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Home > Approaching Buddhism > Modern Adaptation of Buddhism > Equalizing Our Attitudes toward Ourselves: Overcoming Self-Hatred > Session Three: Developing Equanimity in Terms of Different Aspects of Our Body and Personality

Equalizing Our Attitudes toward Ourselves: Overcoming Self-Hatred

Alexander Berzin
Moscow, Russia, September 2010

Session Three: Developing Equanimity in Terms of Different Aspects of Our Body and Personality

Unedited Transcript
Listen to the audio version of this page (0:43 hours)

We have been going through the various stages for developing equanimity, equanimity specifically toward ourselves. This is a type of equanimity with which we have an even attitude toward ourselves: free from aversion, a negative attitude; free from attraction, overemphasizing ourselves; and free of naivety, of ignoring ourselves. We have looked at our attitudes toward ourselves in terms of various events, of what we’ve done in our life or what’s happened to us, and then in terms of how we have regarded ourselves and how we’ve treated ourselves. And the last variable that I’d like to explore here with you is in terms of different aspects of our personality. 

We have – I think, all of us – certain aspects that we don’t like about ourselves. We might even hate this in ourselves. We use, in English, the word “hate” I think a little bit more loosely than you use this here in Russian. But some people say, “I hate my feet. They’re so ugly.” This type of thing. Here we’re not talking about our attitude toward our feet, or toward our hair, or “I hate the fact that I’m so short,” or this sort of thing; but rather, we’re talking about aspects of our personality that we really don’t like about ourselves. I mean, of course it is healthy to want to work on our shortcomings, but here we’re talking about really having a very negative attitude about myself because of this – what we would consider a personality defect. 

And there are other aspects which we really love about ourselves and we’re so attached to. It could be our good looks. It could be our intelligence. It could be whatever. Actually, thinking about it, these things don’t have to be actually part of only our personality. I think also our attitude towards our body is part of that. And then there are other aspects of ourselves that we ignore and we don’t consider significant at all. 

So let’s try to gain equanimity toward all these aspects of our personalities, our bodies, whatever. The procedure that we use here is the same as we’ve used before. So think about aspects of yourself that you don’t like, that you really are – even more strongly, that you feel very negatively about them. 

[silence] 

Weak: “I’m not strong enough.” “I’m too fat.” Whatever if might be. “I have a short temper.” “I’m not so intelligent,” or “I’m super intelligent.” “I’m lazy.” Whatever it might be. 

[silence] 

But we’re thinking particularly in terms of things that we put ourselves down for. That I’m no good because of this. Because, as I said, one could have a healthy attitude in terms of wanting to improve. This is different. 

[silence] 

And we think “Why do I feel so negatively about myself because of these shortcomings?” Mind you, some of these shortcomings could be actual shortcomings or they could be imagined ones. But, in any case, we’re exaggerating the importance of them, aren’t we? 

[silence]

But, if we think, everybody has weak points. But everybody also has strong points too. I have some strong points. It’s not that everything about me is terrible. 

[silence] 

Actually, if you think about it, only a Buddha is someone with only good qualities. Everybody else has some weak points, so what do I expect from myself? And everybody has some good points. There’s nobody that has no good points whatsoever. 

[silence] 

So it’s no big deal, nothing special, that I have weak points. Therefore, I’m not going to hate myself and put myself down just because of these weak qualities. I’ll have an equal attitude to them, and work – whatever level I can – to try to overcome them. But I’m not inherently a bad person just because I can’t play football very well, or whatever it might be. It’s actually quite silly when you start to think about it. I’m not a bad person because I’m not good at mathematics. 

[silence] 

We try, then, to regard these weak points in ourselves with equanimity: without feeling so negative or badly about it. On the basis of that, we can be more objective about these shortcomings in ourselves without either exaggerating them or denying them; trivializing them. 

[silence] 

These are the points that I need to work on. Everybody has some points that they need to work on, and so these are mine at this point in my life. At a different point in my life, it may be different. 

[silence] 

Then we think about aspects that we love about ourselves – we’re so attached to, we think we’re so great because of this. If we have any that we’re able to recognize. Some people who are really, really deep into low self-esteem can’t even recognize any good qualities that they have, let alone feel that “I’m so wonderful” because of that. But if that’s the case with us, we need to really try to be more objective. So working on this first step of seeing that, well, not exaggerating our weak points – everybody has weak points – but nobody has only weak points. The more that you’re able to develop equanimity with our weak points, the easier it will be to acknowledge the strong points that we have. 

