It's a strange phenomenon how difficult people find it to love themselves. One would think it is the easiest thing in the world, because we're constantly concerned with ourselves. We're always interested in how much we can get, how well we can perform, how comfortable we can be. The Buddha mentioned in a discourse that "oneself is dearest to oneself." So with all that, why is it so difficult to actually love oneself?
Loving oneself certainly doesn't mean indulging oneself. Really loving is an attitude towards oneself that most people don't have, because they know quite a few things about themselves which are not desirable. Everybody has innumerable attitudes, reactions, likes and dislikes which they'd be better off without. Judgment is made and while one likes one's positive attitudes, one dislikes the others. With that comes suppression of those aspects of oneself that one is not pleased with. One doesn't want to know about them and doesn't acknowledge them. That's one way of dealing with oneself, which is detrimental to growth.
Another unskillful way is to dislike that part of oneself which appears negative and every time it arises one blames oneself, which makes matters twice as bad as they were before. With that comes fear and very often aggression. If one wants to deal with oneself in a balanced way, it's not useful to pretend that the unpleasant part doesn't exist, those aggressive, irritable, sensual, conceited tendencies. If we pretend we are far from reality and put a split into ourselves. Even though such a person may be totally sane, the appearance given is that of not being quite real. We've all come across people like that, who are too sweet to be true, as a result of pretense and suppression.
Blaming oneself doesn't work either. In both instances one transfers one's own reactions to other people. One blames others for their deficiencies, real or imagined, or one doesn't see them as ordinary human beings. Everyone lives in an unreal world, because it's ego-deluded, but this one is particularly unreal, because everything is considered either as perfectly wonderful or absolutely terrible.
The only thing that is real is that we have six roots within us. Three roots of good and three roots of evil. The latter are greed, hate and delusion, but we also have their opposites: generosity, loving-kindness and wisdom. Take an interest in this matter. If one investigates this and doesn't get anxious about it, then one can easily accept these six roots in everybody. No difficulty at all, when one has seen them in oneself. They are the underlying roots of everyone's behavior. Then we can look at ourselves a little more realistically, namely not blaming ourselves for the unwholesome roots, not patting ourselves on the back for the wholesome ones, but rather accepting their existence within us. We can also accept others more clear-sightedly and have a much easier time relating to them.
We will not suffer from disappointments and we won't blame, because we won't live in a world where only black or white exists, either the three roots of unwholesomeness or their opposites. Such a world doesn't exist anywhere, and the only person to be like that is an Arahant. It's largely a matter of degree in everyone else. These degrees of good and evil are so finely tuned, there's so little difference within the degrees in each one of us, that it really doesn't matter. Everybody has the same job to do, to cultivate the wholesome tendencies and uproot the unwholesome ones.
Apparently we're all very different. That too is an illusion. We're all having the same problems and also the same faculties to deal with them. The only difference is the length of training that one has had. Training which may have been going on for a number of lifetimes has brought about a little more clarity, that's all.
Clarity of thinking comes from purification of one's emotions, which is a difficult job that needs to be done. But it can only be done successfully when it isn't an emotional upheaval, but clearcut, straightforward work that one does on oneself. When it is considered to be just that, it takes the sting out of it. The charge of "I'm so wonderful" or "I'm so terrible" is defused. We are neither wonderful nor terrible. Everyone is a human being with all the potential and all the obstructions. If one can love that human being, the one that is "me" with all its faculties and tendencies, then one can love others realistically, usefully and helpfully. But if one makes a break in the middle and loves the part which is nice and dislikes the part which isn't nice enough, one's never going to come to grips with reality. One day we'll have to see it, for what it is. It's a "working ground," a kammatthana. It's a straightforward and interesting affair of one's own heart.
If we look at ourselves in that manner, we will learn to love ourselves in a wholesome way. "Just as a mother at the risk of life, loves and protects her child..." Become your own mother! If we want to have a relationship with ourselves that is realistic and conducive to growth, then we need to become our own mother. A sensible mother can distinguish between that which is useful for her child and that which is detrimental. But she doesn't stop loving the child when it misbehaves. This may be the most important aspect to look at in ourselves. Everyone, at one time or another, misbehaves in thought or speech or action. Most frequently in thought, fairly frequently in speech and not so often in action. So what do we do with that? What does a mother do? She tells the child not to do it again, loves the child as much as she's always loved it and just gets on with the job of bringing up her child. Maybe we can start to bring up ourselves.
The whole of this training is a matter of maturing. Maturity is wisdom, which is unfortunately not connected to age. If it were, it would be very easy. One would have a guarantee. Since it isn't it's hard work, a job to be done. First comes recognition, then learning not to condemn, but to understand: "This is the way it is." the third step is change. Recognition may be the hardest part for most people, it's not easy to see what goes on inside of oneself. This is the most important and the most interesting aspect of contemplation.
