The holiday season is wrapping up, and I’m just unwrapping. I’ve been drawn to the depths of my thoughts on life, love, and truth. Stepping outside of the student role for a week has had me reading, meditating, and thinking about where I want to be-live-do. I’ve been so wrapped up in “human doing” over being human (or a human being), it’s been difficult to be fully present, and aware of my intentions. I’ve noticed that the light of consciousness touches me, it seems, usually when looking backwards and no longer in the moment.
I recently had an interaction with someone that left me feeling enraged. I’d been holding these deep-rooted feelings about this person (let’s call him Jack) for months, stuck at the pit of my stomach. The moment Jack made a statement that, in my mind, illuminated the gaping hole in his defensive shield, I pounced. I pounced hard. I noticed my stead-fast patience falter, I became irritable, and the fibers of my filter expanded to allow larger grains of thoughts to escape by way of words and action. I sat stewing about past interactions and feeling justified in my own resentment. In my mind, Jack deserved the mental rocks I threw at him.
I whined, spewing criticisms and complaints to a dear person I know, who stopped me dead in my tracks, to say, “why are you letting this person consume your thoughts and energy?” He went on to say, “I'm not saying you can't have your feelings, but I can relate to this, so I say this with compassion. It's hard for me too. It's just that, the more and more you let this consume you, the more you lose out on being present in other moments that matter."
I paused, initially frustrated that there was no validation or commiseration. I thought, “just listen and tell me you understand, and I’m right to feel this way.” Often, when this happens, we shut off our ears and lose connection; but this time I chose to remain interested. This is difficult for us isn’t it? To listen to someone’s criticism or feedback without feeling defensive and shutting it all out. We often revert into this tantrumming infant, “just love me and accept me!!!” I know I’m not alone in this. Our defensive spine bristles and shoots daggers at those who question our competence or behavior. We shut out the messenger, by disconnecting or by hurting back. The victim of our behavior, ultimately, is ourselves. We shut out those who care to take the risk of offering these nuggets of truth. I’m not suggesting we accept criticism aimed to hurt, rather that we be interested in what is said.
This pause in my stream of anger allowed me to wonder, “why do I let this bother me?”. James Baldwin said, “I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.” What was the source of pain for me?
I do know, deeply. I have always struggled with feeling as though I needed to prove my intelligence and worthiness. I don’t know where this stems from, but I recognize its presence. Graduate school has chipped away at the poorly constructed self-image I have of being worthy, smart enough, and more importantly-it has given me fuel to question and doubt my own practice as a psychologist. I realized, I’ve been comparing my knowledge, abilities, and skills to those of the person with whom I became enraged. I am not the sole driver of this car, I recognize Jack’s part in this, and he does have a part. For the sake of anonymity and letting go, I am not going to share, but it is important not to forget that in all relationships each person has a role in the dynamic, one in which they choose to engage. It is both parties choice as to how, when, and where to engage and react.
Once I recognized this, I was able to see more clearly. I saw myself, in him, all that I hated about my own insecurities and need for validation. I was able to see his suffering-my suffering, the pain, intolerable. Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj, an Indian spiritual teacher and philosopher of Advaita (nondualism), is quoted:
“All you need is already within you, only you must approach yourself with reverence and love. Self-condemnation and self-distrust are grievous errors. Your constant flight from pain and search for pleasure is a sign of love you bear for yourself, all I plead with you is this: make love of yourself perfect. Deny yourself nothing -- glue yourself infinity and eternity and discover that you do not need them; you are beyond.”
Here, he emphasizes compassion toward the self. When we feel compassion towards ourselves we are then able to feel compassion towards those around us. When we fail to see suffering in others, we fail to understand where hatred and anger resides. On a recent Ted Talk, in efforts to understand the driving hatred behind alt-right white supremacists, Theo E.J. Wilson came to the conclusion, “Why should I be hated for who I cannot help but be?”
He recognized this feeling, for as a black man, he has been the target of hate, blanket prejudices, and stereotyping. Wilson goes on to discuss his own disbelief in his ability to have compassion for these folks who hated him. Compassion, different than acceptance and sympathy, is your spiritual duty as a human being, figuring out how you got to where you are. He says, "don't confuse this with sympathy or acceptance, I do not feel sorry for these people, nor do I accept their behavior, but I now am able to understand their fear and pain. This has allowed him to let go of the hatred that he held to be more interested in the unhealed trauma on each side of the racial divide. You can hear E.J Wilson's Ted Talk here.
My point, we MUST have compassion for ourselves, so we can be more open to love and loving. When we hold hatred for others we hold hatred towards ourselves. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sitting here writing and thinking, this is so easy to say, but how do I practice this? How do I offer myself compassion for my flaws and insecurities, so that I can be open to receiving?
I often preach this notion of having self-compassion to my clients and friends, but have difficulty practicing on myself. I recently read, “How to Love”, by Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist teacher. On page 64, he writes:
“To love is, first of all, to accept ourselves as we actually are. The first practice of love is to know oneself. The Pali word Metta means “loving kindness.” When we practice Metta Meditation, we see the conditions that have caused us to be the way we are; this makes it easy to accept ourselves, including our suffering and happiness. When we practice Metta Meditation, we touch our deepest aspirations. But the willingness and aspiration to love is not yet love. We have to look deeply, with all our being, in order to understand the object of our meditation. The practice of love meditation is not autosuggestion. We have to look deeply at our body, feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness. We can observe how much peace, happiness, and lightness we already have. We can notice whether we are anxious about accidents or misfortunes, and how much anger, irritation, fear, anxiety or worry are still in us. As we become aware of the feelings in us, our self-understanding will deepen. We will see how our fears and lack of peace contribute to our unhappiness, and we will see the value of loving ourselves and cultivating a heart of self-compassion. Love will enter our thoughts, words, and actions.”
This inspired, within me, to practice what I preach, Loving-Kindness (Metta) meditation. I invite you to join me in this daily meditation practice, to grow your mind, improve distress tolerance, and increase compassion. I invite you to join me, in this meditation journey towards self-compassion. I'll be documenting my reflections via this blog, please feel free to comment on your own experiences.
I'll begin my journey by using a guided meditation by Tara Brach, a psychotherapist and spiritual teacher of meditation. I've tested out many, and find hers to be the best for me, but maybe you have one you like? You can find the Loving Kindness meditation here.
Lastly, I want to express gratitude to those who continue to show support, share love, and trust their vulnerability with me.