“The most fundamental aggression to ourselves, the most fundamental harm we can do to ourselves, is to remain ignorant by not having the courage and the respect to look at ourselves honestly and gently.”-Pema Chodron
I am currently leading an eight-week Self-Compassion course, where we explore practices to help develop unconditional friendship and gentleness with ourselves. For many, the idea of self-compassion, or being gentle with themselves, is nauseating. Some are too distracted to notice how cruel they are toward themselves, while others are painfully aware of the ways they attack themselves, and the suffering it causes. Many seem to believe they deserve their harsh treatment, or that the brutal self-criticism is the only way they will find the motivation to get “better”. When I ask people to pause and to reflect honestly, they begin to sense how most of the suffering in their life is due to their own self-aversion, the ways they react to the “failures”.
There is a parable about a teacher who asked his student, “If a person is struck by an arrow, is it painful?” The student replied, “It is.” The teacher then asked, “If the person is struck by a second arrow, is that even more painful?” The student replied again, “It is.” The teacher then explained, “In life, we cannot always control the first arrow. However, the second arrow is our reaction to the first. And with this second arrow comes the possibility of choice.”
The first arrow is our conditioning as humans to grasp after comfort and pleasure and to push away experiences that are uncomfortable. These are primal energies that willpower is no match for. Somewhere we got the faulty idea that we should be able to control our “negative” emotions, and then we get down on ourselves when they take us over. Or we think we should be able to stop our obsessive thoughts or compulsive behaviors, and then we’re frustrated at the end of the day by how our cravings for food or attention, or our anxious rehearsing, took us over.
The second arrow is our reactions to these “failures”. I meet with patients every day who have subtle, or not so subtle, self-aversion. Some attack themselves for their addiction to food, drugs, or alcohol, or for feeling insecure and flustered, or because they continually push others away and aren’t able to feel intimacy in their relationships. It doesn’t occur to them to direct their attention to the difficult emotions behind their actions. Instead, they quickly shoot themselves with the second arrow of self-blame.
It appears to me in the work I do with people, that practicing self-compassion is the greatest challenge I can pose. What seems to be most painful is how we feel about ourselves-how we condemn ourselves for our anger, our cravings, or our inadequacy in relationships or at work. People often cringe at the idea of being gentle with what they feel is unacceptable.
The message of the second arrow is “There is something wrong with me”. We become convinced by this message and are harsh and unforgiving with ourselves. Our attempts to conquer our weakness and change ourselves for the better only reinforce our conviction that we are flawed or damaged. This core sense of badness leads to the next round of aggression, defensiveness or paralysis that further sustains our suffering.
While we can’t stop the first arrow, we have a choice about the second. We can decide to do something different. Instead of attacking ourselves for how we are feeling, thinking, and acting, we can recognize that we are at war with ourselves. This provides the opportunity to pause, to pay closer attention to the ways we cause ourselves further pain. We need to have enough mindfulness to notice when we are caught in a difficult emotion, or looping thought, and enough self-compassion to care about it, and to relate to ourselves in a way that will bring relief, not further difficulty. It is not until we are willing to see ourselves clearly that we are able to change.
The first step in this process can be the most terrifying – we’ve got to get to know ourselves. We need to know how to look at ourselves with clarity, to stay with ourselves when every bit of our being wants to reach for a drink, or log onto Facebook. If you’re paying attention, you know how hard it is to keep your heart open when what you see in yourself seems too painful, too embarrassing, or even shameful. Instead, you reach for your phone, or a drink, anything to avoid the raw sensations of being human, being vulnerable.
Pema Chödrön, an author and meditation teacher, shares a letter she received from a student: “You talk about gentleness all the time,” he began, “but secretly, I always thought that gentleness was for girls.” As you can imagine, when this man took a shot at being gentle with himself, his ideas about gentleness shifted. He realized that it takes a lot of courage to be gentle when faced with things in himself he found embarrassing.
Anyone who has practiced mindfulness has experienced how it makes you feel and see more. When we start to become more mindful, we begin to notice the traits in ourselves that we don’t like, whether it’s selfishness, insecurity, jealousy or fear. This is why mindfulness is not enough. This mindfulness must be met with compassion, which asks us to look deeper and to meet whatever we find with gentleness. When we can see our addictions with clarity, we are able to see the sadness behind having another drink, the loneliness behind another joint.
Pema explains, “When you have a true friend, you stick together year after year, but you don’t put your friend up on a pedestal and think that they’re perfect. You two have had fights. You’ve seen them be really petty, you’ve seen them mean, and they’ve also seen you in all different states of mind. Yet you remain friends, and there’s even something about the fact that you know each other so well and still love each other that strengthens the friendship. Your friendship is based on knowing each other fully and still loving each other.”
It is only through unconditional friendship with yourself that your “issues” will budge. Shaming yourself, repressing your tendencies, judging yourself—these will only keep you stuck. With mindfulness and compassion, you catch on to what helps and what hurts; what increases suffering and eases it; what leads to well-being and what blocks it. You begin to care for yourself, and you no longer want to make yourself, or anyone else, suffer.
As a Psychologist, mindfulness and compassion are essential. I can’t be helpful to my patients if I don’t have the practice of being present to everything I see in myself, meeting it with kindness, and staying with myself no matter what. If I have the habit of shutting down on myself, that is what I will naturally do with patients. When my patients present an aspect of themselves that to them seems unbearable, I’m able to help them stay present with what they don’t want to see, and I don’t reflexively shut down on them. I’m able to be right there with them for whatever they are going through. This requires the courage to look at ourselves with kindness and gentleness, which takes tremendous guts. It would be too painful to see ourselves clearly if we didn’t commit to meeting everything we find with kindness and gentleness. We would never look, or we would spend our whole lives in hiding.
It can be incredibly challenging to allow yourself to make contact with the raw feeling of anger, fear, jealousy, neediness, shame, guilt, unworthiness. Our biologically wired conditioning is to avoid pain and pursue pleasure (first arrow). And, if you’re able to practice staying present to what you see and feel within (mindfulness), and show it kindness (self-compassion), you’ll learn to trust that you no longer need to leave out the parts of yourself that are too painful to acknowledge. It’s possible to accept all aspects of yourself, not just the parts you like. When you’re no longer hiding parts of yourself from yourself, you become a bit more genuine.
When you are present to all of your uncertainties and are able to look at the places inside that you often exile, you become genuine, and the mask, the persona you show the world, drops away. You feel you can trust yourself because you’re not conning yourself, or other people. You’re genuine because you have seen all there is to see about yourself. This doesn’t mean that you’ll never be embarrassed or uncomfortable with what you see, but it does mean that you’ll stop running away. You no longer avoid experiencing what you are feeling through some form of suppressing, like eating, drinking, drugs, or any other addiction. You no longer instinctively put on the armor, which takes tremendous courage. You slowly develop a heart that is willing to experience all of life, a heart that is willing to remain present, no matter what.
Self-Observation Without Judgment
Release the harsh and pointed inner
voice. It’s just a throwback to the past,
and holds no truth about this moment.
Let go of self-judgment, the old,
learned ways of beating yourself up
for each imagined inadequacy.
Allow the dialogue within the mind
to grow friendlier, and quiet. Shift
out of inner criticism and life
suddenly looks very different.
I can say this only because I make
the choice a hundred times a day to release the voice that refuses to
acknowledge the real me.
What’s needed here isn’t more prodding toward perfection, but
intimacy – seeing clearly, and
embracing what I see.
Love, not judgment, sows the
seeds of tranquility and change.
From “One Soul”