“I do not trust people who don’t love themselves and yet tell me, ‘I love you.’ There is an African saying which is: Be careful when a naked person offers you a shirt.”
― Maya Angelou
In classical Buddhist teaching, the practice of lovingkindness begins with extending love and compassion to yourself. With an idea of spirituality as self-denial, self-judgment or even self mortification — this seems awfully strange. It certainly seemed strange to me.
I went to Burma in 1985 to do an extended retreat in lovingkindness meditation, a practice specifically designed to open our heart and strengthen our sense of connection to all of life. It is a meditation practice that enables us to dissolve the rigid sense of “self” and “other” and “us” and “them” that can keep us feeling so isolated, so cut off, and so afraid. Another way of saying lovingkindness is friendship; the practice is one of cultivating friendship towards yourself and ultimately all beings everywhere.
I knew the classical unfolding of the practice: after lovingkindness towards yourself you offer lovingkindness to someone who has helped you, or a benefactor, then a friend, a neutral person and a difficult person. The difficult person is the doorway to lovingkindness for all beings.
Each part of that structure made some sense to me, though I knew different parts would likely be challenging or unappealing. It was lovingkindness for myself that seemed more like a pro-forma ritual to be gotten through quickly. Hah!
The invitation in this meditation practice isn’t to be narcissistic or self centered, which we can and certainly often do manage without the time and effort of meditation. Rather, it is building and renewing the reservoir of feeling whole within, feeling complete, so that we can offer and give and serve without feeling depleted, overcome or burned out.
The goal is also not to undertake lovingkindness for yourself as some kind of strategic project, refusing to consider others before you “finish” having lovingkindness for yourself. There are many people who care for others in a disproportionate way, leaving themselves out. The goal here is a kind of balance. As we explore this balance, we are also exploring skills of resilience.
It’s not just that we need to be careful of naked people offering us their shirts because we will be disappointed. Those naked people will often be wanting to do the generous, caring thing, but find themselves despairing because they know they just don’t have what it takes to make a sustained effort to make a difference. There is hollowness on both sides, giving and receiving.
In Burma I started my three-month retreat with the reflection, right from the Buddha’s teaching, “All beings want to be happy.” The idea is that our urge for happiness isn’t a problem, something to feel squeamish about, or to confuse with greed. Our basic problem is ignorance about where true happiness is to be found. It is because of this ignorance that we engage in actions that can cause so much pain for ourselves and for others. But the wish for happiness in itself is rightful, appropriate. When it can be combined with wisdom instead of with ignorance, that wish becomes like a homing instinct for freedom. We can cut through many obstacles, overcome many fears when we realize it’s alright to want to be happy.
And just as we ourselves want to be happy, all beings want to be happy. We all want a sense of belonging, a feeling of being a part of something greater than our limited sense of self, a home in this body, in this mind, in this life. We all want to be happy. In a way, we all deserve to be happy. That includes you. And as I came to learn, that includes me.