The Problem of Self-Hatred

In 1989, at one of the first international Buddhist teacher meetings, we Western teachers brought up the enormous problem of unworthiness and self-criticism, shame and self-hatred, and how frequently they arose in Western students’ practice. The Asian teachers were shocked. They could not quite comprehend the word self-hatred. They asked how many of us experienced this problem in ourselves and our students. We all nodded affirmatively. They seemed genuinely surprised. Nevertheless, self-judgment and shame were there in many of those who came to Buddhist practice. I certainly knew it in myself.

Each of us has our own measure of pain. Sometimes the pain we suffer is great and obvious; sometimes it is subtle. Our pain can reflect the coldness of our families, the trauma of our parents, the stultifying influence of much modern education and media, the difficulties of being a man or a woman. As a result, we often feel that we have been cast out. To survive we have to cover our heart, build up a layer of clay, and defend ourselves. We lose the belief that we are worthy of love.

The mystic Simone Weil tells us, “The danger is not that the soul should doubt whether there is any bread, but that, by a lie, it should persuade itself that it is not hungry.” Compassion reminds us that we do belong, as surely as we have been lost.

Always remember to put your trust in compassion and self-love. From this comes a shift of identity, a release from the covering of clay, a return to our original goodness.

Compassion for our own fear and shame opens us to others. The Buddha taught that we can develop loving-kindness by visualizing how a caring mother holds her beloved child. When we lose connection with compassion, we may not realize that it can be reawakened so simply and directly. Compassion is only a few breaths away.

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