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Loving ourselves, I discovered, is hard work.
It isn’t a few quotes that we can excerpt from a self-help book, even while those can be great sometimes. It isn’t something we can finally arrive to, and it certainly isn’t anything fancy that can be captured by our Instagram-perfect and Photoshop Culture.
Spoilers alert: it is a life-long journey toward accepting all the parts in ourselves that we tend to avoid; the messy, the hard to love, the crazy, the obsessive, the mending, the broken, and the courageous in between all the crazy.
Maitri, which originates from Sanskrit, can be translated into loving-kindness or unconditional friendship toward oneself and others.
I first stumbled upon this word while reading the following quote by the beloved Buddhist teacher, nun, and author of many books, Pema Chodron:
“But loving-kindness—maitri—toward ourselves doesn’t mean getting rid of anything. Maitri means that we can still be crazy after all these years. We can still be angry after all these years. We can still be timid or jealous or full of feelings of unworthiness. The point is not to try to change ourselves. Meditation practice isn’t about trying to throw ourselves away and become something better. It’s about befriending who we are already.”
I didn’t always love myself, nor did I have a friendly or expansive attitude toward life.
I grew up a middle child who was both sensitive and lacking a lot of love. Later during my 20s, with the help of countless self-help books stacking on my shelf and professional therapy, I realized that I suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as a result of lifelong neglect, in addition to other environmental triggers. So, I did what any unreasonable woman would do—I sought love in the arms of the most avoidant, cowardice, and emotionally unavailable men, grasping for whatever crumbs I could cup with my bare hands.
This ignited my perpetual state of feeling inadequate, hollow, and undeserving of genuine love. I judged myself for all the wrong things that happened to me and for my desperate choices to soothe my own pain.
The harder I fell, the stronger I questioned my own value and worthiness. “How can people ever love something who I didn’t even love,” was a question that always hit me like a hurricane, while leaving no balms to soothe my ache behind.
This is how I was whilst living life on autopilot. It felt painful, awful, and heart-shattering, to say the least. But I discovered that it is never too late to step into the passenger’s seat and question our own thinking patterns and habitual behaviours.
Before I discovered maitri, the idea of loving myself had never occurred to me. It always felt like an impossible task to conquer. I used to believe that I would only love myself once someone else reflected that love in return. My idea of self-love was conditional and codependent on other people’s approval, which is the antithesis of what maitri teaches.
So when I began to meditate on loving-kindness, I felt forced to love myself, even while that feeling didn’t naturally exist. I thought if people were not able to show me love, I’d show them that I am resilient and loving enough to carry and to tend to the needs of my own broken heart. It felt more like a personal challenge, fueled by ridiculous expectations, and less of a genuine practice with the potential to soothe, heal, and transform.
But what I learned from cultivating a loving-kindness practice is that loving ourselves can be hard, messy, and uncomfortable. We can’t give ourselves the love that we lack, and in order to grow that love, we need to first nurture, accept, and soothe all the parts of our hearts that are aching.
Loving ourselves isn’t a linear path. It is a fluctuating process, which is how it feels like.
I can’t remember the times I caught myself crying while gently repeating to myself, “May I be happy,” the first mantra in the loving-kindness practice. It felt like the most genuine thing I ever wished myself, even while I wasn’t always fully present with that emotion.
Reflecting on Pema’s quote, loving-kindness taught me that living with courage, authenticity, and vulnerability will never be instantly gratifying, and if the only reason we ever practice is to feel better about ourselves, it is best if we drop our expectations.
Maitri is about growing our ability to show up for ourselves when we feel broken-hearted, shattered, on the verge of insanity, and while our own hearts and minds start to harden. It is a reminder that beyond our obsession to control the outcome, our expectations, our jealousy, our anger, our fears, and all our craziness is genuine compassion and empathy that radiates beyond the thick walls of our hearts.
It taught me to become less of the rigid person that I am and more of the person I wish to become, regardless of whether I end up finding love in the hearts of people or not. That it isn’t about becoming something for somebody else, but for ourselves so that we are able to live in this body and mind with more ease.
Years later, I still find myself caught up in the autopilot’s seat sometimes. And when these old emotions of inadequacy and hollowness visit me, they often come crushing unannounced, like a hurricane. But I learned to welcome them with tears, with broken-heartedness, and with tenderness, while gently soothing myself with these few powerful words:
May I be happy
May I be healthy
May I be at peace
May I be light in body, mind, and spirit