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. 

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Silencing the inner critic

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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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Us and Them in Buddhism

As I was saying the other day, there are two main obstacles standing in the way of our spiritual growth. The first is the ignorant feeling that I am the real me, therefore you are real and secondary other, somewhat less important. Self-grasping ignorance apprehends a gap between me and everybody else, which means that when it comes to stretching love and compassion to another person I can only do it for a certain length of time and, generally and ideally, they need to have done me a favor, or be likely to do me a favor down the road, or something.

US-Them

Carrying on from this article.

Expiry date

The second obstacle is self-grasping’s inseparable mate self-cherishing, which wants to serve and protect our own self over others. We are not completely selfish, of course we are not, we have a lot of genuine compassion and love – these are our Buddha nature, who we really are. But our concern has an expiry date. We can love others, even unconditionally, for a while, until we get a headache or something else goes wrong in our life, when it’s like, “Uh, hang on, I will get back to you guys later.”

As is always pointed out, self-cherishing is not the same as liking ourselves, caring for ourselves, or even loving ourselves, ie, wanting to be happy. We need to do all these things – and indeed seeking liberation and enlightenment is the best way we can care for ourselves and fulfill our own purposes. No, self-cherishing is a mind that believes that this self, this me, is the real me and therefore its happiness comes first.

A day in San Francisco

SF airportThis “us and them” mentality is a horrible mind, responsible for all our callousness. I’m writing this in a shiny SFO, the flight to Denver delayed for an hour. San Francisco is as beautiful as ever on the surface, but its soul seems to have changed – the gulf between rich and poor, over-housed and homeless, being one of the largest in America now, which is saying something. And a widespread recognition that we are all in this together — fellow living beings who all want to be happy — seems to be sorely lacking.

A friend, JW, advocates for the homeless – he has been doing it for over a decade and told me today that there is nothing more important to him. He doesn’t get discouraged because his passion to tell their stories still motivates him; and he wants everyone to know that one of the worst problems these days is that the homeless population is rapidly ageing. It is bad enough being on the streets when you are relatively young and healthy, but there are now more seniors than ever before who are homeless for the first time, and they quickly age ten or twenty years. No one ever sees it coming, but seniors find themselves priced out or, along with low income populations, red-lined out of their neighborhoods by greedy developers putting up fancy apartments for people who have so much money they don’t know how to spend it all. homeless senior

As a local newspaper put it: “Most of San Francisco’s current homeless population is on the street not by choice, but because of skyrocketing rents. According to the city’s 2015 Homeless Count, 71 percent of SF’s homeless were city residents before they became homeless. Meanwhile, the number of homeless people having to stay outdoors has risen, from 28 percent in 2011 to 46 percent in 2017.”

(Pretty sure I read this somewhere …) Buddha said that although happiness depends on the mind, there are four basic things human beings need to be well: clothing, food, medicine, and shelter. Basic human well being starts with housing. As a senior, it is hard enough to get offered a job even if you are fit enough to work; but, at whatever age, there is only a slim chance of getting back on your feet if you are not housed. No job in this country = no money = insufficient food, medicine, and clothing.

Tekchog, a Buddhist monk, who has been working on Needle Exchange on Market Street for 15 years, concurred that if you cannot have a shower you’re not going to be aceing any job interviews. And that he has noticed that when someone comes to needle exchange who has been lucky enough to find housing, they look a hundred times healthier and happier. But although that Exchange has been there for decades, people who have just moved into one of the swanky new apartments routinely come over to complain that they object to having the needle exchange in THEIR neighborhood.

sit lie lawTents and tent cities rise up everywhere, but sooner or later the tents get “confiscated” and the tent inhabitants do not see it or any of their possessions again. How can it be viewed as any sort of civic virtue to rob from the destitute, to make them start all over again?

The sit/lie law meantime means that homeless people cannot sit or lie down in public places, despite the lack of anywhere else to seek shelter. What are you supposed to do if you are forced to keep moving, if you cannot sit or lay down your head, yet you are old, or tired, or sick? There is a scarcity of public toilets because they have shut them down at the Bart stations, and just lately they have dismantled the handles from the water faucets so that you can no longer even quench your thirst.

That is a huge amount of suffering. I often ponder whether I could last a week outdoors, let alone the rest of my life; and many senior homeless people had the same thought once upon a time. If we could use our imagination, see that every homeless person is just as much Me as I am, and mentally exchange places with them, would this suffering be allowed to go on?

