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.
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.