Last week we started exploring the practice of lovingkindness as a pathway to happiness, and in particular we talked about the benefits of seeing the goodness in ourselves and others.
Today I would like to talk a bit more about the practice of lovingkindness for oneself, and explore the possible blocks to cultivating friendliness towards oneself.
Sometimes people think that mindfulness meditation is a dry, technical exercise of concentration. In fact, cultivating the heart goes hand in hand with a mindfulness practice. If you remember the two wings of mindfulness: the first wing is the wing of awareness, seeing clearly what’s happening, and the second is allowing with loving presence, welcoming each experience with kindness and openness, not judging or resisting, simply making space for whatever arises.
Friendliness and self-compassion are at the core of all mindfulness practices. When we practice mindfulness, a key supportive attitude is to be kind and patient towards oneself, and to remain mindful of not judging or criticizing oneself for our short-comings during practice.
In our culture, the idea of loving oneself may be seen as narcissistic, selfish, and self-indulgent. In fact it’s the opposite, just as we need to secure our own oxygen mask before helping our children. We are born ready to love and be loved, it is innate, wired into our nervous system, we need connection. The meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg reminds us that loving kindness meditation for ourselves is a powerful way to deepen our inner strength. “If we grow a strong sense of self-respect within ourselves, it will allow us to draw boundaries, respond to unfair treatment and join with others in a sense of common cause”.
Why is it so difficult for us to love ourselves and be self-compassionate?
The negativity bias
We spoke about this before, our evolution has led us to develop a negativity bias as the survival strategies of our ancestors have left their imprint on our nervous system and brain. We tend to focus more on threats, things that can go wrong, doom and gloom scenarios, feelings of separation and aversion.
“The brain is Velcro for the negative and Teflon for the positive” – Psychologist Rick Hanson. Positive experiences don’t stick with us, we don’t notice them as much, or if we notice them, we tend to glance over them as we scan the rest of our experience for potential dangers and disappointments.
This negativity bias impacts how we see ourselves. We tend to judge ourselves harshly, focussing on our mistakes and flaws and forgetting our qualities. Most of us have recurring doubts about our worth, we worry that we are not good enough, successful enough… It is very pervasive especially in our Western culture. The Buddhist meditation teacher Jack Kornfield talks of being at war with ourselves.
Self-reflection: As I speak, you might investigate for yourself: “Do I judge myself a lot?” “How do you speak to yourself when you make a mistake or do something wrong?”.
Cultural, societal and familial influences
How we relate to ourselves is also conditioned very early by how others, our caregivers, our greater culture, relate to us, the messages we received about our worth, these messages go in our unconscious and can take years to retrieve and articulate. For example, especially if we grow up in a family where there is a lot of judgment or criticism, or if some of our needs are not met, we might find it difficult to send loving kindness wishes towards ourselves. When their needs are not met, children tend to think that it is their fault and that something is wrong with them. Because we have been hurt, betrayed, abandoned, misunderstood, left out or put down, we put up a shield to protect ourselves from further loss and rejection and we become afraid to love. We have trouble opening to love, even for ourselves.
We are influenced by the culture we were born into, our religious background (for example, stories on original sin) , society’s projections regarding our ethnicity, race, gender, sexual orientation, our materialistic culture that stresses competition, status and success, social comparisons, messages from the media and so forth.
Therefore, our assessment of ourselves is usually in comparison to others or to some ideal or standard that we have adopted. It makes it hard to accept and love ourselves as we are. As James Baraz writes in Awakening Joy, “It seems that there is always something we would like to change in ourselves: if we have curly hair, we want straight, blue eyes, we want brown, if we tend to be quiet, we wish we were the life of the party, if we have a short fuse, we wish we were calm and patient.”
This is why I love this quote by Ram Dass:
“When you go out into the woods, and you look at trees, you see all these different trees. And some of them are bent, and some of them are straight, and some of them are evergreens, and some of them are whatever. And you look at the tree and you allow it. You see why it is the way it is. You sort of understand that it didn’t get enough light, and so it turned that way. And you don’t get all emotional about it. You just allow it. You appreciate the tree.
