When asked about self hatred the Dalai Lama said, "Self hatred. What is that? But you have Buddha nature. How could you think of yourself that way?" How can Western Buddhists gain confidence in Buddha nature and nourish our capacity to offer lovingkindness to ourselves?
I went to Dharamsala, India in 1990 for a Mind and Life conference with the Dalai Lama. It was a small gathering of psychologists, scientists and meditators, exploring the topic of healing emotions. “What do you think about self-hatred?” I asked when it was my turn to bring up an issue for discussion. I was eager to get directly to the suffering I’d seen so often in my students, a suffering I was familiar with myself. The room went quiet as all of us awaited the answer of the Dalai Lama. Looking startled, he turned to his translator and asked pointedly in Tibetan again and again for an explanation. Finally, looking back at me, the Dalai Lama tilted his head, his eyes narrowed in confusion. “Self-hatred?” he repeated in English, as though trying out the words. “What is that?”
I think that encapsulates much of what we encounter as the teachings come from East to West. I don’t want to deify Asian culture, but the rock bottom belief that if we went to the core of our being, if we really knew who we were it would be pretty bad news, doesn’t seem to be there, certainly not in the way it exists in the West.
During the remainder of the session, the Dalai Lama repeatedly attempted to explore the contours of self-hatred with us. “Is that some kind of nervous disorder?” “Are people like that very violent?” “But you have Buddha nature. How could you think of yourself that way?” At the end he said, “I thought I had a very good acquaintance with the mind, but now I feel quite ignorant. I find this very, very strange.”
For me, one of the most fascinating aspects of this session took place during our tea break. Several of the Westerners who were old students of the Dalai Lama’s tried to convey some of how the teachings of the Buddha could sound if one was listening with the perspective of self doubt and chronic self condemnation instead of confidence in our Buddha nature, however obscured it might be. They related things like, “When I first heard, ‘Give up self-cherishing, this is what I heard…’” “All this emphasis on effort, when I secretly think I might not be capable of achievement, makes me feel…”
It was amazing. The fact that self-hatred was not a part of his worldview summed up the essence of what I first aspired to through the practice of meditation. And I’ve certainly witnessed in many years of teaching the burden that not really believing we deserve to be happy, not really feeling that we can actually achieve happiness, brings.
In the Theravada tradition when we do lovingkindness meditation, the instruction is to begin by offering lovingkindness to ourselves. The explanation is that this is easiest, that we can “search the entire universe for someone who is more deserving of our love and affection than ourselves and that we won’t find that person anywhere. We ourselves deserve our own love and affection more than anyone.” But for many, that’s not the easiest, by any stretch. It might in fact be the hardest. And so we need a creative approach to accommodate that.
We’re taught (and I teach) that lovingkindness for ourselves is a foundation for lovingkindness for others, so that our motivation in giving is generosity and not martyrdom, our efforts at morality are not guilty and repressive but claiming a slice of the great human compassionate potential as our own. We’re taught (and I teach) that our own happiness, when it goes beyond merely seeking pleasure and avoiding pain, is not born of the circumstance we find ourselves in. Instead, when it is real and stable happiness, it is the basis for our ability to be generous, kind, and compassionate. Not only do we deserve it, we need that kind of happiness.
Implied in all of this is a deep sense of our own worth. What I’ve seen over these years of bringing an Asian teaching to the West, is that this sense needs to be a lot more than implied: it needs to be stated, examined, and nourished; our fears, assumptions and hesitations need to be challenged; and our capacity for freedom and happiness needs to be continuously brought forth and celebrated.
--“Dalai Lama”, Ink Drawing by RIYAZ POCKETWALA
I often think about a memorable conversation I had with His Holiness the Dalai Lama in 1990 while we were at a small conference in India sponsored by the Mind & Life Institute. At one point during the event, I had an opportunity to ask the Dalai Lama a question, so I ventured,
“Your Holiness, what do you think about self-hatred?”
He looked at me seeming somewhat confused and asked in response: “What’s that?”
It powerfully sums up a fundamental difference between our Western, ambition-focused value system and the Buddhist moral compass. While I came to meditation at 18 as a result of dealing with feelings of inadequacy and self-judgment for my entire young adult life, the Dalai Lama didn’t even know what the meaning of self-hatred was. When I explained to him what I meant by the term — talking about the cycle of self-judgment, guilt, unproductive thought patterns — he asked me, “How could you think of yourself that way?” and explained that we all have “Buddha nature.”
In other words, he simply didn’t get the fact that many of us are often overcome with fundamental feelings of negativity and inadequacy. I revisit this story repeatedly because there was, and still is, something so freeing about the fact that the Dalai Lama was so surprised about this negative way of relating to ourselves, an attitude that seems so common in today’s day and age.