Vision needed

San FranciscoThere is hope, there is always hope, because there is nothing fixed and we have everything we need inside us to create a better future for everyone, spiritually and practically.

Being in SF made me more determined to destroy samsara by destroying the self-grasping and self-cherishing that perpetuate it. And we can concurrently do stuff to help others practically, like JW and Tekchog for example, knowing that this is also taking us closer to our ultimate goal. There are good people everywhere who are working day and night to change things practically and socially, driven to end human suffering. Regardless of the immediate outcome, every single time we do something to try and alleviate the suffering of others — motivated by compassion, inspired by vision, seeing everyone as Me — we are creating the causes for our own and others’ well being.

Over to you, comments & ideas most welcome.

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What about me?!

Giving ourselves permission to be happy

… doing what?

Sometimes our lives are so busy helping others that we get out of the habit of letting go and taking any time to recharge our batteries, and end up thinking it is too selfish to take “me-time” in any case. This ends up ironically, being the selfish choice if we’re not careful because it undermines our ability to help ourselves and others. And there is no excuse for it, such as the martyrish, “It doesn’t matter if I’m happy or not, so long as I’m helping others.” Because it does matter.

Do you love yourself?

We need to have the wish to be happy. Over the decades I was on study programs there was an almost annual debate over Shantideva’s words that all happiness comes from wishing others to be happy and all suffering comes from wishing oneself to be happy, ergo we shouldn’t love ourselves because love is the wish for someone to be happy.

Is this how we feel about ourselves?!

I’ve heard some people also object to the term “self-love” because they see it as a term favored by “new agers” and equate it with self-indulgence, putting ourselves first; and would prefer us to use words like “self-respect” or “self-confidence” instead. As someone put it on Facebook: “Self-love flirts rather dangerously with self-cherishing and is associated with self-indulgence.”

All this, ironically, can feed nicely into self-cherishing’s tendency to beat ourselves up on those occasions we find ourselves feeling good, thinking it must be some kind of mistake to be this happy. Self-cherishing doesn’t really give us permission to be happy, if you check. It doesn’t let us savor the moments of peace, as described in this article, because its existence is threatened by them. It rapidly comes up with pretexts as to why we should start feeling neurotic, deficient and graspy again. It’d prefer us to feel guilt rather than an uncomplicated, unquestioning joy. Self-cherishing is far more at home in an agitated mental territory.

The word “self-love” isn’t found in Tibetan Buddhism or explicitly in the New Kadampa Tradition books, and I’m personally not too bothered whether we use it or not. But at the same time I think it’s important not to assume that because we don’t talk about “self-love” all that much, this means we shouldn’t love ourselves, or that loving ourself (or even self-love) has to mean the same as self-cherishing. (“Cherishing”, of course, is a type of love, the love considering someone to be special or important; so that is another reason for the occasional confusion as to whether or not we should love ourselves.)

I think it makes no sense psychologically or rationally to say we shouldn’t love ourselves. Insofar as living beings always do want to be happy, and even Buddhas possess this wish, this cannot be what Shantideva is referring to. In that quote, he is referring to self-cherishing. This ignorant mind destroys our happiness because it is under the erroneous impression that our happiness is more important than others’, and it forces us to seek happiness in all the wrong ways that lead to suffering.

Renunciation and compassion

If we cannot wish ourselves happiness, and allow ourselves to taste it, then what are we wishing for ourselves? It seems we cannot develop renunciation even with that attitude, and without renunciation (the wish for true mental freedom and lasting happiness) our compassion for others is like a toothless tiger, as Je Tsongkhapa put it. (I wonder if he was the first person to use that expression ;-)) It is not rooted in anything. We need the wish for true happiness for ourselves in order to generate that wish for others. As Eileen Quinn put it: “We need to renounce false happiness and wish to escape to true happiness.” And: “If we don’t have a taste of real happiness/don’t know what it actually is, how can we wish for it for ourselves or anybody?”

We need to want to be happy, really happy. We need to savor the happiness we already have within us, and practice it so that every day it increases. As mentioned in this article, Buddhism is “happiness-training”. If we don’t have this wish to be happy, why are we practicing meditation, and how can it work? It may sound obvious, but sometimes trainee Mahayana Buddhists tie themselves in knots thinking that this wish is now self-cherishing, and they need to get rid of it; in extreme cases they deny themselves happiness. But that wish can be love, and love is always a good thing, even when directed at ourselves. I think it is important to start every meditation with the wish to be actually happy for once. We need to give ourselves permission to be happy.