[silence] 

And we see what is our attitude toward these strong points. Are we very conceited about it? “Conceited” means that I’m so wonderful because of that; I’m better than everybody else. It could be our good looks. It could be that I’m such a wonderful, compassionate, loving person. It could be our intelligence. It could be our financial situation. It could be anything that we are conceited about. 

[silence] 

But if I think about it, of course I have weak points as well. So what’s so special about the good points? What makes them more real than the weak points?

[silence] 

And so we resolve that toward these strong points or good points about myself, not going to feel arrogant or conceited. It’s nothing special. I just accept them. And just as we need to accept our weak points as the things we need to work on; similarly, we need to accept our strong points as the material that we can use, the abilities that we can use to work on and overcome the shortcomings. Rather than feeling, “Oh, I’m so wonderful” because of these strong points, use them. Use them to improve ourselves. Use them to help others. What’s the point of these good points if we don’t use them in a beneficial way? But without thinking “I’m so wonderful” because of that. 

[silence] 

Then the third thing is aspects of ourselves that we tend to ignore, we tend to forget about, because we don’t really consider them significant, whatever these might be. “I’m good at taking care of my house; I keep it clean and orderly.” We might think that this is trivial. So what? Or “I’m a good driver.” Or “I have a lot of enthusiasm; I have a lot of energy.” If we start to examine ourselves, the various qualities and aspects – sometimes, actually, it’s quite helpful to make a list: What are the strong points? What are the weak points? What are the points that I never really consider important about myself? Take a survey. Write it down. It could be very interesting. 

[silence] 

“I’m very careful” or “I’m very polite.” These things we might trivialize. 

[silence] 

And, mind you, these things that we tend to ignore or consider insignificant don’t have to be good qualities; they could also be shortcomings. “I eat too quickly. It makes the other people that I’m eating with feel uncomfortable because I’m finished before they are – long before they are.” Or “I eat too slowly, and everybody else is finished and I’m still playing with my food. And everybody gets very impatient and annoyed because they consider it impolite to leave the table; and they’re just waiting for me: ‘Come on. Finish eating.’” Someone, between mouthfuls, actually puts their fork or their spoon down and you’re going “Oh God. When are they going to pick it up again and take the next bite?” Maybe we’re like that. We’re not even aware that this is annoying to other people that we’re eating with. If we eat by ourselves, it doesn’t matter how quickly or how slowly we eat; I’m talking about eating with other people. 

So there are these little things that sometimes actually become quite significant in terms of others, but we ourselves might ignore. 

[silence] 

I can think of many examples of things that we tend to not really take into consideration. Thinking of people who don’t speak loudly enough. Because you don’t speak loudly enough, people don’t take you very seriously because they can’t really hear what you’re saying. They have to strain to hear what you’re saying, and so they don’t even bother. Or speak too loudly. 

[silence] 

And then we consider: Well, why do I ignore these? Why do I think that that’s not part of me also? These are just as much an aspect of me as the strong points and the weak points – the ones that I notice – so there’s no reason to ignore them. 

[silence] 

So, in the end, what we have to think of is all these aspects of ourselves – our personality, our bodies, our habits, and so on – and have an objective feeling about the whole thing, without being repelled from some aspects, attracted to others, and ignoring yet a third set. So the way that we do this is to choose a representative: one point that we really feel terrible about, and one that we feel so wonderful about, and one that we ignore. Look at these three aspects and try to view them without attraction, repulsion, or indifference. Just be open to all three. Based on this, we have the conventional “me.” So this is what I have to work on and work with. 

So these three qualities of ourselves: look at them with equanimity, calm, same attitude toward all three. We’re accepting of ourselves. It doesn’t mean that we are complacent and we don’t do anything to improve. But we accept that this is objectively what I have to work on – and what I have to work with, as I said. But without thinking that there’s some other power, somewhere up there, who has dealt me these cards – like in a card game – and these are the cards that I have to play the game with. That’s making a whole weird trip out of our life – that we’re dealt cards to play with. Somebody else is controlling the game, and life is just a game. It’s not like that. “I’ve been dealt a bad hand of cards, but I’m going to still try to win with these cards.” This is a very weird way of looking at our lives, I must say. It’s putting the responsibility on somebody else. We don’t have to make a whole story about it, of somebody dealing cards and we’re playing a game. This is reality. This is what I have. 

You see, the problem with this card game analogy is that it imagines that I am separate, and all these aspects of my life are cards, separate from me – that’s a very alienated way of looking at our lives – and yet something else dealt us those cards. And if we have this view and we’re following a Buddhist path, then you have a big problem in terms of a distortion of what we mean by renunciation, because we view renunciation as a “me,” a real, solid “me” that says, “I don’t want to play this card game anymore. This is stupid.” As if we could throw away the cards and still be a solid “me,” that “Oh, I’m so wonderful now I don’t have to play this stupid game.” You’re still left with the source of the problem, this concept of this false “me” that now is independent of a card game, of a stupid card game. 

