level (a bit like people who do retreats together). This is the true meaning of Sangha community. And, as Sangha are the third Jewel of Buddhist refuge, who can really help us to make spiritual progress, the more the better.
The study programs involve prayers as a support for the meditations. Sometimes people are a bit like, “I didn’t know Buddhists did prayers!” But we do, as explained more here. Prayers give us the opportunity to quickly purify our mind, accumulate merit or good karma, and bathe in inspiring blessings.
One of my friends says he puts it like this to his students: If you don’t think you like prayers, perhaps let go of what you think about them until your growing experience of them reveals a far deeper knowing. Buddhist prayers are just another form of meditation. We are so used to skimming the surface of life (caught up in busyness and trivia, numbing the pain of ordinary life) that we can miss out on the opportunity to experience something far deeper and incredibly rich. Prayers empower us to connect to and directly experience the greater depth that life has to offer, such as our pure potential and connection to enlightenment. They provide refuge.
So if you are new to a study program and faced with the prospect of doing prayers, for now just sit back, relax, and enjoy. We don’t have to understand all the meaning of the words of a beautiful song to enjoy the experience. We don’t go into existential meltdown because we don’t get it! It’s the same with prayers — just enjoy the experience of the peaceful resonance of the prayers for now, which is connecting us to our pure nature and enlightenment, whether we know it or not. Over time their meaning unfolds in any case.
There is a commitment to try and attend a weekly puja (chanted prayers) at the Center. Many people don’t even know what a puja is yet; so don’t sweat this one. It will come gradually and be explained over time. The main thing to know about pujas is that they are beautiful and saturated with blessings, and people always seem to leave a puja feeling better than when they arrived.
Plus group pujas increasingly bless the center or temple so that these become refuge zones for everyone who visits them, which is providing a beautiful service to this troubled world.
Memorization and examinations!
Now we get to the commitment that generally freaks modern-day disciples out the most 😄. A dollar for everyone who says, “I left school years ago, I can’t memorize a thing, I’m way too old for this,” and variations on that theme.
It can be helpful to think of the exam at the end of the book as a self-assessment in six questions. They are marked, but no one but you knows your score (candidates have numbers, so even the marker doesn’t know.)
One teacher told me that with exams he likes to encourage people to regard it as a retreat rather than as preparing for a test. The exam is not the important part. The important part is the reading and contemplating. We can just have fun with it.
As mentioned earlier, if we are training as a doctor we need all the essential knowledge in our hearts, not on a dusty bookshelf. So this is Geshe Kelsang’s skillful way to encourage us to take the time to study – for when else are we going to be sufficiently motivated to do that?!
Another teacher says: “Don’t worry about it. This is a wonderful opportunity to study, get lots of Dharma — the cause of happiness — into your mind. Ask people who have taken exams – they have initial resistance sometimes but once they do it they realize why. Don’t be a perfectionist American (if you are) – remember Geshe-la’s advice:
Try, don’t worry.
And no one cares how you do on your exam.
If none of that works, how about regarding exam prep as an excellent way to ward off senility in a culture that is overly dependent on Google. Memorizing beautiful Dharma greatly improves our mindfulness.
We recite the Root Text and Condensed Meaning every week in class as well, so we find that we pick a lot of it up naturally.
The Kadampa way of life
Another friend, when I asked him what the benefits were, said succinctly:
This made me think of the old Kadampas and the Kadampa way of life. Foundation Program is training in a way of life. Transforming our life into Kadampa life. This takes real training – mindfulness, blessings, discipline. Do you wish to become a Kadampa?
By studying all five subjects (in six books) on FP, we come to know all of Buddha’s Sutra teachings, joining the illustrious company of tens of thousands of modern-day Sangha around the world. We will help provide hope for our society in the form of practicing and sharing Buddha’s teachings with the people around us, which amount to profound common sense that can be applied usefully to most of their everyday problems.
You can see some of these programs and students around the world in this video:
The six FP books are like jewel mines, and the FP allows us to delve deep. In this context the word ‘foundation’ does not mean basic or for beginners. It means we are constructing a strong and stable foundation for our daily Dharma practice and for attaining high realizations in the future.
If you want to train as a Kadampa Buddhist teacher, you can join the Teacher Training Program, which adds extra subjects and books including all of Buddha’s Tantric teachings, and has more of a retreat commitment.
Final encouragement from Venerable Geshe Kelsang Gyatso
Sometimes five years or seven years may seem like a very long time, but if we practice steadily every day without giving up, gradually we will reach our goal. If we start today, tomorrow we shall already be a bit closer to completing! We should think like this and then one day we shall have completed our training.
How wonderful that will be! We shall be able to give pure teachings with confidence on any subject we have studied, and people will believe us and develop faith in us because we have prepared so well. They will appreciate us from many points of view: our teachings, our personal experience, our ability to help them solve their problems, and so forth.
These are benefits that we shall experience just in this life. In reality, future lives are much more important. We shall experience the beneficial results of studying on this program for life after life until we reach enlightenment. The benefits are inexhaustible.
Over to you please! From your own experience, would you like to add anything?
Happy Dharmachakra Day! May Dharma flourish, may everyone be happy, and may our world be peaceful.
If we want to change our actions or behaviors, we need to change our intentions. If we want to change our intentions or wishes, we need to change our sense of who we are. And if we want to change our sense of self, this has to be based on changing our experience.
We underestimate ourselves badly a lot of the time — in the case of self-dislike by experiencing and relating to an inherently limited unworthy small self. But where is that self to be found? What is it?
That self is who we are not rather than who we are. We want to get to the point that whenever it appears it actually reminds us that it is fake — it is appearing, but not really there. It is like — to use an analogy from the Buddhist scriptures — seeing two moons when we press our eyeball reminding us that there is only one moon in the sky.
