Most people assume that meditation is about getting away from suffering. Loving kindness meditation reminds us that the difficult and painful aspects of ourselves are critical to our peace of mind.
Warrior cultures are obsessed with eliminating weaknesses and imperfections. Many people begin meditation by incorporating this notion of self-rejection. They only accept the strong, perfected aspects of themselves. They believe that they cannot be happy until they get rid of depression and anxiety, get rid of excessive weight and other weaknesses. Throughout our lives, most of us have been instructed to overcome or medicate difficult mental states rather than understand them. Self-rejection not only fails to make us better people, it often backfires and makes us (feel) worse.
Loving kindness meditation is a practice of reclaiming our weaknesses and imperfections because we need them for wholeness. A moment of suffering arises and instead of trying to get away from it, we create space for the mental state and surround it with loving kindness, which I define as unconditional love and acceptance. We marvel at how fragile the human mind and heart are in the container of life and how as humans we are designed to react to this container. The ability to accept with kindness our suffering and our reactions to suffering is an act of compassion.
A perfect example of the contrast between self-rejection and loving kindness is Oprah Winfrey's ongoing struggle with her excess weight. She knows it is unhealthy but she can’t understand why it keeps coming back, why she can't get rid of it, why she can’t overcome her habit of over-eating. She is practicing self-rejection, self-hatred. Her excess weight will keep coming back until she accepts herself unconditionally. When we try to change ourselves with self-hatred and self-rejection, we fail because by fracturing ourselves into acceptable and unacceptable parts we cause ourselves tremendous psychological distress which then motivates further self-medication (destruction) with TV, junk food or narcotics and other addictive behaviors.
You cannot change other people by rejecting who they are and pummeling them with judgment. They will be offended and hold to who they are. Just as we cannot change another person with judgement, we cannot change ourselves by rejecting who we are now. Any lingering issue that won't resolve itself despite all of our efforts most likely needs our loving kindness and compassion, our acceptance. Once a mental state of suffering is unconditionally accepted, often times it dissolves because we are embracing all of who we are. We are whole. For this reason, psychotherapy is invaluable because it helps us reclaim aspects of ourselves that we rejected as children. The very act of bringing an aspect of self out of the subconscious into the light of the conscious mind is a moment of liberation. We are integrating all of who we are and our wholeness – our acceptance of our reality whether it be strength, imperfections, joy, suffering – manifests as peace and well-being.
We can treat ourselves with loving kindness on many levels. First we become aware of suffering within ourselves and hold that moment with gentle kindness. We can also practice sending loving kindness to ourselves when we become aware of our own inner critic. We accept that the inner critic is part of our human mind but not an accurate judge of who we are. From there we can begin the process of understanding our suffering (rather than just rejecting it and wanting to escape). Understanding is critical to liberation. The more we can accept and be present with the sensations of self-rejection, the less damage external critics cause us. That's because we accept unconditionally our emotional reactions to another person’s rejection of who we are.
Once Oprah Winfrey accepts herself unconditionally, believing that all of her cells are worthy of love – no matter how many there are -- she will enjoy being present with herself. She will enjoy wholeness, rather than suffer rejection. From this state of peace, changing behavior is very simple. We spend one day eating just healthy food and notice how that makes us feel. We spend the next day eating only junk food and notice how that makes us feel. Wholesome, healthy, kind behaviors always make us feel better. Taking a mental picture of how she feels in each case, Oprah can look at those mental pictures whenever she eats and simply choose the behavior that will truly make her feel better. Healthy eating becomes an authentic reward rather than an act of deprivation and rejection.
Many people believe that anger and negative emotions are bad. This an example of self-rejection that promotes a culture of denial. Mindfulness is the opportunity to be honest with ourselves about what's really happening. A moment of anger that is acknowledged, accepted, understood and communicated is far less dangerous than a moment of anger that is repressed. We've all heard about good people who “snapped” because instead of endeavoring to know and understand themselves, they've bought into self-rejection. As Seinfeld so brilliantly illustrated, “Serenity now!” is a mantra that often causes the opposite effect. Anger and other strong emotions are defenses against pain that overwhelms us. When we hold strong emotions with compassion, we give ourselves the space to heal until we are ready to face the pain directly. When we deny negative mental states, we cut ourselves off from wholeness and with it, authentic happiness. Someone who rejects themselves via meditation will feel the opposite of wholeness and happiness (and probably not practice meditation for very long). For them the concept “life is suffering” can become the extent of their practice. With loving kindness meditation, we see that suffering provides a doorway to understanding and wholeness. By the same token, yogis who believe they are unacceptable until they have attained enlightenment are practicing self-rejection and are unable to progress in their practice due to their own intolerance.
A lotus flower blooms in warm sunlight, not the harsh cold of winter. Becoming aware of moments when we treat ourselves harshly is the beginning of our healing process, the beginning of our well-being. When we accept our whole selves with loving kindness and use meditation to be honest about what’s happening and to understand ourselves, being kind and compassionate to others becomes second nature.
How deeply can you accept with kindness all of who you are?
Ellen McCarty recently gave a talk about Loving Kindness Meditation at San Francisco State University for the psychology course "The Science of Happiness.” Learn more about her mindfulness instruction at www.ellenmccarty.com or post questions about this blog on her Facebook page “Ellen McCarty, Mindful Youth."
Copyright 2011 by Ellen McCarty
Recommended reading (book thumbnails link to Amazon):
Recommended reading (book thumbnails link to Amazon):
Please note: I've included the Tao te Ching above because I find it a powerful source of inspiration to help balance the mind and open the heart during retreat. Mindfulness and loving kindness can deepen one's relationship to any religion or spiritual practice, or in the absence of religion, deepen one's understanding of oneself. The Buddha did not claim divinity. One can choose to develop meditation and loving kindness as a spiritual practice or as a practical mental health exercise. For a more universal or cross-cultural view of Buddhism, click book links below.