So let’s go back and just try to look at all these various aspects. Not as something which is separate from me, not like a hand of cards, but “me” is based on all of this. 

[silence] 

Also what I think is very important here is not to look at these various aspects of us – of the basis for us, for ourselves – as being fragmented, as if each were encapsulated in plastic. Or in a children’s coloring book and had a big solid line around them, and I can color this one green and this one yellow. If we have that attitude about the different aspects of our personality then we’re really in trouble, in terms of split personalities and being not at all integrated. What we need to do is to see that all these different aspects interact with each other. We’re an integrated whole. We’re not these fragmented little chunks, little pieces, like in a coloring book, with “me” being separate from the coloring book. 

These images, these analogies, they may not be totally exact, but they’re quite helpful for reminding ourselves when I’m starting to act as if I have a hand of cards and playing a game, or if I have this coloring book – helps to remind us that this is silly. 

[silence] 

The way that we would describe this in Buddhist terminology is that we can conceptually isolate different aspects of ourselves; it’s a conceptual process. But, in actuality, everything is interrelated. 

[silence] 

That’s actually very profound if you really think deeply about it and understand it. 

[silence] 

At the end of this first step, which is probably the longest step – has the most parts – in our training of equanimity, we reach the following type of conclusion: That we have a very, very broad basis for labeling “me,” conventional “me.” We have all the various events and things that we have done in life or which have happened to us, sometimes failure, sometimes success, sometimes mistakes, sometimes done well, sometimes nothing special happening. We’ve had lots of different periods in which we felt happy, we felt unhappy. We’ve been in various types of moods. And we have various aspects of ourselves – of personality, our body, all sorts of things – that constitute our life. And “me” is labeled on all of that. This is the basis for “me.” And all of these are interrelated. And we haven’t even brought in the other things that are involved: our relationships with others, etc. But, in any case, this is the basis for “me,” changing from moment to moment to moment. And to regard the whole thing without – Like we are buying cabbages. You look at this bunch of cabbages and “This one’s no good!” You throw it away. And this one, “Oh, this really looks good!” And the others we ignore. We can’t sort of pick and choose aspects of our life: “And this is what I really like, and this is what I really hate, and this is unimportant.” 

So let’s try to, then, regard all these aspects of our life with equanimity. Not attracted. Not repelled. Not ignoring. Not like buying cabbages. This just means calm, open, at peace, accepting all of it, which then is the basis for doing something constructive with all of this. Not that it’s the basis for just sitting back and “Duh…” – nothing. 

[silence] 

What is important, although perhaps it’s a little bit more of an advanced step, is to overcome this feeling of duality of me being at peace with myself, me accepting myself, as if there were two “me”s. Although that might be a little bit helpful, to think in this dualistic way, temporarily, to deal with these types of problems if we’re just too immersed in an unhappy state of mind. Eventually we have to overcome that dualistic way of thinking about ourselves and just, in a sense, be at peace in terms of the conventional “me” and the basis for the conventional “me.” “Me” is labeled on that. “Me” isn’t separate. There’s not a “me” separate from my life, is there? Although sometimes we feel like that, don’t we? “I don’t like my life,” as if there was a “me” separate from my life. 

[silence] 

This is difficult to understand. 

[silence] 

But at least if we start with the feeling that this is pretty strange, to think that there’s a “me” separate from my life, then we’re starting to head in the right direction of a correct understanding. It’s the same thing, a similar fallacy, to feel that “My life is out of control,” as if there was a “me” separate from my life that could control it. That’s also pretty strange. It’s just all the events, one after another, in sequence, and on the basis of that: “me.” But not something separate from it, moving from space to space, like on a children’s board game in which you throw the dice and then you move the little piece a few steps ahead. Life is not like that. Please! 

[silence] 

Okay. So we have fifteen minutes left for questions. I like to go a little bit slowly with this because this material brings up a lot of emotions, a lot of reactions, and it’s good to not try to do too much at one time in one session. 

Question: I think that in the example with food, you touched a very subtle point. Because always at one table there are people who are a little bit slower, and a little bit faster, and who are standard. And it could be the case that some people aren’t comfortable with the way I eat, but I can’t satisfy other people’s wishes. If I drive a car, always there will be people who are faster than me and I’m trying to get behind them, and vice versa. So if we think that we shouldn’t bother other people, then isn’t it easier just not to go – not to drive a car at all? Maybe just my understanding of this point, that we need to pay attention to other people’s comfort and discomfort, is not correct. 