The minute you get near humans, you lose all that. And you are constantly saying ‘You are too this, or I’m too this.’ That judgment mind comes in. And so I practice turning people into trees. Which means appreciating them just the way they are.”
It would be great if we could start looking at ourselves and others like beautiful unique trees.
Our false refuges
To try and meet our needs and protect ourselves, we behave in ways that can cause harm to ourselves and others, we adopt strategies or false refuges, as Tara Brach calls them, to try and avoid our difficult emotions.
We try to control how we appear to others and we cover over our vulnerability, our realness. We have a notion of our good self, how we want to be, and it stops us from being real.
Self-reflection: As I speak you might sense for yourself, what is it you really want people to see about you? What is it you don’t want them to see about you? What do you do to present the good self and cover the bad self? Notice how that might be cut you off from your realness, your vulnerability…
Sometimes, we don’t even realise how much we do it, or how many moments of feeling unworthy we have. It impacts everything. When we believe that something is wrong with oneself, it is very difficult to trust a connection with other people, because we fear to be found out. It can be hard to take risks, to be creative, to relax and enjoy our moments.
To awaken self-compassion and kindness, the beginning is to be able to see that place of vulnerability and pain. The real challenge is getting that it hurts. Tara Brach gives the example of a woman who was held in a maximum security prison, and known as a bully. She took part in a mindfulness course, and at the end, she reflected : “All my life I believed that I was the bad one, the problem one, and now I know that I am suffering too.” And that recognition changed her.
The realisation of our own suffering is the beginning of a very profound healing. We often block that realisation by saying that others have it worse, but when we realise our suffering, we discover a tenderness inside us, and we become able to show kindness and compassion towards ourselves.
How can we start cultivating friendliness and kindness ourselves?
So for many of us, cultivating friendliness towards ourselves is a process that evolves over time, as we learn to let go of self-criticism and self-judgment, and of the internalised negative voices from parents, siblings, teachers, and others. It becomes what Tara Brach calls a spiritual reparenting, learning to relate to ourselves with kindness. It also requires us learning to forgive ourselves for habits and behaviours we continue to get caught in that are less than wholesome. Instead of getting caught up in judgement and self-criticism, which only feed a negative state of mind, we can begin to shift our focus to more positive ways of regarding ourselves.
Jack Kornfield describes this forgiveness ritual in an African tribe: “The Babemba people in southern Africa have an interesting approach to dealing with the personal shortcomings of tribal members. When someone acts recklessly, he or she is brought before all the villagers. Everyone stops working and gathers around for a ceremony that can typically go for days. “then each person in the tribe speaks to the accused, one at a time, each recalling the good things the person in the centre of the circle has done in his lifetime. Every incident, every experience that can be recalled with any detail and accuracy, is recounted. All his positive attributes, good deeds, strengths, and kindnesses are recited carefully and at length.” When the ceremony has ended, everyone celebrates and embraces the person as once again part of the tribe.
What if we could do some version of that for ourselves and shift the focus to all the good things there are to appreciate about ourselves?
Self-reflection: Take a moment to close your eyes and let an image of yourself come to mind, just as you are. Now let yourself be one of those villagers and tell yourself some of the good things you have done in your lifetime, and some of the good qualities you see in yourself. Sense how you feel in your body as you recall your goodness.
By inclining our mind toward looking for what is good and wholesome in us, we stop feeding the negative and start bringing the positive qualities to life.
Another word for loving kindness is friendliness. It starts with learning how to be a good friend to oneself. A good friend stays by our side in times of happiness and times of adversity, they don’t abandon us if we are in trouble, they protect us and become a refuge when we are in difficulty.
In this practice it helps to remember our fundamental wish to be happy and safe, and how this is a universal longing. You might like to picture yourself as the little child you used to be, filled with hope and dreams and innocence, bringing to life this spirit within yourself. And you might imagine directing your love toward this child, maybe holding her, as you do so.
