We were three days into a weeklong meditation retreat when one of my students, Daniel, came in to see me for his first interview. He plopped down in the chair across from me, and immediately pronounced himself The Most Judgmental Person In The World.
“Whatever I’m thinking or feeling when I meditate … I end up finding something wrong with it. During walking practice or eating, I start thinking I should be doing it better, more mindfully. When I’m doing the loving-kindness meditation, my heart feels like a cold stone.” Whenever Daniel’s back hurt while he was sitting, or whenever he got lost in thought, he’d rail at himself for being a hopeless meditator.
He confessed that he even felt awkward coming in for our interview, afraid he’d be wasting my time. While others weren’t exempt from his barrage of hostility, most of it was directed at himself. “I know that Buddhist teachings are based on being compassionate” he said bitterly, “but it’s hard to imagine they’ll ever rub off on me.”
Like Daniel, being hard on ourselves is familiar to many of us. We often distance ourselves from emotional pain—our vulnerability, anger, jealousy, fear—by covering it over with self-judgment. Yet, when we push away parts of ourselves, we only dig ourselves deeper into the trance of unworthiness.
Whenever we’re trapped in self-judgment, like Daniel, our first and wisest step towards freedom is to develop compassion for ourselves. If we’ve injured someone and are embroiled in guilt and self-recrimination, compassion for ourselves allows us to find a wise and healing way to make amends. If we’re drowning in grief or sorrow, arousing compassion helps us remember the love and connection in our life. Rather than pushing them away, we free ourselves by holding our hurting places with the unconditional tenderness of compassion.
When I asked Daniel how long he’d been so harsh on himself, he paused for several moments. “For as long as I can remember,” he said. From an early age, he’d joined his mother in relentlessly badgering himself, ignoring the hurt in his heart. As an adult, he’d treated his heart and body with impatience and irritation. Even in the face of a tormenting divorce and a long bout of chronic back pain, Daniel hadn’t been able to acknowledge the intensity of his suffering. Instead, he’d criticized himself for having screwed up the marriage, for not having the sense to take proper care of himself.
I asked Daniel to tell me what happened in his body when he was judging himself so harshly, and he immediately pointed to his heart, saying it felt bound by tight metal cords. I asked if he could feel that right in this moment. To his surprise, Daniel heard himself saying, “You know, this really hurts.” I then gently asked him how he felt about this aching. “Sad,” he responded softly, his eyes welling up with tears. “It’s hard to believe I’ve been carrying this much pain for so long.”
I suggested he put his hand on his heart, on the place where he most felt the most discomfort, then asked if he might send a message to the pain: “How would it feel for you to say, ‘I care about this suffering’?” Daniel glanced at me, then looked down again: “Strange, I think.” I encouraged him to give it a try by whispering the words softly. As he did, repeating the phrase slowly two more times, Daniel’s shoulders began to shake with quiet sobbing.
Like it did for Daniel, offering ourselves such care might feel strange and unfamiliar—or even downright embarrassing—at first. It might trigger a sense of shame about being needy, undeserving, or self-indulgent. But the truth is that this revolutionary act of treating ourselves tenderly can begin to undo the aversive messages of a lifetime.
Over the next few days, whenever Daniel became aware of judging himself or others, he’d check in with his body to see where he was feeling pain. Usually he’d find his throat, heart, and stomach tightened in fear, his chest heavy and sore. With a very gentle touch, Daniel would place his hand on his heart and say, “I care about this suffering.” Because he was sitting in the front of the meditation hall, I noticed his hand was almost permanently resting there.
One afternoon, Daniel came to tell me about something that had happened earlier that day. During meditation, a scene had arisen in his mind of being at his mother’s house, engaged in an angry exchange with her. As he tried to explain why it wasn’t irresponsible for him to take a week off to meditate, he could hear her disdainful reply: “You lazy bum, why don’t you do something worthwhile with yourself.”
This was the same sort of demeaning message that in his youth had made him want to shrivel up and disappear. He felt his chest filling with the heat and pressure of rage, and in his mind heard himself shouting, “You bitch, you don’t understand! You’ve never understood. Can’t you just shut up for one minute and see who I am!!”
The pain of anger and frustration was like a knife stabbing his heart, and he was about to launch into a familiar diatribe at himself for being such a wimp, for not standing up to her, for being a meditator filled with such hatred. Instead, he placed both hands on his heart and whispered over and over, “I care about this suffering. May I be free from suffering.”
After a few minutes, the stabbing anger subsided. In its place, he could feel warmth spreading through his chest, a softening and opening around his heart. Feeling as if the vulnerable part of him was listening and taking comfort, Daniel said, “I’m not leaving you. I’m here, and I care.” Throughout the rest of the retreat, Daniel practiced like this, and some of the most painful knots—the wounds of his young, anguished self—slowly began to release.
When he came in for his final interview, Daniel’s whole countenance was transformed. His edges had softened, his body was relaxed, his eyes bright. In contrast to his former awkwardness, Daniel seemed glad to be with me, and told me that while the judgments and self-blame had continued some, they were not so unrelentingly cruel.
No longer imprisoned by constantly feeling like something was wrong with him, Daniel was beginning to notice the world in new ways—other students seemed more friendly; the acres of forest were an inviting, magical sanctuary; the dharma talks stirred up a childlike fascination and wonder. He felt energized and somewhat bewildered by the fresh sense of possibility in his life. By holding himself with a compassionate presence, Daniel was becoming free to participate more fully in his world.
Like Daniel, whenever we’ve become addicted to judging and mistrusting ourselves, any sincere gesture of care to the wounded places can bring about radical transformation. Our suffering then becomes a gateway to the compassion that can free our heart. When we become the holder of our own sorrows, our old roles as judge, adversary, or victim are no longer being fueled. In their place we find not a new role, but a courageous openness, and a capacity for genuine tenderness—not only for ourselves, but for others as well.
Adapted from Radical Acceptance (2003)
Enjoy this talk on: Cultivating Compassion
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