“Even Yogis get the Blues” is an excerpt from Ira Rechtshaffer’s book, Mindfulness and Madness: Money, Food, Sex and the Sacred, recently published by John Hunt Publishers under the imprint of Changemakers.
Extending loving kindness to ourselves creates a fierce fire.
As we open to our shadow aspects, the broken, wounded and inferior parts, we may experience shame and feel diminished. Yet, it is precisely these forgotten aspects of ourselves that cry out for our love so that we can be healed and whole.
When various spiritual traditions and psychological schools offer descriptions of personal transformation, most of us wish to go from here to there, to go from our present condition to that place where we will be a transformed person. On the Buddhist path, however, we are trained how to go from here to here, not from here to there.
When we flee from here to there, we’re avoiding the parts of ourselves that are distasteful. In order to get there, to that new and improved “me,” we tend to deny or reject the parts of us of which we are ashamed: the part of us that feels like a failure, that feels defeated or broken, or the part of us that feels unlovable. We’re too quick to move away from where we are presently stuck or hurt.
The Buddhist path of meditation begins by opening and allowing space to be exactly where we are, how we are, and who we are. We can finally catch up with ourselves. Meditation tunes us into neutral psychological space so that we can be naked before ourselves. That is the essence of meditation practice altogether. We can light incense and candles, hang holy images in our room as part of the ritual, but personal transparency is the main point. We are allowing an opening without speeding toward the next thing to do, so that our body, mind and heart can unfurl and reveal themselves. If we are too ambitious, too goal oriented, we miss the broken, hurt, wounded parts of us, which need our solicitation and care.
Every time we avoid, deny, or dissociate from the parts of ourselves that feel distasteful or threatening, we’re abandoning ourselves. It’s as if we had a temperamental child whom we’ve neglected for a long time, preferring to give her a project with which to busy herself. The child is in a room at the far end of the house, and is crying out for our attention, but we don’t have time to be inconvenienced by her needs. We’re so busy with the compelling stuff of everyday life that we don’t want to break our stride.
At some point we actually have to walk up to the child, which is our own tender child-like self, open our arms and caress her, so that she could feel safe enough to find her own voice and speak her truth. Our stuck places, our depressions, anxieties and unfulfilled longings are symptoms of neglecting our own hurt places. We tend not to listen deeply and sensitively to the parts of ourselves of which we are ashamed, the parts of ourselves that we feel shouldn’t be there.
The practice of maitri is indispensable medicine on the Buddhist path. It is the practice of feeling-attention to our experiences. This is not a light and lovey kind of thing, but a fierce fire. Learning to love ourselves is the hardest work we may ever do because of our ruthless self- judgments and our lack of forgiveness for being less than perfect. But there is a way to do this.
Randomly, at different times during the day, you might just pause for a minute and just allow space. This could be coordinated with a deep inhalation and exhalation, which doesn’t have to be observable to anyone. You just get off the internal “merry-go-round” and punctuate your immediate situation with a brief pause. Check in with yourself by bringing your attention to your heart or your belly. Tune in to your immediate situation with sensitivity and tenderness, as if asking, “How’s it going?” There’s no need for analysis, or any kind of heavy handed interpretation. Just an immediate “hit” or reading guided by the question, ”What am I feeling?” or “How am I doing, really?”
We get a sense of whether we’re feeling contracted and uptight, or coiled like a spring, whether we are feeling numb and shut down, or perhaps experiencing a delightful fullness. We don’t have to fix anything. Like compassionate mothers we begin maitri practice by extending loving kindness to the immediate feeling of pleasure or pain, boredom or loneliness, craving or animosity.
It seems obvious why our suffering would require loving kindness, but why would pleasure need maitri? Usually, when we experience pleasurable states of mind we want to hold onto them and prolong that good feeling. Or we want to “stoke the fire” to enhance or amplify pleasure, or we strategize how to insure more pleasurable occasions in the future. In subtle ways, we are manipulating our experience of pleasure. Extending maitri is a gesture of acceptance and appreciation for the immediate experience of delight, openness and relaxation without any effort to prolong or reinforce it.
In the practice of loving kindness, first we allow space in order to experience whatever is arising. Secondly, we cut the reflex to judge either ourselves or the present situation, and lastly we don’t manipulate our experience by trying to do something with it. We allow it to be as it is. By allowing space we permit our feelings to speak to us. We might hear or recognize something remarkably different than what we suspected. What starts off as a feeling of well-being may change, as we discover a pleasant facade camouflaging our underlying inertia or sadness. We might recognize that we have disguised a sharp edge into a dull pleasant space because we’re afraid to lean into a challenge.
What we thought was boredom or claustrophobia may reveal our intolerance to relaxation or our hunger for stimulation. As we lean into the boredom, sadness or fear, we may discover a sense of energetic presence, an open animated quality that doesn’t present a problem. In meditation practice, when we experience feelings of anxiety or depression we might discover that the story that we tell ourselves about anxiety, sadness or depression may be the larger part of our pain.
We operate according to a perverse logic. Somehow, we feel that if we extend loving kindness to the “rotten” parts of us, they will get much more rotten. We think that if we love the hurting part of ourselves, that’s like a secret wink, a handshake under the table, a hypocritical “pass” on our weaknesses and personal deficiencies. Many of us feel that we should have gotten over it by now and do not deserve to be given any slack.
If we’re going to truly transform ourselves we have to extend loving kindness to our shadow, the part of us that feels like a failure, that feels weak and insecure, the part of us that is actually wounded. Loving-kindness has to be extended especially to the parts of us that are suffering.
Our willingness to experience what is actually going on in our head, heart and belly with the tenderness of a loving mother, allows our experiences to reveal their hidden side. We might recognize how, on some level, we have drawn particular experiences to ourselves in order to be able to love what is unlovable.
Only when we embrace all of ourselves, the good, the bad, the ugly and the beautiful, can we be fully present, and when we are fully present, the miracle of being is also be present. This is the highest form of love we can give ourselves.
Author: Ira Rechtshaffer, Ph.D.
Editor: Emily Bartran
Photo: Author’s Own; karriiiiii/Flickr