Alex: Well, I think it’s very important to be considerate of others when we are in the company of others, because the way that we behave affects them. We shouldn’t think that it doesn’t affect them. But I’m thinking of some examples of people that I know who have been very slow eaters, but who have been very considerate of the others with whom they’ve been eating. One friend – we meet for lunch, a group of us, and this person says to everybody, “Look, I’m a really, really slow eater. You don’t have to wait for me to finish. If you need to get back to work, or whatever you’re doing, it’s okay.” This is very considerate. A person can eat as slowly as they want to and the other people don’t feel obligated that they have to sit there and wait until the other person finishes. Or if you’re a really fast eater, you say to the other people, “Look, I’m a fast eater. Don’t feel uncomfortable with that. Please take your time. It’s not that I’m in a rush. It’s just that’s the way I eat.” 

In other words, there are ways of being considerate without necessarily compromising certain habits that we have. It’s the lack of consideration that, here, is the real problem. Or if you’re in a group that are traveling together and you have to leave to make the train – or you’re with the family and you’re ready to go in the car – and one person isn’t finished, okay, so you say, “Look, I can’t finish it, but let me pack it and take it with. I’ll finish it later.” There are methods to be considerate. 

And I don’t know about the roads here in Russia, but in other parts of the world where there are several lanes; there are a fast lane and a slow lane. So if we drive really quickly, you go in the fast lane. If you drive slowly, you go in the slow lane. But one is aware that if you go too slowly on a highway it’s dangerous, just as if you go too quickly. So there are limits. 

The shortcoming here is not how slowly or how quickly I drive or eat. The shortcoming is that I think that I exist in isolation from everybody else in the universe, and I can do whatever I want and it doesn’t matter what other people think. 

Question: There could be one more example. For instance, some of my relatives (or just close people) don’t like that I’m engaging in Buddhism and that I am here. And so I can’t satisfy them. Somebody does not like the manner I wear my clothes or my haircut. 

Alex: What’s very helpful in this type of situation is to remember that not everybody liked the Buddha when he was alive. So what do I expect for myself? That everybody is going to like me and like the way that I do things? Of course we can’t please everybody. So the relatives that don’t like that you’re going to Buddhist events, don’t tell them. You don’t have to tell them where you’re going. You don’t have to lie, but you can say, “I’m meeting friends.” We’re friends here. You are meeting friends. So there are ways of avoiding offending others, but we’re never going to have the approval of everybody. Buddha didn’t have that. 

You had a question in the back? 

Question: Could you please explain what does it mean, that there is no “me” that moves the pieces in a child’s game from one place to another? For instance, I am planning what I am going to do in the evening and I can choose one or I can choose another thing to do. And there is a feeling, some feeling that somebody takes this decision, makes this decision, and I can say it is like willpower. 

Alex: Yes, there is definitely willpower and decision making. That’s for sure. But the problem is how we conceptualize that. It isn’t as though there’s a separate “me.” 

The whole issue here is: is there an entity – “me” – separate from the “me” that is actually involved in doing things? There’s this judgmental aspect that often we have, that there’s a “me” that’s sitting back and judging and manipulating what I do. As if there was another “me” that was the player, the actual piece that’s moving through life. In the process of going through life, of course there are decisions that are made, there is willpower, there’s intention. All of that is part of every moment. And if you ask, “Well, who is making the decision?” I’m making the decision; it’s not somebody else. But what we want to avoid is this feeling of separation or alienation from life and these events, as if we’re some sort of aloof thing separate from it, playing a game. It’s not a game. In very simple words, you just do it. You just go through life and you do things. You make decisions and so on without this feeling of “Oh! What should I do now?” and “Oh, I really was terrible!” and “Oh, that was really good. I got ahead two spaces. I rolled a twelve. I moved ahead twelve spaces. Great! Wonderful!” Without that. 

It’s a very subtle distinction here. It’s very subtle, but I think the aspect of it is, as I say, as if part of me is the judge or the controller and part of me is the victim – the one on trial, the one that has to be manipulated and controlled. “I have to control myself, otherwise I’m really going to make a mistake” – as if there were two “me”s. So you just exercise self-control without bifurcating, separating it, making this dichotomy. Just do it. 

Anyway, we have to vacate the room, so: We think whatever understanding, whatever positive forces come from this, may it go deeper and deeper and act as a cause to not only develop equanimity, not only develop positive qualities, etc., based on that – but if we’re following this as a Buddha’s training, going all the way to enlightenment to be of best help to everyone.