A common question from people new to meditation is, “What am I supposed to be doing?” Once a comfortable, upright posture has been established, and continuity of attention has been stabilized, what then? There are several answers to this, depending on who you ask, what type of meditation they practice or the lineage they follow. The best and most helpful answer I have received boils down to, “Get interested in what’s happening and be kind about it.”
I care about this life which has been entrusted to me. Because I care, I am curious about it. I want to see clearly what kinds of thoughts my mind produces, and how I relate to that. I want to feel whatever is available to feel in my body, and I want to experience both the pleasure and the pain with acceptance and appreciation whenever possible. When I breathe, I want to know that I’m breathing; when the birds sing or a siren goes off, I want to hear it; when I eat, I want to taste. In short, I want to be fully present to this life as it expresses itself moment by moment. To do that, I need to be loving toward myself.
Extending love and support to ourselves seems to be an edgy thing for a lot of us. This partly comes from a desire to avoid being egocentric or narcissistic. We worry about being too self-indulgent; meditation might already feel like navel-gazing, and now we’re supposed to focus on self-love? The friendly loving-kindness encouraged by mindfulness practice, however, is not mushy or sentimental or self-rationalizing in any way. It is simply a recognition (literally a “re-knowing”) of our innate ability to love what matters. In fact, because we cultivate the ability to turn toward whatever is happening in a given moment, sometimes what we meet is difficult to bear, and so this capacity to extend sympathy to ourselves is crucial. My teacher Mark Nunberg likes to talk to himself like this: “Oh, honey, that’s hard. It’s not easy being a human being.” In a similar vein, I have an Inner Sweetheart that I try to remember to access: “Hey, sweetie, lighten up, it’s okay.”
The more we get curious and caring, the more automatically we will respond with kindness, under all sorts of conditions. It’s not just for meditation, although that’s clearly the heart of the practice. It will get activated off the cushion too, and not just toward oneself but ultimately (and this is obviously a major motivation) toward others.
Here is a good introduction to self-compassion practice. The steps are simple, and the key is to acknowledge the pain or fear or whatever it is, just as it is, and then to honor the needs that can be met. It also helps to remember that every living being cares about their own life, and every life includes suffering.
It may feel counter-intuitive, but friendly loving-kindness to yourself connects you to your community. We cannot thrive in isolation; we need each other. When I can love myself just as I am, I am more able to love you just as you are. The wise and wonderful Thomas Merton knew as much:
The beginning of love is to let those we love be perfectly themselves, and not to twist them to fit our own image. Otherwise we love only the reflection of ourselves we find in them. [No Man Is An Island]
What is love? For starters, it’s a verb, an action. Try reading this famous passage from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians and see how the description of love aligns with the way you treat yourself. What would happen if you started cultivating these qualities during meditation practice or in your everyday living? (Spoiler alert: love never fails.)