Cultivating self-acceptance isn’t always easy, especially during stressful times like we find ourselves in right now. So our next installment in our series of online talks and emails will be on the topic of how to find self-acceptance through loving kindness practices.
If you’d like to explore this topic with us more, you can join Senior Teacher Sandra Ladley on July 25th for an online interactive talk on the topic, and/or read a little in-depth discussion about it from Senior Teacher Melissa Moore here :
"How to Cultivate Self-Acceptance through Loving Kindness Practice"
Everyone could benefit right now from some good old fashioned loving kindness practice. We find ourselves in extremely difficult times to put it mildly, living through what appears to be the COVID Era. We are dealing with serious and overdue societal and global unrest against police brutality, white supremacy, and systemic racism; the upcoming US elections are looming in November and promise to be unpredictable at best; the oncoming hurricane season and ecological disaster; an impending global Economic Recession/Depression. Are we hyperventilating yet?
In the wise words of Suzuki Roshi, “don’t add things up!” It is rarely useful to make a list of all the things that are going wrong, or a list of all the things we have to do (as I just did) because it's simply too overwhelming, and not helpful. I did so in order to underline the strenuousness of the times we are sharing. I also know that how each of us maps on to these headlines is different and challenging in ways I cannot know. When you add up everything we are currently facing as a society, it would be abnormal if you were not feeling overwhelmed. It becomes imperative to take care of ourselves in this kind of scenario.
Life is showing up as extreme right now. It matters more than ever whether we accept ourselves enough to simply be kind to ourselves. The ability to treat ourselves kindly and radiate love to ourselves in the face of life’s constant challenges, is an expression of self-acceptance. Thus, learning to practice loving kindness is essential in times like these.
Traditional Loving Kindness Practice:
There is a traditional practice that fosters the capacity for lovingkindness.
- To start, call to mind someone you love and wish them everything good.
- Then call to mind someone you don’t know well and offer the same good wishes.
- Then bring up someone you struggle with and wish them well in the same way.
If, in doing this practice, we find we are unable to offer these good wishes, for whatever reason, then we surround our inability to do so with the same lovingkindness. We love ourselves for where we are, we accept ourselves as we are. This is the practice of loving kindness: self acceptance and the acceptance of others as they are; wishing all to be happy. That is the traditional approach to loving kindness, or Maitri practice in Buddhist Psychology.
Finding Happiness In The Present Moment
To learn what breeds genuine happiness for others means we understand what makes us truly happy. We don’t always know what that is; we sometimes think Netflix will make us happy—and sometimes it does—or a drink will, or some substance, but is that actually more like self-medicating and numbing ourselves from the moment? What genuinely brings open-hearted happiness? We have to investigate that for ourselves.
We sometimes identify happiness with achievement; we can be happy only when we succeed at something, like staying on a diet or completing a project. We sometimes identify happiness with being good; we can only be happy when we approve of ourselves. We all, at times, set conditions for allowing ourselves to be happy: “I can only be happy if….”
But maybe happiness doesn’t have to be an achievement. It can be as simple as admiring a raindrop on the window, or watching a plant grow. The smile of a child, the snuggle of a cat. So much is available to us when we come into the present moment and don’t depend on conditions to deliver our happiness to us—moments of the simplicity of the elements and the warmth of the human heart.
We often lose ourselves in our drama and feel as if the world is ending, and it may very well be when we consider the weekly headlines. But there is something simple and real to find underneath the chaos.
In Buddhist language, the chaos we continually find ourselves in is called Samsara. It is said that samsara is endless, because we endlessly get caught in resisting life as it is, and out of that resistance we create difficulties for ourselves. We cover over what is really going on—in the weather, in nature, in the greater society, in our privilege, in our children’s lives, in our families lives, in the heart of humanity, in our own hearts. Samsara is the natural ebb and flow of confusion, pain and suffering we evolve for ourselves when we are born as human beings, it is unavoidable according to Buddhist psychology, but we can learn to be wise with the inevitability of its ebb and flow. We take it as our teacher.
The alternative to samsara is “nirvana”, a state of experience free from the self-produced suffering of resisting and covering up what is real. It is also easy to become attached to seeking nirvana and denying samsara, denying suffering - and this never works. Most of us are flickering back and forth between samsara and flashes of nirvana, and we can consider them to be two mind-states that we easily touch into all the time.
This moment I’m happy, this moment I’m sad, now I’m confused, now I’m bored, now I desire this and I don’t desire that, and now I think I am right and you are wrong… around and around we go on the wheel of samsara. But flashes of simple presence surprise us when we relax the project of fixing things.
In Karuna, we actually study that wheel of samsara and nirvana from a Buddhist Psychology perspective and our mission is to learn how not to be seduced by either Samsara or Nirvana. We learn the value of not preferring one mind-set over the other, but relating to what is as it is, and taking that to heart to ripen our wisdom. Our view is that attachment to either samsara or nirvana has deceptive aspects. The main point of meditation practice and cultivating a path of loving kindness is to open your heart to everything that arises in your life and to experience it all equally with awareness. The practice of lovingkindness is a method for making friends with ourselves, others, and our world as it is.
Cultivating Friendliness Towards Ourselves and Our Experiences
The practice of loving kindness includes the aspects of ourselves we do not accept and which we go to battle with daily. It's not that we need to indulge our self-destructive activities in order to accept ourselves; we have to love ourselves enough to find our human heart and accept our foibles and difficult issues, so that we can do something about them. If we are at war with aspects of ourselves that we don’t accept, then we never allow ourselves to touch into the truth of what these things are doing to ourselves and to others.
