Mindfulness and Self-Acceptance
Practicing mindfulness leads to self-acceptance
Posted Mar 15, 2010
In the Buddhist tradition, mindfulness and awareness practices lead to knowing ourselves really well. At the same time, this self-awareness can lead to unconditionally accepting ourselves just as we are. In Tibetan Buddhism, the tradition in which I practice, this is called "maitri." Maitri, pronounced like "MY tree," is often translated as "loving-kindness" or "unconditional friendliness."
Loving-kindness means that we can see our own experiences clearly and also let whatever we see be what it is without pushing it away. Notice that this is not the same as judging our experience as either good or bad. Accepting something means we see what it is; it's not the same as approval. Let's look at an example.
I had a painful interchange with a good friend recently. Neither one of us could say what had brought it on. It was like the arguments that couples get into when a big argument happens and no one can later remember what it was about. Afterwards I felt bad. When I sat down to meditate later, I noticed that my mind kept returning to thoughts about what had happened: thoughts of remorse, thoughts of blaming my friend, thoughts of what I could have said instead, even thoughts of how I could have really let my friend have it! In the context of my practice, I could recognize that all of these were just thinking. I could touch them and let them go again. If they arose again, I could touch them again and let them go again.
At the same time, the feelings connected with these thoughts: anger, shame, sadness, pride, bewilderment, and tenderness came and went, as well. I practiced the same way with these emotions: I touched them in my experience and let them go again. In a future blog entry we will look more closely at the practice I employed: "Touch and Go."
Eventually, the whole thing calmed down. I could see clearly what was arising and also let it be what it was. That's not the same as saying, "There, there, you had a good reason for being so mindless and unkind. It's okay." It is also not the same thing as "Boy, you're just hopeless. Look how long have you been meditating, and you still lose your mind like that!"
Maitri, loving-kindness is being open to ourselves just as we are with a quality of acceptance and even warmth. We recognize that we have been perpetuating the mistaken sense of self and it is only this mistake that has been insulted. I was lashing out to protect something that didn't even exist-my precious self-image, or ego (see the blog entry from 12/13/09).
You might think that taking off the blinders would reveal all of the unpleasant things about ourselves, and that's actually true. However, when we just sit with ourselves, we see that we're just not that big a deal. We can accept even our unkindness to ourselves and others as mistakes they are.
We are, of course, still responsible for the consequences of our actions. I sought out my friend, and we had a good talk. It led to both of us tearing up and ended with us hugging each other. Our friendship is probably stronger as a result. Still, it was important that I acknowledged my own poor behavior. I am lucky to have such a good friend who acknowledged his as well.
Notice that maitri is not an excuse for what we know is unkind or self-absorbed behavior. It is not a judgment of any kind, so it's not the same as saying, "I'm okay." It is very simple: seeing what is happening and not struggling with it. It is learning to let be.
Having let things be what they are, we may choose to take action, as I did with my friend. There's nothing about the notion of loving-kindness that means we just sit and accept things, doing nothing to improve the circumstances for ourselves and others. In fact, the more we see what is happening, the more we may find ourselves moved to take compassionate action in the world.
Loving-kindness begins with ourselves, but it naturally extends out to others. In some traditions, it is called "metta," from the Pali language. "Maitri" is a Sanskrit word for the same thing.
A well-known practice for cultivating a sense of loving-kindness toward ourselves and others is "Metta practice." Here is instruction on how to begin Metta practice.
We sit quietly for a few minutes, and then we generate some sentences silently in our minds. There are a number of ways to begin. Some people begin with themselves. For example, they may begin with "May I be happy. May I be healthy....." And then, they continue with other sentences like that.
I like to begin with one person toward whom I readily feel loving. I think of that person and imagine that I am sending good thoughts to him or her. For example, I might begin with my niece. "May Debbie be happy. May she be healthy. May she be free from danger. May she feel loving and loved. . . . ." I make up sentences as I go along (although you could find some traditional ones, too.) I repeat these sentence silently to myself, over and over. I try to let them touch my heart and feel genuine. Whatever feels appropriate is fine.
After I do that for awhile, I extend out to other people I know. I might extend out to others in my family and then to people I barely know and then even people I have a hard time with. Gradually I include more and more people and other beings until I am saying "May all beings be happy. May they be healthy and free from danger. May they have everything that they need." Feel free to include animals you know and all creatures on the planet. Expand outward as far as you can.
I like to end with myself. "May I be happy. May I be healthy. May I be free from danger . . . . ." For many of us, it is easier to wish these things for ourselves after seeing that we are only one of a great many beings.
When I work with clients, I am interested in helping them develop mindfulness and loving-kindness. The seed of much, if not most, psychological pain is self-rejection, self-aggression. The antidote to that is maitri, loving-kindness.