Picture from Mandala Yoga Retreats
"If you don’t love yourself, you cannot love others. You will not be able to love others. If you have no compassion for yourself then you are not able to develop compassion for others." - Dalai Lama
I’m sitting in the airport in Bangkok, waiting for them to call my flight back home to Cairo. As always, I am excited about the long plane flight, because it means I can catch up on my reading without any of my usual distraction. On my lap is The Book of Joy, a collaborative work by the Dalai Lama, a Buddhist, Desmond Tutu, a Christian, and Douglas Abrams, a Jew. The book is fascinating, and I haven’t been able to put it down all weekend. I love this book, because these three men from very different backgrounds and faiths basically agree on the key tenets of living a spiritually fulfilled life. Today I am looking forward to rereading the one chapter that confused me, the chapter on compassion. Compassion towards other living creatures is a concept I have been striving towards for many years, but these men argue that self-compassion is the root of true compassion. Not only have I never aspired towards self-compassion, something in the very idea of it is making me uncomfortable.
I look up for a moment at my fellow passengers. Many of them are messaging on their mobiles, and a few businessmen have their laptops out, no doubt hoping to finish a few last work emails before boarding. A few dozen passengers are standing at an almost discrete distance from the stewardess and I know in just a few minutes they will call my flight, and some of these people will make a mad dash for the jet way, determined to be the first ones on board. I wonder if these people too struggle for self-compassion.
What does self-compassion look like in our modern world? The ideas that come to my mind -- manicure, massage, sitting on my veranda with a second cup of coffee on Saturday mornings, organic kale -- seem more like self-indulgence than self-compassion, and they leave me with a distinct feeling of guilt. To get more ideas of what self-compassion means in the modern lifestyle, I asked a few people on Facebook. Here are some of the responses:
But why is it so difficult? Another question via Facebook netted some ideas.
As I meditate on why self-compassion is so difficult, it occurs to me that our society puts great pressure on us to conform to external expectations of the community. I find myself chasing an imaginary ghost of an ideal citizen, and I feel guilty when I fall short. “The basic problem we seem to be facing is that we are too involved with trying to prove something” (Trungpa, page 102). Our society acculturates us to focus on the external, social image and to prioritize external connections. In my life, I embrace a busy lifestyle because it makes me feel important. This busyness also fills a need to be part of a greater whole. Another reason that Dr. Kristin Neff found in her research is the fear that self-compassion would strip one’s ability to be there for others.
“I found in my research that the biggest reason people aren’t more self-compassionate is that they are afraid they’ll become self-indulgent,” said Dr. Neff, an associate professor of human development at the University of Texas at Austin. “They believe self-criticism is what keeps them in line. Most people have gotten it wrong because our culture says being hard on yourself is the way to be.” (Parker-Pope, 2011)
Picture from Mandala Yoga Retreats
A yoga practice encourages yogis to adopt an opposite philosophy. To give truly to others, one needs to love oneself. The expectations of society can never be fully filled anyways, so it is better to turn one’s awareness inwards and focus on being true to oneself. This is where yogis can find the power and energy to love others, and our world today desperately needs more love and compassion. The difficulty with such a meditative practice is, though, that self-compassion cannot be forced. The act of striving for self-compassion defeats its own purpose.
The action of the bodhisattva is like the moon shining on one hundred bowl of water, so that there are one hundred moons, each in one bowl. This is not the moon’s design nor was it designed by anyone else… Openness means this kind of absolute trust and self-confidence. (Trungpa, 102)
As a citizen with a full, modern lifestyle, it is difficult for me just to wait for self-compassion to appear one day, yet I know I must not get too ambitious, instead I will focus on taking little steps in daily life.
Set an intention In The Book of Joy the Dalai Lama suggests that we start each day by setting an intention. I have started setting my alarm clock five minutes earlier, so that I can hit snooze and consider how I want to approach the day. My intention is a chance for me to check that I am extending loving kindness to all beings, including myself.
Check in before meals Taking a minute or two before each meal to feel grateful for the food and to check in with one’s body, not only brings the benefits of gratitude, but is also a chance to step out of everyday life’s frenzy and be aware of the body and spirit.
Be aware of negative self-talk I had no idea how many negative, counter-productive thoughts were swirling through my head until I really stopped to listen. What I think is often what I get, so replace negative thoughts with positive ones reaps many benefits.
Name it to tame it Negative thoughts and distractions will come. Trying to throw them out of my head too aggressively only creates an obsession. Naming the emotion without trying to dislodge it strips the negative emotion of its power and allows me to consider healthier alternatives.
Share your quest with others As much as you love other people, they love you back. When you smile at other people, they smile back. When you give a compliment to someone, you get a serotonin boost as well. An investment in compassion and loving kindness is certain to create a more positive community, which nurtures even more positivity.
These may be my first baby steps into the realm of compassion, but it’s a start. I would love to read your ideas in the comments section below.
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Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu, and Douglas Abrams. The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World. New York: Random House Large Print, 2016. Print.
Parker-Pope, Tara. "Go Easy on Yourself, a New Wave of Research Urges." Editorial. The New York Times [New York City] 28 Feb. 2011: n. pag. The New York Times. The New York Times, 28 Feb. 2011. Web. 13 May 2017. Link.
Taylor, Jane. "20 Quotes to Inspire." Habits for Wellbeing. Habits for Wellbeing, n.d. Web. 14 May 2017. Link.
Trungpa, ChoÌgyam, John Baker, and Marvin Casper. Cutting through Spiritual Materialism. Boston: Shambhala, 2008. Print.