In the last post, we looked at the difference between self-pity and self-compassion. We can further understand self-compassion by differentiating it from self-indulgence. While not exactly opposites, they don’t hang out together and come from very different perspectives.
Self-pity and self-indulgence often do hang out together, so we might judge them by the company they keep! We might say, I feel sorry for myself so I deserve to drown my sorrows in drinking, drugging, chowing down, gambling, shopping, binge-watching, social media, or any of a number of other unskillful ways to go mindless.
Using the veil metaphor, those choices come from entangled thought threads that justify the greed, aversion, and/or delusion that launch us into unskillful actions. If we can pause to notice the threads we are chasing, we can give ourselves the gift of not having to go mindless. We have much more skillful and compassionate ways to cope with whatever is arising in our lives.
First, let’s remember that when we are looking at these veils of thoughts, WE are not entangled in them. It is our ATTENTION that is currently entangled. The moment we redirect our attention, we are freed from the tangle. The more skillful we become at staying present, anchored in the senses, the more easily we can transition from mindless misery to joy, gratitude, and a sense of meaning in our lives.
When we have a craving, it seems to arrive out of nowhere. But it doesn’t really, does it? We can backtrack a thought or two to see what activated that craving. If we’re not able to pause for self-inquiry at that moment, we can at least do the next step: redirect our attention to the felt sense of being alive. If we’re out and about, say in the grocery store, we can pause to notice the colors of all the packaging, the faces of people, the feel of the cart handle. Anything to anchor awareness in this moment.
If we’re not busy, we might pause to do a sensing-in practice, like anchoring our awareness in the elements present inside our mouths: The water element of the saliva, the fire element in the warmth, the earth element in the teeth and tongue, and the air element of the breath. In this way, we are liberated from the veil that had been entangling us. Or we can let our attention remain entangled and act on those thoughts again and again. We can torture ourselves by chasing down the physical manifestation of the illusion of gratification. That’s self-indulgence.
Often after a surge of self-indulgence, we seem to have plenty of time to reflect and regret, don’t we? Oh, whoa is me, why do I always do that? But even then we can be more skillful. Instead of entangling our thoughts in self-blame, we can take a little time to notice that the nature of the thought threads that follow acts of self-indulgence are often full of negative emotions that saturate the threads and weigh them down, so that a veil that could be held lightly, is sodden, heavy, and dense. Our attention sinks into its deepening fold and we can’t see beyond it.
Just knowing that this can happen helps us to be more skillful with it when it does. Through the regular practice of meditation, walking attentively in nature, feeling the interconnection of all life, we develop the skill of awareness. Then at any moment, no matter how challenging, we can direct our attention beyond the veils of circular thinking, clearing the air so we can see what is: the sights and sounds around us, the quality of light, the texture of a tree trunk, the feel of the air on our skin, and all the other sensory wonders of this very moment, wherever we are, whatever we are doing.
If the delights of the moment are clouded by the painful aftermath of self-indulgence, we might notice the judgemental threads of thought, the activated emotions, and also the physical sensations of having indulged. We might notice discomfort: stomach pain, lethargy, malaise, disappointment, or something else. This noticing is not to punish ourselves but to weave reminder threads into the veil of self-indulgence that might help us to make wiser choices. It might help.
I remember one time years ago I was mindlessly heading toward the refrigerator to peruse even though I wasn’t hungry, and I realized there was not just one voice that saying “Yum, yum, need something, don’t know why, but doesn’t matter, food is going to fix it.” There was another calmer voice that asked, “Why am I going to the kitchen when I’m not hungry? I don’t need food right now.” Hmm, I had never heard that voice before and it did make me pause and reconsider. That thought thread was quite different from others that taunted me about what I was about to do. Those just further entangled me, making me feel that I might as well gorge on something because I was worthless. But this quiet and logical thought thread was very different. I identified it as my inner wisdom and found that following it more and other threads less always had better results. Of course, I wasn’t always successful at paying attention and I would default to old familiar patterns. But it was both surprising and comforting to know that there was another thread, a wiser thread, that, if I heeded it, could free me from the tangle of mindless misery-making.
What, if anything, do you over-indulge in? And what do you notice are the immediate consequences physically and emotionally? Notice I’m asking you to pay attention after the indulgence. One aspect of self-indulgence is the inability to notice the experience itself because at that time we go mindless, don’t we? So we don’t remember the pleasure of it. Now that’s just sad! We’re so entangled, we can’t enjoy what we are indulging in. If we were fully engaged, we would know, for example, when enough is enough.
The moment we anchor our awareness in sensation, the body guides us wisely. It’s not the body that craves over-indulgence, it’s the entangled veil of thoughts and emotions we have woven around it.
I speak from experience with my sweet tooth. First, notice I say ‘my sweet tooth’. Clearly, I have an identity veil full of thoughts and emotions about eating sweets. In childhood, having examples of sweets as a reward, expressions of love, celebration, connection, etc. The veil is full of examples of self-indulgence and the less-noticed threads of the resulting discomfort. Chasing the threads of this veil ties me up in knots of desire and self-loathing full of words like ‘pig’ and ‘weak-willed’.
Over the years, I have become more skillful. I have stopped reading while eating. I remind myself to only eat when I’m hungry, and then to stop when I’m full. One of my students in class said that it was important for her where those messages came from. If they were rules, they didn’t have the same power as if they were coming from the felt sense, the inner wisdom. A distinction worth exploring.
On a meditation retreat, most temptations to over-indulge aren’t available. But there’s still eating! What an opportunity to practice mindfulness. We eat with full attention to all the senses involved. We are in silence, we aren’t reading, we aren’t even engaging in eye contact. It’s just our plate of food and the process of eating it. Slowly, because there is nothing else to do for this time period. We can look at the food we have carefully chosen from the buffet prepared by the kitchen staff and retreat volunteers. If there’s an aroma, we can notice that. We can cultivate gratitude to everyone involved in this meal, all the way back to the plants themselves, offering their bounty.
In this way the process of eating begins well before a forkful of food is brought to the mouth. To the degree that the senses are engaged, we can relax and savor the meal. The veils of thought fall away. Staying attuned to the body, we make wise choices and pace the eating process, knowing when to pause, and when we’ve had enough. It is only when our attention gets entangled in veils full of thoughts that take our focus far away from the process, that we miss the experience and over-indulge.
Eating might not be the area where you go mindless or judgmental. But most of us have some veil or more than one veil that activates self-indulgence. So I encourage you to notice when your attention has gotten entangled in a veil of self-indulgence. And instead of chasing it to its painful conclusion, redirect your attention to the senses. That’s self-compassion.