“There are whole parts of ourselves that are so unwanted that whenever they begin to come up we run away. Because we escape, we keep missing being right here, being right on the dot… Only to the degree that we’ve gotten to know our own personal pain, only to the degree that we’ve related to pain at all, will we be fearless enough, brave enough, and enough of a warrior to be willing to feel the pain of others.” – P. Chödrön
It is often impossible to love ourselves with the same unconditional ability and fullness of heart that we are capable of extending towards loving other people. It is equally far more difficult to forgive ourselves, by comparison to our innate ability to forgive others. Usually the anger we feel towards other people has a beginning, middle, and end. The anger or disappointment we tend to carry towards ourselves, however, seems to fester and persist beyond chronological borders, sometimes spanning the course of a lifetime. Indeed, beyond all the self-denial and armored resistance, it may be possible that we are in fact the hardest people to love, accept, and forgive.
To fully realize and accept such a harsh universal truth, I believe we must arrive at a point of absolute stillness, a stripped-down-to-the-bone self-awareness – to the point where we can milk and digest everything that is raw and excruciatingly honest about ourselves, with a painstaking clarity that transcends ego and self-denial. Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche asks the most poignant question of all:
‘Have we ever unmasked, stripping out of our suit of armor and our shirt and skin and flesh and veins, right down to the heart?’
And Pema Chödrön, perhaps the most outspoken writer and teacher on the topic of cultivating self-love, forgiveness, and self-healing, writes that this journey to face ourselves, “(as) embarrassing and painful (as it is), it is very healing to stop hiding from yourself.” Simply put, healing comes from not hiding from oneself — from being able to face the truth about who we are, as imperfect as we may be, despite all the flaws and embarrassing mistakes we’ve swept under the rug. Ironically, it seems that the things we elusively seek from other people are the things we are not fully capable of giving to ourselves: love, forgiveness, and acceptance. In fact, the harder it is to love, accept and forgive others, the harder it is to turn and face the mirror and turn those sentiments towards ourselves. How can we be loving and compassionate towards the world if we cannot overcome our punishing preoccupation with our own imperfections, self-scrutiny, and relentless self-blame?
“When we hear about compassion, it naturally brings up working with others, caring for others. The reason we’re not often there for others – whether for our child or our mother or someone who is insulting us or someone who frightens us – is that we’re not there for ourselves.” – P. Chödrön
The founding pillar of Buddhist philosophy is unconditional love, which is the natural precursor to compassion – beginning with love for the ‘self’ and extending to love for all living beings. The Dharma strongly stresses the importance of not judging ourselves too harshly, and treating ourselves with the compassion and respect that we ought to show others. The ability to maintain a ‘soft heart’ towards oneself has been translated by the venerable Chogyam Trungpa Ringpoche as ‘unconditional friendliness to oneself,’ or maitri. It goes without saying that one can only love another insofar as one can love oneself. Everything begins with the Self – and it is only within the self that we can begin to cultivate the greatest love of all, not only for our benefit, but also for the benefit of the greater world at large. So, during this period of renewal, on the onset of a new year pregnant with the possibility of rebirth – I invite us all to sit for a moment and reflect on everything that is good, worthy, and lovable about Our Selves. At the root of this effort lies the very seed destined to sprout the most priceless gift – a gift valuable far beyond scrutiny and doubt, a gift worth cultivating and preserving above all others. The gift of maitri.
“We already have everything we need. There is no need for self-improvement. All these trips we lay on ourselves – the heavy-duty fearing that we’re bad and hoping that we’re good, the identities that we so dearly cling to the rage, the jealousy and the addictions of all kinds – never touch our basic wealth. They are like clouds that temporarily block the sun. But all the time our warmth and brilliance are right here. This is who we really are. We are one blink of an eye away from being fully awake.” – P. Chödrön