We lead a contemplative life, but that does not mean we sit in meditation all day long. A contemplative life means that one considers every aspect of what happens as part of a learning experience. One remains introspective under all circumstances. When one becomes outgoing, with what the Buddha termed "exuberance of youth," one goes to the world with one's thoughts, speech and action. One needs to recollect oneself and return within. A contemplative life in some orders is a life of prayer. In our way it's a combination of meditation and life-style. The contemplative life goes on inside of oneself. One can do the same thing with or without recollection. Contemplation is the most important aspect of introspection. It isn't necessary to sit still all day and watch one's breath. Every move, every thought, every word can give rise to understanding oneself.
This kind of work on oneself will bring about deep inner security, which is rooted in reality. Most people are wishing and hoping for this kind of security, but are not even able to voice their longing. Living in a myth, constantly hoping or being afraid is opposed to having inner strength. The feeling of security arises when one sees reality inside of oneself and thereby the reality in everyone else and comes to terms with it.
Let us accept the fact that the Buddha knew the truth when he said everybody had seven underlying tendencies: sensual desire, ill-will, speculative views, sceptical doubt, conceit, craving for continued existence, ignorance. Find them in yourself. Smile at them, do not burst into tears because of them. Smile and say: "Well, there you are. I'll do something about you."
The contemplative life is often lived heavy-handedly. A certain lack of joy is compensated for by being outgoing. This doesn't work. One should cultivate a certain light-heartedness, but stay within oneself. There's nothing to be worried or fearful about, nothing that is too difficult. Dhamma means the law of nature and we are manifesting this law of nature all the time. What can there be to get away from? We cannot escape the law of nature. Wherever we are, we are the Dhamma, we are impermanent (anicca), unfulfilled (dukkha), of no core-substance (anatta). It doesn't matter whether we sit here or on the moon. It's always the same. So we need a light-hearted approach to our own difficulties and those of everyone else, but not exuberance and outpouring. Rather a constant inwardness, which contains a bit of amusement. This works best. If one has a sense of humor about oneself, it is much easier to love oneself properly. It's also much easier to love everybody else.
There used to be a television show in America, called "People are Funny." We do have the oddest reactions. When they are analyzed and taken apart, they are often found to be absurd. We have very strange desires and wishes and unrealistic images of ourselves. It's quite true, "people are funny," so why not see that side of oneself? It makes it easier to accept that which we find so unacceptable in ourselves and others.
There is one aspect of human life which we cannot change, namely, that it keeps on happening moment after moment. We've all been meditating here for some time. What does the world care? It just keeps on going. The only one who cares, who gets perturbed, is our own heart and mind. When there is perturbance, upheaval, unreality and absurdity, then there is also unhappiness. This is quite unnecessary. Everything just is. If we learn to approach all happenings with more equanimity by being accepting, then the work of purification is much easier. This is our work, our own purification, and it can only be done by each one for himself.
One of the best aspects about it is that if one remembers what one is doing, keeps at it day after day without forgetting and continues to meditate, not expecting great results, little by little it does happen. That, too, just is. As one keeps working at it, there is a constant chipping away at the defilements and at the unreal thinking, because there is no happiness in that and few want to hang on to unhappiness. Eventually one runs out of things to do outside of oneself. The books are all saying the same things, the letters have all been written, the flowers have all been watered, there's nothing left except to look inside. As this happens again and again, a change takes place. It may be slow, but when we have been here so many lifetimes, what's a day, a month, a year, ten years? They're all just happening.
There's nothing else to do and there's nowhere else to go. The earth is moving in a circle, life is moving from birth to death without us having to move at all. It's all happening without our help. The only thing we need to do is to get to reality. Then when we do, we will find that loving ourselves and loving others is a natural outcome of that. Because we are concerned with reality and that is the heart's real work -- to love. But only if we've also seen the other side of the coin in ourselves and have done the work of purification. Then it is no longer an effort or a deliberate attempt, but it becomes a natural function of our inner feelings, inward directed but shining outward.
The inward direction is an important aspect of our contemplative life. Whatever happens inwardly has direct repercussions on what takes place outwardly. The inner light and purity cannot be hidden, nor can the defilements.
We sometimes think we can portray something we are not. That is not possible. The Buddha said that one only knows a person after having heard him speak many times and having lived with him for a long time. People generally try to show themselves off as something better than they really are. Then, of course, they become disappointed in themselves when they fail, and equally disappointed in others. To realistically know oneself makes it possible to truly love. That kind of feeling gives the light-heartedness to this job in which we're engaged, which is needed. By accepting ourselves and others as we truly are, our job of purification, chipping away at the defilements, is made much easier.
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Path and Fruit by Ayya Khema