Meditation is an act of self-love

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Elizabeth Gilbert, author of the book Eat, Love and Pray, posted the following on Instagram a few days ago:

Love the one in you who is sad.

Love the one in you who is scared.

Love the one in you who is angry.

Love the one in you who is lonely.

Love the one in you who hates herself.

Love all the ones who you are,

And then you will know how to love the world.

Do you want to love the world? Many of us have made a commitment to do so. After all, it is the teaching of many of the world’s religions. Yet, most people find it difficult to love the world. How do we start? Elizabeth Gilbert’s recommendation is a very good one. We start by loving the multitude in us who is sad, scared, angry, lonely, hateful, etc. In other words, we have to start by loving those parts of ourselves which are not particularly likable. This is part of what Carl Jung called “shadow work.”

Most people have very little understanding of self-love. In his book, The Art of Loving, Erich Fromm devoted ten pages to the discussion of self-love, partly because of its importance and partly because it is so misunderstood. The most common fallacy is to equate self-love with narcissism. Fromm observed that in Western thought, “it is assumed that to the extent I love myself I do not love others, that self-love is the same as selfishness.” Further, Fromm remarked that we typically don’t consider self-love as a form of genuine love. Rather, love and self-love are considered as mutually exclusive — the more we have one, the less we have the other. These are all very common understanding of self-love. But they are also wrong. Self-love is not an expression of selfishness. You cannot really love yourself without first understanding yourself. And you cannot understand yourself without quieting down and listening to yourself. If you simply indulge yourself without enlightening your various desires with wisdom, that is a recipe for suffering — yours and others’. There is much wisdom with the saying “Be careful with what you wish for.”

Self-love distinguishes between wants and needs. It also distinguishes between what is immediately pleasurable with what is good for your long-term well-being. Self-love understands the root cause of happiness and the root cause of suffering, because the practice of self-love is closely related to the practice of deep mindfulness. You observe, on a daily basis, the arising and decline of various feelings and emotions. You turn on the video camera of your own psyche. Through such close observation, you can see for yourself the true source of happiness and sorrow.

Today, meditation has become globalized. I have been a teacher for over 15 years. Recently, I see meditation being taught in the public school system, even on an elementary level. Still, there are many people who dislike meditation. I find that interesting. What really is meditation? It is spending time with yourself and becoming intimate with yourself. Some people find meditation boring. This may have to do with the fact that they have bad teachers, and they do not understand the essence of meditation. If you find meditation boring, you are essentially bored with yourself and don’t care to find out more about yourself. If you don’t enjoy your time of solitude, then you probably don’t enjoy your own company. As a writer, I cannot do without solitude. Solitude gives me a chance to quiet down, eliminate the distractions and get in touch with my own soul. Without solitude, I cannot write anything of quality. In many ways, the writing process is a kind of meditation.

Some people dislike meditation for a different reason. It is not that they cannot concentrate. In fact, these people have achieved a certain degree of success with meditation. They manage to see themselves in the light of inner awareness. But they dislike what they see! Buddha taught in the Satipatthana Sutta, the four foundations of mindfulness — mindfulness of (1) body, (2) feelings, (3) “mind”(or mental states) and (4) mental objects. What are these mental states? It includes a full range of human emotions. The “negative” ones include greed, lust, jealousy, fear, sorrow, dislike, anger and hate. The “positive” ones include happiness, joy, compassion, kindness, gratitude, etc. In his book, What the Buddha Taught, Walpola Rahula said that “we must admit that very often we are afraid or ashamed to look at our own minds.” Yes, there are times when we are disgusted with ourselves. Self-love is not always easy. Just like Elizabeth Gilbert said, we need to learn to love the aspects of ourselves which are not particularly likable. Our selves which are sad, scared, angry, lonely, hateful, lusty, etc. Sometimes we are simply pathetic. If we are always likeable, then we don’t need love. But love is an ability — the ability to love that which is rejected by society, and by ourselves. Vipassana meditation has to do with cultivating awareness and developing a habit of self-observation. Walpola Rahula said that in order to succeed in observing one’s mind (or heart), “one should be bold and sincere and look at one’s own mind as one looks at one’s face in a mirror.” One has to have courage.

Meditation is a gentle art. We can learn more about ourselves and understand ourselves if we do away with value judgment when engaged in this process of observation. Walpola Rahula explained:

Here is no attitude of criticizing or judging, or discriminating between right and wrong, or good and bad. It is simply observing, watching, examining. You are not a judge, but a scientist. When you observe your mind, and see its true nature clearly, you become dispassionate with regard to its emotions, sentiments and states. Thus you become detached and free, so that you may see things as they are.

