From Self-Hate to Compassion
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 modern society. 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.
In developing compassion start exactly where you are, whatever your situation. Having compassion for your own humanity and your struggles is critical. Let yourself sense a wish to live with greater kindness. Hold your own fear and shame with compassion, and let this practice open you to better self-care and to greater tolerance and kindness for others.
The Buddha taught that we can develop loving-kindness by visualizing how a caring mother holds her beloved child. Slowly and tenderly we can begin by remembering ourself as a child, deserving of love and compassion. We are still that same child, now grown. With practice we can learn to hold our own life with love.
Do not worry if you lose the sense of self-care for a time. When you lose connection with compassion, remember that it can be reawakened simply and directly. Compassion is only a few breaths, a moment of kindness, away.