Equalizing Our Attitudes toward Ourselves: Overcoming Self-Hatred
Moscow, Russia, September 2010
Session Three: Developing Equanimity in Terms of Different Aspects of Our Body and Personality
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, 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. The last variable that I’d like to explore is in terms of different aspects of our body and personality.
Most of us, I think, have certain aspects that we don’t like about ourselves. We might even hate them. In English we use the word “hate” I think a little bit more loosely than you use it here in Russian. Some people say in English, “I hate my feet; they’re so ugly.” This perhaps sounds strange in Russian. But, in any case, we might really dislike or hate certain things about our body, for instance that we’re short or fat, or that parts of our anatomy are small.
There may also be aspects of our personality that we really don’t like about ourselves, for instance being shy. 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 ourselves because of what we would consider a personality defect.
Then there are other aspects that we really love about ourselves and we’re so attached to. It could be our good looks. It could be our intelligence. And then there are other aspects of ourselves that we ignore and don’t consider significant at all, for instance that we find it easy to speak with anyone.
Let’s try to gain equanimity toward all these aspects of our body and personality.
First, think about aspects of yourself that you don’t like or, even more strongly, that you feel very negatively about. “I’m weak. I’m not strong enough.” “I’m too fat.” “I have a short temper.” “I’m not so intelligent.” “I’m lazy,” whatever it might be. We’re thinking particularly in terms of things that we put ourselves down for, that we feel I’m no good because of this. But remember, as I said, one could have a healthy attitude in terms of wanting to improve these shortcomings. That’s different.
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?
And 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. 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. 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 at 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. It’s absurd to think: “I’m a bad person because I’m no good at mathematics.”
We try, then, to regard these weak points in ourselves with equanimity, without feeling so negatively or badly about them. On the basis of that, we can be more objective about these shortcomings in ourselves without exaggerating them or denying or trivializing them.
“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.”
Then we think about aspects that we love about ourselves, aspects that we’re so attached to and that make us think we’re so great – if we have any that we’re able to recognize.
Some people who are 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 try to be more objective. The more that we work on this first step of not exaggerating our weak points – everybody has weak points – but seeing that nobody has only weak points – in other words, the more that we’re able to develop equanimity toward our weak points, the easier it will be to acknowledge the strong points that we have.
Once we identify some of our strong points, we examine our attitude toward them. Are we conceited about them? “Conceited” means that we think 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.
But if we think about it, of course we have weak points as well. So what’s so special about the good points? What makes them more real than the weak points? And so we resolve that we’re not going to feel arrogant or conceited about these strong points or good points about ourselves. “They’re nothing special. I just accept them.”
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 yourself. 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 them.
The third things we focus on are 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.”
When we start to examine ourselves, with all our various qualities and aspects, it can be quite helpful to make a list: What are my strong points? What are my 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. “I’m very careful” or “I’m very polite” – these are things we might trivialize.
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. 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.
There are these little things that sometimes actually become quite significant in terms of others, but we ourselves might ignore. I can think of many examples of things that we tend to not really take into consideration. I’m thinking of people who don’t speak loudly enough. Because you don’t speak loudly enough, people don’t take you very seriously. 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 to pay attention to you. Or there are people who speak too loudly.
Then we consider, “Why do I ignore these aspects? Why do I think that that they’re 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.”
In the end, what we need 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. The way that we do this is to choose representatives: one point that we really feel terrible about, one that we feel so wonderful about, and one that we ignore. Then we 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” – “This is what I have to work on and work with.”
We try to look at these three qualities of ourselves with equanimity, a calm mind, with the same attitude toward all three. We’re accepting of ourselves. That doesn’t mean that we are complacent and don’t do anything to improve. We accept that this is objectively what we have to work on and what we have to work with, as I said, but without thinking that there’s some other power, somewhere up there, who has dealt us these cards – like in a card game – and these are the cards that we 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 anyway.” 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. Rather, more simply, “This is reality. This is what I have.”
The problem with this card game analogy is that it imagines that I am a separate entity on one side, and that all these aspects of my life are cards, separate from me, and yet something else – a higher power or impersonal fate – dealt us those cards. That’s a very alienated way of looking at our lives. If we have this view and we’re following a Buddhist path, we have a big problem in terms of a distortion of what we mean by renunciation, because then we view renunciation as 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,” and 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 a false “me” that now is independent of a stupid card game.
Let’s go back and try to look at all these various aspects, not as something separate from us, not like a hand of cards, but with the understanding that “me” is based on all of them. Also what I think is very important here is not to look at these various aspects of ourselves – this basis for ourselves – as being fragmented, as if each were encapsulated in plastic or in a children’s coloring book with a big solid line around each of 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 that it’s silly when we’re starting to act as if we have a hand of cards and we’re playing a game, or as if we have this coloring book. 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. That’s actually very profound if you really think deeply about it and understand it.
At the end of this first step concerning equanimity – which is probably the longest step, it has the most parts – we reach the following conclusion: We have a very broad basis for labeling our 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 our personality, our body, all sorts of things – that constitute our life. “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. We can’t pick and choose aspects of our life that we consider as being “me” and toss out others – “This is what I really like, and this is what I really hate, and this is unimportant” – like we are buying cabbages. You look at this bunch of cabbages: “This one’s no good!” You throw it away. And this one, “Oh, this really looks good!” And the others we ignore.
Let’s try, then, to regard all these aspects of our life with equanimity: not attracted, not repelled, not ignoring – not like buying cabbages. This means being calm, open, at peace, and accepting of all of them, which then is the basis for doing something constructive with all of this. These are not the basis for just sitting back and doing nothing.
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 it might be a little helpful to temporarily think in this dualistic way to deal with these types of problems if we’re just too immersed in an unhappy state of mind, eventually we need 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 basis. “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 were a “me” separate from my life. This is difficult to understand. 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 were 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 in 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!
Now 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.
Participant: I think that in the example with food, you touched on 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. It might be that some people aren’t comfortable with the way I eat, but I can’t satisfy other people’s wishes. For example, if I drive a car, there will always be people who are faster than me and I’m trying to get behind them, and vice versa. But if we think that we shouldn’t bother other people, then isn’t it easier just not to drive a car at all? Maybe my understanding of this point, that we need to pay attention to other people’s comfort and discomfort, is not correct.
Alex: I think it’s very important to be considerate 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. 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. This friend can eat as slowly as she wants to, and the rest of us don’t feel obligated that we have to sit there and wait until she finishes. Or if you’re a really fast eater, you can 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 here that is the real problem. Or if you’re in a group of people that are traveling together and the group has to leave to make the train – or you’re with the family and everyone is ready to go in the car – and you haven’t finished eating, you could say, “I can’t finish my plate. Let me pack it and take it with me. I’ll finish it later.” There are methods for being considerate.
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. If you 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 we drive or eat. The shortcoming is that we think that we exist in isolation from everybody else in the universe, and that we can do whatever we want and it doesn’t matter what other people think.
Participant: Another example: Some of my relatives don’t like that I’m engaging in Buddhism and that I am here, and so I can’t satisfy them. Or 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.
Participant: Could you please explain what it means that there is no “me” that moves the pieces in a child’s game from one place to another? If I am planning what to do in the evening and I can choose one or another thing to do, there is some sort of feeling of someone making this decision. You can say it’s 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” standing back from our life and making the decision.
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 were another “me” that was the piece on the board that’s being moved 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. If you ask, “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!” We just live our lives without such thoughts or feelings.
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. You just exercise self-control without bifurcating, separating it, making this dichotomy. Just do it.
Let us end our session for the day. We think whatever understanding, whatever positive force 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.
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