This month I’m cultivating the value of self-compassion and this choice comes more from resignation than overt motivation. I have been avoiding this practice because it is so hard for me, but I also believe that this particular form of acceptance is the genomic structure for all other love that a person offers to the world. I’m dreading doing this, but I also can’t quite patch together a convincing veil of denial as to its importance. So here I sit, sad, mad, and blank, forcing myself to keep typing and see what happens.
Self-compassion is not a strength of mine, but I experience it as the acceptance that precedes the ability to love oneself, and the willingness to act on one’s own behalf, out of love. It is the mechanism that allows us to erode the barriers within ourselves so that we stop perceiving them as barriers to relationship with others. And from this work I hope, eventually, to live mostly in a state where I respect how little I know, and have an unshakable faith that my existence is a small and precious contribution to the great mystery of how the world unfolds.
I found myself unsure how to approach this month’s practice. So I’m going back to basics on the premise that self-care is the foundation of self-love. Half of my tasks are geared towards basic physical health – stabilizing and raising my energetic baseline is essential to my well-being. All but one of the tasks are concrete and structurable. I feel like I’m a long way from an automatic, healthy emotional response towards myself, but I am capable of discrete tasks to nurture myself.
Oddly, detachment from my sense of self strikes me as an important part of learning self-compassion. Adopting an alternative perspective on myself – treating myself like a beleaguered friend-child, one that I adore and want to nurture and restore back to its full health – feels like a viable path to cultivating self-compassion successfully. This seems backwards, to leave oneself to love oneself, but I suppose it makes sense if you’re not starting from the healthiest of places. Plenty of good advice suggests that when you cannot manifest the emotions you want, start by enacting the desired outcome instead; so this month I am leading with form.
- Daily metta practice – These are formal sits to cultivate feelings of love and compassion for myself and others. I tend to do metta when I am burned out, or destabilized from insight practice, and set it aside the rest of the time, especially when I am feeling good. As much as I value the relief of metta, I’m sure this pattern causes me to miss most of the richness and benefits of the practice.
- Eat well and regularly – Eat a healthier and more structured diet. Set aside the time to plan meals, shop for the food I need, and prepare and eat food that will sustain my energy level through out the day.
- Exercise three times per week. I know this is critical for health and energy. Exercise grounds me in my body and cultivates vibrancy.
- Take nature walks three times per week. Spending time in nature is one of the most restorative activities I can do for myself, and also one of the easiest – all I have to do is show up and be there. Every time I go into the natural world I am amazed at the beauty, the competency, and the abundance of the system. I find it deeply reassuring, that as an organic being, I too have a place in the correct order of things.
- Write myself a daily note of thanks for the work I did well. I often feel sad and disappointed that my efforts go unrecognized by others. It seems unreasonable that I should expect anyone else to do something I’m not willing to do myself, so this task is to start setting that right, and hold myself accountable for success.
- When I am struggling, which I surely will, answer the question: What do I need to do now, so that later I will be proud of how I acted? Then do that.
- Get enough sleep. Lights out by 10:00.
I expect this will be uncomfortable and I won’t like it a lot of the time. I expect that even though these tasks are designed to nurture myself, I will feel like I’m not doing them right, or like they’re not working. When I’m feeling resistant, I expect a lot mental negotiations (manipulation) about how the most caring thing will be to cut myself a break. I expect that any success I have will be modest; I am not going to undo a lifetime of learned behavior in a few weeks. I expect that there will be some nice moments that connect me to that deep strength we all have that is the catalyst for beautiful action in the world. I expect that I will feel more loving towards others, and that will help reinforce my practice, and compassion for myself.
What do I Value?
I value living a life that is in alignment with The Way. I value the chance to live a life where all of my actions become an offering of gratitude for the life I’ve been given. I value the chance to be loved by others, because they trust their love is safe with me – that I have (l)earned the privilege of receiving love by first loving myself. I value feeling safe and confident. I value living a life that offers something to the world, and makes it a more beautiful place. I value having enough within myself that I can give freely, easily, and joyfully.
What do I Want?
I want to be vital. I want to believe I have a purpose in the world and be grateful for the chance to serve that purpose honorably. I want turning inward to be a peaceful, restorative, confidence-building activity. I want to love and trust myself a lot more than I do now. I want to be at home in my own heart.
Where is the Resistance?
I am susceptible to moods of debilitating despair. Practicing self-compassion during these times seems impossible, in part because it opens up space so painful that it’s simply intolerable – I just shut down. So, there will be a lot of resistance during these swings because it is easier to collapse, than to push back against a force that strong. What I’m hoping to gain through this practice is a new version of surrender – one which doesn’t deny, or fight, the truth of the experience, but also does not remain passive to it.
Self-love is the first love, but also the last. Confronting my skilllessness in this area is just extraordinarily painful, because it lays bare the truth and responsibility of abandoning oneself. There is no one else to blame, and no one else to help. I’m afraid to know the magnitude of work required to build an eternal castle. I’m ashamed of my fear and immaturity, and that’s going to creep into my practice in all sorts of ways.
What am I Willing to do?
I am willing to try, and keep trying. I am willing to do my best.
I am willing to be honest.
I am willing to do the tasks I’ve committed to.
I am willing to do the planning and pre-work required so that my tasks have a place in my days, and the highest chance of success. It is hard to relax into the inherent pleasure of something, if I am rushing through it for lack of foresight. Habitual rushing is a form of self-abuse.
I am willing to prioritize my practice over other activities.
What is Gained and Lost?
- The ability to see myself more objectively. Being fair to myself seems like a critical interim step towards a strong foundation of self-love.
- More energy and more vitality. Basic care for my body (diet, exercise, rest) will result in a higher, more stable energetic baseline. Pleasure opens as a possibility, when everything stops feeling like a chore. I remember a version of myself that was vivacious, and I want this back.
- Confidence. This practice, and sharing it publicly, is hard for me, scary. I’m really self-conscious about it. Having some success in this practice – just being willing to start – is so important for teaching myself the skill of pushing through my (dis)comfort level and proving to myself what I’m truly capable of.
The protection of my illness. I am recovering from a severe depression that radically altered my life. This is real and important work. But at the same time, there is a part of me that’s fearful, probably terrified, of rejoining the world where I got so sick to begin with. I am fearful of making the same mistakes again. I am fearful of engaging in a culture that I feel often brutally pushes us out of balance, and divorces us from our basic human needs of connection to ourselves, to others, and to our environment. I don’t like being sick. I sincerely want my life and vitality back. I desperately want to learn how to do this for myself. I believe this is possible, but I don’t know how to do it, and paradoxically, perversely, “staying” sick allows me to delay creating a phase of my life that I literally can’t even imagine yet. It is a resistance so vague I don’t know how to find it, or drop it, but I sense it as a nearly constant presence.
I’m trying something new in this post – adding the resources that directly influenced my choice for the month. Part of what this year of practice is about is investigating the ways in which traditional teachings and modern perspectives on meditation come together to form American styles of contemplative practice. I also want to recognize how the work of others is influencing me, and express my gratitude.
This month, my special thanks to Gil Fronsdal for his dharma talk on willpower, and to my friend Keri, whose courage and honesty in her writing is a tremendous inspiration to me. I bow to you both, with gratitude and respect.