Category Archives: loving awareness

Being Kind to Ourselves Is Not Selfish

“The purpose of studying Buddhism is not to study Buddhism but to study ourselves.” – Shunryu Suzuki, author of Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind

Meditation is the practice of creating time and space to quietly listen in. Sensing in to our breath and other sensations that arise and fall away, as do all phenomena, we open to the possibility of insight. If we pair our intention to be present with the intention to be compassionate with ourselves as we proceed, then we create a safe way to explore ourselves and the world.

We may feel some resistance to this idea of studying ourselves, just as we do to sending loving kindness to ourselves. It is likely we have been raised to focus on the outer world and to ignore and control emotions, thoughts and physical sensations. This is meant to counter self-indulgence and self-devotion. The practice of Buddhist meditation and psychology is not meant to create a narcissistic cult within us. We begin where we are with our practice, and where we are is entrenched in the seemingly permanent situation of being embodied in a particular form, having a particular series of patterns of thoughts and emotions that we believe define us. So this is what we notice. This is what we study. We develop the ability to hold our inner experience in loving awareness.

If we skip this step, whatever focus we have on the outer world will be tight, rooted in the complex patterns of fear and ignorance we harbor. We leap to the defense of this set of patterns because we believe it is who we are, and we desperately do not want to disappear!  In this fortified, calcified state we will offer up with the best intentions what we think the world wants and needs from us. We will not understand why when we are doing the best we can, these efforts are so misunderstood or poorly received. We will then blame ourselves or blame the world, causing the complex patterns to get tighter, denser and more toxic. We may seek oblivion to blind us to these patterns in the form of overindulgence in alcohol, drugs, shopping, gambling, overeating and other temporary distractions that do blind us, but also bind us even tighter to the patterns we are trying to escape. We’ve all tried at least some unskillful means of escape and have found them to be lacking. This is why so many people come to Buddhist practice after exhausting all other avenues. They come to the wisdom of ‘no escape.’

In our practice we begin where we are: Here, in this body, in this mind. We set our intention to be present and kind. That’s all. When we do this, there is a quite natural unraveling of the knot of patterns that have stymied us in our attempts to satisfy our idea of how we should be in the world. (Expectation stops the process, so notice and release impatience for a faster pace or greater rate of return on time invested. Let go of comparing mind. Just set the intentions again and again.)

Over time – days, weeks, months, lifetimes — we may notice that we are increasingly able to be in the world with a sense of being fully present, feeling, at least at times, true and universal loving kindness, a connected sense of compassion and much more. As this happens, we see that our practice has not been selfish at all. We practice on ourselves first. We are clearing the way for full engagement in the world.

In recent weeks we have been focusing on metta (loving-kindness) practice. Buddhism provides phrases for sending loving-kindness, as we have discussed previously. We begin with sending metta to ourselves, for the reasons I’ve just given. For a helpful mental aid to remind ourselves why we do this, remember that the airlines direct us to put the oxygen mask on ourselves before we put it on our children. What use will we be to our children, or anyone, if we have passed out?

If sending metta to ourselves still feels too difficult, here is an additional instruction I just learned at Jack Kornfield’s daylong retreat on Buddhist Psychology:

Send metta to first one then another person in your life for whom you have unqualified affection, for whom you want all the best. Really spend some time with the feelings that sending this metta brings up for you. Notice the physical effects, the emotional tone, the way you hold these thoughts.
Then imagine these two people sending metta to you. You can draw on moments when they have exhibited loving kindness to you or have looked at you with heartfelt caring. Let yourself stay with this experience. Let yourself receive the metta.


You might try that practice and then notice how it feels in your body, how it feels in your emotions, and how it affects your thought processes. Perhaps it feels glorious. Perhaps it feels uncomfortable. Perhaps you can’t feel it or feel shut down by the process. Just notice what is present in your experience without trying to change anything.

Perhaps you can’t imagine two people who care about you. If so, then you might imagine being in the center of a circle of Buddhist monks with a lifetime of practice sending metta and seeing the Buddha nature in all beings. Imagine them all focused on sending metta to you.

Jack told us about his experience of meeting the Dalai Lama, how no matter how many people are waiting in line to meet him, he takes the time to look deeply in your eyes, holding your hand in both of his, until there is a deep connection, acknowledgement and understanding. So imagine the Dalai Lama sending you loving kindness! (He is doing so every day in any case, when he sends lovingkindness out to all beings!)

One of the students in my Thursday class said that ten years ago she was embraced by Amma (Mata Amritanandamayi is known throughout the world as Amma, or Mother, for her selfless love and compassion toward all beings.) and had that same sense of being held until some deep connection and release was felt. We discussed that feeling of total acceptance, so different from our usual sense of striving to be liked, loved, respected or admired. The nature of loving-kindness is universal, all-encompassing.

No matter what you have done, no matter what a mess you have made of your life, you can receive loving kindness. If you have done terrible things, allowing metta into your heart will give you the courage (from coeur, French for heart) to ask forgiveness and to make amends. If it’s useful, imagine metta as warm flowing liquid dissolving the granules of anger and resentment that have been keeping you from allowing yourself to forgive those you blame for past or current conditions, that keep you from forgiving yourself.