For example, those of us who are white and really do think Black Lives Matter, are up against the inquiry of how we are oblivious to that truth day to day and moment to moment. It’s extremely uncomfortable to feel into because we take so much of our privilege for granted. If we hold ourselves hostage in shame and guilt we’re paralyzed. What we’re making friends with in ourselves is the discomfort of our ignorance. Along the way we learn to discover, face, feel, and accept our behavioral habits, our emotional energy, and our lives for what they have to teach us.
Along the way, we eventually learn to offer loving kindness toward others, which also arises out of making friends with and being curious about the way things really are, not our interpretations and projections of who others are.
The cultivation of friendliness toward ourselves is important because otherwise we leave ourselves behind in our efforts of being kind to others. We have ideas of what kindness looks like and we try to smear these ideas all over others. This is what we do when we’ve not genuinely made friends with ourselves. People sense it. Have you ever met a “kind” person who was trying to do everything right? It is like you feel smeared with some kind of honey and butter and you can’t put your finger on what feel’s off with all this kindness coming toward you. This is what can happen if we try to be kind without genuinely making friends with ourselves and all the complicated energy underneath.
Loving Kindness Practice For Accepting Our Own Experiences:
Here is a loving kindness contemplation that you can use to practice being kind to yourself and meeting your experiences as they are:
1. Imagine something that is bothering you right now in your life, an issue or a problem. You don’t even have to think too much about it; you are probably familiar with the atmosphere of this already in your mind. Tune into the atmosphere and energetic feelings of this issue in this present moment. Then just take the time to feel where this issue lands in your body.
2. Then take a minute to pick one spot where this energy pools in your body and place your hands on this spot. Then hold this energy in your body like it is precious. If it's in your heart, your throat, your gut, or your right ear—wherever it is, just stay with the energy and listen to yourself, accept yourself exactly as you are feeling. Breathe. This may lead to crying or other emotions, just stay with it.
3. Once you genuinely learn to feel your energy fully in your body, you naturally learn to drop out of your head and to feel yourself, like you are a mother listening to your crying toddler; you may not understand the pain, but you know you are upset. You can be kind and curious toward yourself, and stay with the feeling and the pain in yourself to befriend and comfort yourself.
4. Eventually if you stay long enough with the energy, it will change, because that is the nature of energy. It is dynamic. Once it changes, just let go, take a few deep breaths and feel how you feel now.
Meeting Our Emotional Energy
To hear and feel what is - is to wake up. Emotional, physical and mental energies ball up in us, and the quickest way to access the information of our feelings is through our bodies. Just by staying with emotional and psychic energy as it is arising in ourselves, using the body as an anchor, we are accepting ourselves as we are.
In Karuna Training we learn to take emotional energy as our teacher. Emotional energy is by nature dynamic, it always changes if we attend to it. It builds up if we damn it up and try to suppress it or ignore it, and eventually it explodes in all kinds of ways: chronic headaches, depression, addiction, etc. Or if we act out energy—just let it all go—we end up adding more fuel - making it bigger than it is. That’s right: screaming under a bridge is not necessarily therapeutic, although it might feel good.
There is an ancient Tibetan Buddhist saying;
“When the world is filled with evil, transform all mishaps into the Path of Bodhi.”
Bodhi means simply ‘wakefulness’, and this slogan encourages the practitioner of loving kindness to bring to our hearts whatever we meet in our lives. What that means is to feel our life as it is arising—not in an attempt to suppress and manage the feelings, not in an attempt to try and fix the feelings, but meeting the circumstances of our life as they arise. Learning to meet our life this way is a path in its own right, and it is a big ask! That is why we have Karuna Training.
Why would anyone want to do that? Why would anyone want to meet the heat of the energy as it is arising? Many of us are working hard to just keep our heads down and get through the day and pay the rent on time. But this slogan is directing us to open up and feel because that is what brings wakefulness and wakefulness is self-acceptance.
Wakefulness is the kindness of accepting what is true. It is only when we practice genuine friendliness toward what is arising that we can begin to intelligently read the messages of our lives.
If I peruse the landscape of my life currently; there are a lot of problems. Not to add things up, but all of us are being challenged in some ways to adapt to the new reality of COVID at the very least. I also have friends undergoing cancer treatment, another friend has lost their job and is wondering how to pay their mortgage. All we have to do is relax in the moment for these experiences to open our hearts. That act of opening our hearts is an act of self-acceptance. It might mean that we cry or even fall apart, or we may need to speak difficult words to someone. Good; we need each other. We need to be listened to and bear witness to the atrocities of our times. We may need to be witnessed and to bear witness to others’ suffering.
“When the world is filled with evil, transform all mishaps into the Path of Bodhi.”
This slogan is at the heart of Contemplative psychology; learning to feel and open—with curiosity, with wonderment—to whatever it is we are avoiding in ourselves, in our lives, in the world.
The COVID era has offered us some space to reflect on the habits of distraction and filling space mindlessly—socializing, or whatever. Maybe we’ve found ways to fill our time virtually anyway, but maybe there has been time to take walks in nature, or perhaps as an essential worker your main happiness is being home safe with your family. Maybe it's your new puppy’s warm breath that makes you happy. Perhaps it's your Peonies, or the sun as it comes through the window at 5:30 AM, or the blue sky and bird song at 7 AM, or hosting family zoom calls. What is it that truly generates happiness? This is an important question, but one we can only find the answer to by opening up to the present moment.