If you find it hard to awaken these feelings of love for yourself, it can also help to bring to mind a person or a pet who loves you or loved you dearly. It could be a grand-parent or a parent, a carer, a sibling, a dog or cat, a teacher…bringing to mind the feeling of being loved and cared for unconditionally, knowing that it is possible.
James Baraz in Awakening Joy “A wise parent understands the confusion of an angry child. She knows that whether the behaviour is due to frustration, fatigue, or hunger for attention, what the child really needs is to be held in love and for the pain to be understood with compassion. The child can begin to calm down. In the same way, by tenderly holding with kind awareness the pain and confusion that gave rise to our own hurtful behaviour, we can begin to transform our suffering into compassion.”
We can start to act lovingly on our own behalf through daily simple gestures of respect: care for our body, rest for our mind, beauty for our soul in the form of music, art or nature…All of our actions from how we respond when we can’t fit into a favourite pair of jeans, to the food we eat, can mean self-love or self-sabotage.
The risk for backdraft
When people start to practice self-compassion they can actually have a negative reaction to it at first, some form of resistance to it. Chris Germer calls it the backdraft effect. It’s a firefighting term that describes what can happen in a burning house if you open the doors too fast, letting the air in too quickly, and creating an explosion. So instead firefighters poke little holes around the house to let the air in slowly to avoid the explosion.
If you take that image of the burning house and apply it to people who have experienced difficulties and lots of suffering, especially trauma, it is as though they had to close the door of their hearts to survive. So all the pain and suffering is locked inside their hearts (like the flames in the burning house), and when they start bringing self-compassion towards themselves, the fresh air of compassion rushes in and the flames of the old pain rush out: when we give ourselves unconditional love, all the memories of the ways that we have been unloved come up and come out, all the wounds and pain start releasing. It is a sign that the healing process has begun.
Therefore, we need to do it slowly so that we don’t get overwhelmed. It’s helpful to name it if it happens: that’s backdraft. It is also useful to go straight to mindfulness when backdraft is occurring without the added components of kindness and love as they can be activating for some people and create more backdraft. So we stick to basic mindfulness practices such as feeling the breath or feeling bodily sensations. Or we can stop the practice and go for a walk, have a cuppa, pet our cat. In itself it’s an act of compassion to pull back so we don’t get overwhelmed, and we can take care of ourselves. By doing so we reinforce the habit of self-compassion and friendliness towards oneself – giving ourselves what we need in the moment – planting seeds that will eventually blossom and grow.
The loving kindness practice
The capacity to love that is inherent in every one of us can be awakened and developed through the practice of lovingkindness or metta, which is a 2,500-year-old practice. It is meant to cultivate a state of mind that radiates kindness, wishing well without wanting anything in return. It uses repeated phrases, images and feelings to evoke friendliness towards oneself and others. Traditionally, we begin with ourselves and continue opening our hearts to eventually include all beings.
Typical phrases for sending lovingkindness to ourselves include:
May I be safe and healthy
May I be at peace and at ease
May I be happy
May I accept myself just as I am
Each time we say these words, we are planting seeds that will eventually blossom into kindness and love. You are welcome to choose different words that resonate with you. The more fully we can embrace the meaning of these simple good wishes, touching the feelings behind each word, the more effective they are.
The idea is to drop any expectation of what we should be feeling during the lovingkindness meditation.
At first this meditation may feel mechanical or awkward and even bring up its opposite, feelings of irritation and anger. If this happens, it is especially important to be patient and kind toward yourself, allowing whatever arises to be held in a spirit of friendliness and kind affection.
I invite you to experiment with this practice to see if it is useful to you.
And remember there is no hurry in this, what we are doing is planting seeds. It is a practice:
“Just as water drops on a stone and gradually wears it away, or just as the raindrops accumulate in the water jar, so too, drop by drop, the practice of love begins to bring the heart to flower.”
Jack Kornfield: No time like the present, The Wise Heart
Tara Brach: Radical Acceptance, True Refuge
Sharon Salzberg: Loving kindness
James Baraz: Awakening Joy
Kristin Neff, Self-compassion resources, https://self-compassion.org/