Our practice is to notice as much as we can about our present experience and to be as kind as we are able toward ourselves and others. That’s it. We don’t have to turn ourselves inside out. Whatever changes happen arise simply out of our practice. When a shift happens, it is from tight and fearful to open and loving. But we don’t force it. We don’t demand it. We don’t beat ourselves over the head until we are the ‘right’ way.

Our practice is to notice the arising and falling away of phenomena, including our thoughts, emotions and sensations. Our practice is to be kind to ourselves and others to whatever degree we are able. Sending metta activates our ability to feel deeply connected with all beings. From that sense of deep connection, we naturally become more compassionate.

Insights into Inner Rudeness

Our recent review of four obstacles to sending metta came from a series of insights. An insight is a naturally occurring result of open curiosity, inquiry and noticing patterns and conditions both in our minds and in the world around us. The kind of meditation we do here is called Insight Meditation. An insight is possible from the very first moment we begin to be present with our experience. It’s not surprising that when we begin to look we begin to see. When we begin to notice whatever arises in our current experience, we notice assumptions and beliefs. When we question them: ‘Is that true? How do I know that’s true?’ then we set into motion an exploration with real potential for illumination. What is this illumination or insight? Greater understanding of our own current experience, our habitual patterns of thought and emotion, the filters through which we see the world, the source causes and conditions that contributed to the tight knots of fear that we all hold in a variety of ways, unacknowledged.

That exploration is aided when we infuse it with loving-kindness, metta. Loving kindness is not a state of constant praise to stroke the ego. It is a sense of oneness and connection that opens our hearts and our eyes to what is arising. It helps us to see more clearly how fear activates and aggravates patterns of beliefs, words and actions that keep us from being present with our experience.

Metta allows us to be spacious in our exploration. We can come upon some thought passing through our awareness that makes us very uncomfortable. Without the compassion of a metta view, we may tighten up into a strong reaction, usually a judgment or a justification, causing further suffering. With metta, we have a greater capacity to free ourselves from the ongoing pattern of reactivity that causes suffering. If we notice our thoughts, emotions, and the world around us without metta, we can come to a cold mechanical view that lacks sufficient heart to sustain us. We are much more ready to turn away and find relief in mindless distraction. So metta makes mindfulness more effective. In a way we might say it lubricates mindfulness to keep it functioning.

Likewise mindfulness infuses metta with clarity and understanding. Without mindfulness, we can easily misunderstand of the nature of metta. For example, as we discussed a couple of weeks ago, we might think of metta as something limited that must be doled out carefully and only to the deserving. That view of metta increases suffering. Mindfulness gives us the insight to see through that distorted view.

A friend who has been following the blog of dharma talks mentioned that she noticed how rude she is to herself. This insight came from skillful noticing, from mindfulness that she has been practicing for a while now, and from the metta she had incorporated into how she interacts in the world. So the words she was in the habit of using to speak to herself at the least provocation now stood in stark contrast to the sense of loving kindness she had been developing. When she heard herself internally muttering, ‘Idiot!’ because she had forgotten to take the meat for dinner out to defrost, she suddenly heard it with more clarity. She recognized that she would never speak to a friend in that way. Aha!

Now she is one of the most competent, accomplished, creative and generous people I know, but we are all capable of this kind of self-talk. We may call ourselves ‘dummy’ or ‘stupid’ without even thinking about it. So I ask you now to think about it. Notice how you talk to yourself. Once you have begun a meditation practice and find you are noticing your thought patterns, you can begin to hear the words you are using to talk to yourself, especially when you do something you didn’t intend to do. Just notice.

Once we recognize the rude way we speak to ourselves we have a choice. We can judge the rudeness and add it to our long list of personal failings, OR we can allow ourselves a spacious field of metta-infused exploration. We can notice where we feel the ‘idiot’ prod, the ‘stupid’ shot or the ‘dumb’ stab in our body. We may be numb to the words, think they carry no weight, but as we allow ourselves to become more awake and aware, we find that these words have been doing their number on us all along, draining us of energy, making us intolerant and angry, etc.

Perhaps you feel these are harmless jibes. But even if said with a kind of affection, they are just justifying words that may have been used on us when we were children, trying to prove to ourselves that it is possible to be rude and still love someone. If that is the case, that’s a worthy investigation.

Perhaps you are hard on yourself because you hold yourself to a higher standard, because you feel you are special or better than others, or are trying to fulfill some parental hope that you will be. That’s a worthy exploration too. ‘How stupid of me. I should know better.’ Should you know better than others in the same situation? Are you so much smarter, wiser, more enlightened, talented? If that resonates, then that’s another interesting vein to explore. It’s not that we don’t aspire to be the best we can be, but we undermine our ability to truly be the open loving insightful person we have the capacity to be if we somehow believe that everything we do must be perfect. If perfection is your goal, start asking yourself a few questions about what that means.

Next week we will be doing a more indepth exercise to see how we bring mindfulness and lovingkindness together, and additional instruction on sending metta to ourselves that I learned from Jack Kornfield at a recent day long class. But for this week, please notice how you talk to yourself, and explore whatever arises with both mindfulness and metta.
This balanced approach is called loving awareness.