This non-judgmental/no-labeling approach is absolutely crucial. There is a strong undercurrent of moralism in the major religions, including both Buddhism and Christianity. In 1994, I published an article titled Vipassana Meditation: Video Camera of the Psyche in Quest magazine. In that article, I suggest that it is helpful to be open and accepting when we observe our own psyche. Why? This has much to do with human psychology. If you are familiar with Freudian psychology, you will know that our ego has many “defense mechanisms.” No one wants to look bad, even privately, to themselves. A critical or judgmental approach would easily trigger our defense mechanisms so that we will no longer see things clearly and honestly. In addition, “problems” will not go away because of resentment, loathing or condemnation. The Buddha taught that “hate is not overcome by hate, but only by love; this is the eternal rule.” This applies not only to other people and external objects. It also applies to our own psyche and mental states.

Here, I would like to introduce a strategy. I recommend that we visualize our internal observer as the “parent” and the negative emotions and disturbing mental states as our “children.” A wise parent does not attempt to correct the wayward behavior of a young child by beating him up. Rather, he shines light on that behavior and tries to understand why a certain behavior appears. As a professional teacher, I have experienced many students with behavioral issues. A child who is acting up in the classroom typically has no ill will towards the teacher. It is seldom about the teacher. There may be problems at home, issues with the parents, broken homes and other underlying issues. Many years ago, I had an eighth grade female student who was constantly causing disturbance in my classroom. Upon investigation, I found that her mother was in jail in Argentina and she was under the care of her grandmother. An enlightened approach to problem solving asks for reasons and causes. It is gentle and rational. An unenlightened approach does not — it simply uses brute force.

The gentle, non-judgmental approach of Vipassana meditation has a parallel in Jungian psychology, in what author Thomas Moore calls “the care of the soul.” In the first chapter of his book bearing that name, he calls us to the attention of the importance of “honoring the symptoms as a voice of the soul.” In Western medicine, there is a tendency to simply get rid of the symptoms. But even if the symptoms disappear, it does not mean that the person is therefore cured. There is no question that quality medicine goes deeper, to inquire about the underlying causes of the symptoms. The symptoms are not the enemy. Rather, they are messengers. If we hastily rid of symptoms, we may be dismissing the opportunity to hear what the symptoms are trying to tell us. It is the same in the observation of the disturbing mental states. They are simply messengers. There is a bigger story. Just like Vipassana meditation, Thomas Moore recommends respectful observation. He wrote:

“Care of the soul begins with observance of how the soul manifests itself and how it operates. We cannot care for the soul unless we are familiar with its ways. Observance is a word from ritual and religion. It means to watch out for but also to keep and honor, as in the observance of a holiday. The -serv- in observance originally referred to tending sheep. Observing the soul, we keep an eye on its sheep, on whatever is wandering and grazing — the latest addiction, a striking dream, or a troubling mood.”

There is healing power, even “magic,” in pure observation. When I first practiced Vipassana meditation, I noticed how effective simple observation is in dealing with anger. There is no need to suppress the negative emotions. We simply take notice. The reason why a stirring of a displeasure turns into a full rage which is uncontrollable is because we did not notice its development in the very beginning. Walpola Rahula elaborates on the power of observation:

“The moment (the practitioner) becomes aware and mindful of that state of his mind, the moment he sees his anger, it becomes, as if it were, shy and ashamed, and begins to subside. You should examine its nature, how it arises, how it disappears.”

Back in the days when I was working in the Wall Street profession, I used to get really annoyed when the subway train was delayed. Sometimes, I turned into a full rage and started cursing. But once I started my mindfulness practice, I caught my own irrationality. A subway train is delayed for many possible reasons — a sick passenger, signal problems, mechanical failure… Many reasons, and none of them are about me. Neither the train nor its engineer had malice towards me. So, what was I angry about?

To summarize, Vipassana meditation and the practice of mindfulness are very gentle. It is the opposite of the use of brute force. It is not about the suppression of “negative” emotions. It is about cultivating sensitivity and awareness. Once you pay attention to a certain emotion or behavior, the “problem” often takes care of itself. Awareness and wisdom go a long way in helping us live a sane and balanced life. Finally, the mindfulness practice is a practice of self-love. Philosopher Simone Weil said that “attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” What better way to love ourselves than to give ourselves the attention we deserve?

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