What we need to get rid of is the self-cherishing mind exaggerating our importance and seeking happiness in the wrong places. We don’t need to love the limited, neurotic self that is the object of self-cherishing, but we do need to love ourselves. We can understand self-love in those terms (so not necessarily in gooey or self-indulgent terms.) As Nicola Williams concisely puts it: “I think I love myself in ways that I shouldn’t and don’t love myself in ways that I should!”

With renunciation, we love ourselves properly for the first time, wishing actual happiness for ourselves through overcoming the delusions including self-cherishing. Self-cherishing wishes for the pretend happiness that Buddha called “changing suffering”, simply satisfying the desires of our ego-driven attachment as in scratching an itch instead of getting rid of it. Mark Thompson says: “I think self-love really means the mind of renunciation. If we understand our natural wish to be happy, and we understand that in samsara there is no true happiness and only suffering, we will develop the wish for liberation.”

universal love

And when we hear the Mahayana teachings, we come to understand that the best way to find daily and lasting happiness for ourselves is to love others even more than we love ourselves. No contradiction. We still love ourselves, we just love others even more. You could say that loving others is an advanced form of loving ourselves! It is a win win, as far as I can see.

Unhappy people cannot help others anyway. (If we try to, we often end up just spreading our own upset and anxiety.)  So for others’ sake we have to wish to be authentically happy and allow ourselves to be happy at every possible opportunity. That is love. Self-love even! So, though I don’t use that word often, I have no problem with it.

Facebook insights

Read on for insightful comments on the subject from Facebook friends:

Here is what Tim Larcombe said most clearly in response to the question “Do you love yourself?”:

Do I love myself? No, but I’m working on the first step – learning to like myself. Not liking yourself is the dirtiest trick of the self-cherishing mind. This mind says “you’re not good enough, you’re not worth much, you’re limited and stuck – but don’t worry, I’ll help you cover it up and get what you want anyway. Just trust me”. Then like a pusher with a junkie, we are held hostage by self-cherishing, thinking that we are not good enough and must obey its every word to survive with, and hide, our faults. Believing we have to trust self-cherishing leads to untold harm for ourself and everyone else.

Liking yourself on the other hand encourages you to identify with your pure nature and unlimited potential. It’s perfectly possible to fully accept yourself and recognise your faults without identifying with them. And if you know some Dharma then you can reduce and finally eliminate them – which is an act of self-love that benefits everyone. The degree to which you can accept and like yourself, is the degree to which you can accept and like others. I can’t see how it can be otherwise, no matter how good we become at covering up the fact that we don’t like ourselves.

Gradually self-liking can develop into self-love. Loving yourself is wanting yourself to be happy. As long as you don’t view your happiness as more important than others’ happiness (as self-cherishing tells you), there is nothing wrong with loving yourself. You CAN love yourself and cherish others at the same time. They are not contradictory. In fact, cherishing others IS self-love because all happiness comes from cherishing others….

… It’s also helpful to remember that our Spiritual Guide finds us worthy of his unconditional love. If we don’t love ourself, aren’t we saying that he’s mistaken? :-)”

I can’t put it any better than that! Thanks Tim.

Eileen Quinn makes some great points too:

“Strange how so many of us find it hard to accept happiness for ourselves.

And having a strong not liking oneself problem is ‘inverted ego’ anyway. Too much grasping/cherishing of self. That’s not a morally judgmental statement in any way because I know this from experience. I think some people are naturally blighted with this sort of thing and some people aren’t and don’t have to try so hard. (Black and white, there are probably shades of grey in between.) So in my better, more connected, moments, I try to turn to the Great Mother Prajnaparamita and use the emptiness mantra to attack this big black spider of self as that will solve all problems….

… ‘Self-love’ to me can even be a form of humility (our self is seen as the same as everyone else’s, no better, no worse, therefore no exaggeration of ego for want of a better way of putting it), far from being the same as self-cherishing.”

Over to you: Do you love yourself?! How many times a day do you give yourself permission to be totally, utterly happy?! Please go ahead and explain why you agree or disagree with all this in the comments, I love a good discussion.

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