I don’t want to deify Asian culture, or Tibetan people, or Buddhist thought. There are problems in every society, group, and philosophical school. But, I think it is powerful to reflect on what we think we will find within if we look underneath our habits and our desires and our fears. Is it a capacity for love and awareness? Or is it pretty much nothing, or nothing good?
In particular, I’ve thought about this in the process of writing my upcoming book theses past few months. I’ve found that many, if not most, of the people with whom I’ve spoken, feel the greatest sense of struggle around the question of cultivating love for oneself. We are conditioned to associate self-love with selfishness, and self-deprecation with virtue. It often seems easier to access feelings of judgment and anger about ourselves than towards those around us.
(B.C. Lorio / Flickr / Some Rights Reserved)
In my research for the book, I’ve encountered extensive information about evolutionary biology, and specifically about the phrase “negativity bias.” This concept refers to the fact that our nervous systems are programmed, on an evolutionary level, to look for possible negative outcomes in our surroundings. Our job as living creatures is to spot imminent danger and any sense of threat in our surroundings. Looking for negativity in our lives is literally a survival mechanism, dating back to the times when we were actually required to protect ourselves from being killed by predators. Given that most of us probably have no need to measure ourselves against the potential threat of a tiger or bear, we simply become lost in this pattern of dwelling on negativity, which includes more and more fixation on our own failings and inadequacy.
When I went to India to learn meditation, I hoped that I could become an entirely different person through meditating. Unsurprisingly, I found that I was unable to establish a practice of meditating from this place of self-hatred. In order to get to a place where I was able to feel a positive change in my life from the practice, I had to challenge my own self-judgment, as difficult as that was. Because it went against my habit, my survival mechanism of pointing out the negative in my life, it felt almost dangerous. By challenging myself in this way, I was able to let go of my constant state of guilt and find a sense of spaciousness and acceptance, even if negative feelings arose. Creating that spaciousness as a foundation allowed me to get to the place where negative feelings could come in, and go out, with greater ease and gentleness.
Of course, sometimes we have feelings of self-judgment; it’s important for us not to get caught up in judging the self-judgment, which leads to a vicious cycle of negativity. Years ago, a friend of mine visited the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts for the annual three-month retreat, and our teacher Dipa Ma was visiting during the course. One day during the retreat, my friend simply felt like he “couldn’t” meditate, and wanted to go check into a motel to watch football. So he did, but hardly cleared his mind.
When he came back, he was encumbered by self-judgment and preemptive shame about telling Dipa Ma. He ended up telling her despite his fear, and she unsurprisingly was OK with it and accepted him unconditionally. “Now you can begin again,” she reassured him, repeating a phrase that I now use to describe the practice of meditation to my students, no matter if they’re beginning their practice or have been meditating for years. Every time we sit with our breath, we can begin again an incalculable number of times. We can let go of our distractions, our ruminations and establish clarity of vision that is also filled with love.
Beginning again doesn’t mean we are lazy, or don’t seek excellence in what we undertake. It means we’ve figured out something that isn’t awfully available in our popular culture. Seeking to punish ourselves endlessly will leave us exhausted and demoralized. Caring about ourselves allows us to renew our efforts and continue on. This is the love that the Dalai Lama had tried to explain to me during our talk about self-hatred many years ago.
I posed a similar question pertaining to “self-loathing” to Galen Pearl over at the “NO WAY CAFE” (http://galenpearl.blogspot.com). The following is Ms. Pearl’s response. It’s quite insightful.
Thanks Ms. Pearl!
"I think that we live in a self-created illusion of separation. This illusion leaves us in a state of chronic fear, which can manifest in many ways, including self-loathing. As the Dalai Lama learned, and as you point out, this seems particularly characteristic of Western culture. Western culture has a broad foundation in Christianity, which has permeated our collective psyche with the condemnation of both original sin and sin in general. I'm making no judgment on that--just an observation.
On top of that, as Buddha taught, we become attached to our beliefs and desires and aversions, which results in the suffering of humanity.
All wisdom teachings seem to have in common the path towards freeing ourselves of our illusions and restoring us to our true nature, which is one of joy and unity. Self-loathing is eliminated when we are living in harmony with our true selves.
This opens the door for all sorts of views on theology and culture and psychology, more than we can handle here. But that is my offering in answer to your question."
TAGS: ASIAN TEACHING, BUDDHA NATURE, DALAI LAMA, LOVINGKINDNESS, MEDITATION, MIND AND LIFE CONFERENCE, SELF HATRED, SELF-CHERISHING, THERAVADA TRADITION, WESTERN BUDDHIS