Our sense of self at any given moment feels independent, existing in and of itself; but it arises 100% in dependence on what we happen to be thinking.
With self-criticism, we have a lack of patient acceptance for ourselves. We are never good enough; we always have to do more or do better. Fighting this self-image, there is no room or energy for growth. We might also have the master emotion of guilt — the feeling that we’re not worthy, competent, or good, that we are, in a sense, rotten at the core.
The opposite is the case
But the reality is in fact the OPPOSITE of what we are telling ourselves. Far from being flawed, we are a being of boundless indestructible potential, pure and good at heart, and in a position to connect to the infinite wisdom of enlightenment.
By learning to accept ourselves happily within an understanding of our enormous capacity for freedom and growth, we will begin to awaken a source of deep inspiration and wisdom from within.
It is terribly sad to go through life not knowing about what we have inside us, or who we already are and can become. As mentioned in this passage from How to Transform Your Life — which I’ll repeat because it’s so significant for our spiritual development — our pure essential nature, who we really are, is mind-blowingly good:
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.
Yes, this means us too. However badly we are thinking ourselves to be, we are not.
Unlike the seeds of our delusions, which can be destroyed, this potential is utterly indestructible and is the pure essential nature of every living being.
Our delusions, such as disliking ourself, are all based on faulty or distorted thinking, inappropriate attention — so once we get rid of that faulty thinking for good, the delusion goes away and can never come back. But the seeds of compassion and wisdom will be our essential nature for as long as reality remains. (For more on how that is, check out this article.)
Buddha gives the analogy of a person living in poverty, in a hovel, scrabbling around to be happy and make ends meet for himself and his family. He is working really hard but feeling really poor.
But one day he gets a visitor – a wise person comes to his door and says: “I don’t think you realize this, but below your house is a gold mine. You are in fact exceedingly rich.”
The man may be skeptical at first, but he gets curious one day and checks it out. Sure enough, he realizes that he has been living on top of a gold mine since he was born. And his and his family’s life now changes completely.
In a similar way, Buddha has turned up in our lives to tell us that we have an incredible gold mine inside us — innate goodness and purity, possessing the capacity for lasting peace and happiness. Perhaps we don’t really believe him because we have gotten so used to identifying with being a poor person, but one day we check it out anyway and discover that he is right! And our life changes beyond recognition.
As Geshe Kelsang says:
Whenever we meet other people, rather than focusing on their delusions, we should focus on the gold of their Buddha nature. This will not only enable us to regard them as special and unique, but also help to bring out their good qualities. Recognizing everyone as a future Buddha, out of love and compassion we will naturally help and encourage this potential to ripen.
This includes meeting ourselves!
We are not doomed!
In other words, you are not doomed, and nor is anyone else. It is so important that we understand this because, until we do, our wish for lasting freedom for ourselves and others will never be sustainable. We will just keep getting tired, worried, and discouraged, losing energy, burning out. We can’t sustain a wish for something we don’t actually believe in, and if we don’t wish for it we won’t have any energy, effort, or patience to achieve it.
As result of not focusing on our distracting thoughts, they disappear, because thoughts can only survive for as long as we are thinking them. Initially, just by allowing delusions to go away for a short while, we already feel better.
But please don’t be perfectionist – we don’t have to have a perfectly clear mind; any clearing of the clouds will do. Even a handkerchief of blue sky on an overcast day encourages us that there is plenty more where that comes from. We don’t want to over-judge our meditations, but instead be gentle and relaxed.
Concentration is not about pushing. We can simply relax into whatever peace we have, even if it is tiny. We can allow ourselves to enjoy this. Otherwise we are just buying into being useless at meditation as well – I am too useless even to learn how to be less useless!
When we first start meditating, we realize that we have an endless inane talk show going on. It takes a bit of time and practice to switch this off, so don’t have expectations, aka pre-meditated resentments! Just practice happily without grasping at results. This is how we get good at meditation. It doesn’t matter if our mind is full of busy thoughts — provided we are alert to that and letting them go we are doing really well, as explained in this article on mindfulness, alertness, and concentration.
A friend said this the other day:
I love the admonition regarding meditation: “expectations are pre-meditated resentments.” For me, one of the greatest delights of meditation is knowing that any meditation is a good meditation and that judging simply gets in the way of absorption, concentration, and realizations.
I tend to be hard on myself in everything else I do and, unconsciously until recently, use high expectations and my regular failure to meet them as certifications of my not-good-enough self. Sitting down to meditate and just exhaling “Ahh!” is my empowering opponent to and vacation from beating myself up – at least once a day.
Saying “I cannot meditate because my mind is too distracted!” is like going to the doctor with a bad stomach ache but refusing to take the medicine. The doctor says, “Take these pills, you’ll feel better!”, but we reply, “I can’t because my stomachs hurts too much.” It is precisely because our mind is so distracted that we need take the medicine of breathing meditation 😁.
The rest of this explanation on overcoming self-hatred is on its way soon — I figured your coffee break might be up. Meantime, your comments have been very helpful up to now, so please leave more below!
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.
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?
Maybe we think the first step to overcoming self-hatred is changing our sense of self by telling ourselves we are great?
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.
The dissing and laughter seems to have solved the problem temporarily! But, no, after a brief relief they are back on the subject – “What I want to say but can’t is ‘I’m tired of you being so b****.”
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.
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!
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.
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.
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 in 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:
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
These 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.
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 in this next installment, Giving up self-hatred once and for all.
Over to you … have you suffered from self-doubt or self-criticism? Do you recognize this process? Your feedback is very welcome.
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.
Does 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 we 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.
To 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, intention, 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.
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.
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 continually 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.
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
However, 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.
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.
Without 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.
How 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 practice — reality 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
What 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.