Equalizing Our Attitudes toward Ourselves: Overcoming Self-Hatred
Session Four: Nine Perspectives for Developing a Positive Attitude toward Ourselves
In our discussion about how to equalize our attitudes about ourselves, we have covered the various exercises to help us to develop equanimity. And equanimity specifically aimed at ourselves in terms of what we’ve done in life, and in terms of how we regard ourselves and treat ourselves, and in terms of various aspects of our personality and life. When we speak about equanimity in this context, what we’re referring to is a state of mind that is free of disturbing attitudes or disturbing emotions. That’s referring to a state of mind that’s free of aversion or repulsion – we don’t like ourselves; we have a negative attitude – and on the other hand, attraction – we’re in love with ourselves; “I’m so wonderful” – or naivety with which we consider ourselves a nothing and we ignore our own needs. But we must be careful not to misunderstand this as meaning a state of mind that is totally without any emotions. We don’t mean that at all.
The problem here is with conceptual framework. In our Western languages, we have the concept of emotions and we put a lot of things into this category of emotions. And in the Sanskrit and Tibetan traditions there is no equivalent conceptual category of emotions. There is no word for emotions. Instead, we speak in terms of mental factors. These include certain, almost mechanical types of things, like attention, concentration, interest. Then we have disturbing states of mind: constructive ones, destructive ones. We have these types of categories. And some elements of these categories – the constructive, destructive, and disturbing attitudes – we would consider emotions, and some we wouldn’t, like indecisive wavering, indecision. “Should I do this; should I do that?” Is that an emotion? What would we call that in our Western conceptual framework? So, like that, it is confusing because when we hear equanimity, we think no emotions at all.
So we’re not talking about what we would call positive emotions, like patience, enthusiasm, love, compassion, generosity. These things are fine. They’re not the troublemakers, although, of course, they could be mixed with disturbing emotions. Together with love, we could also have attachment. So we have to differentiate, here, constructive emotions and the destructive ones – and, more specifically, what we would call disturbing emotions. I don’t really want to get into the technical difference.
If we look at these three troublemakers that I mentioned – which are basically anger, attachment, and naivety – we have here, with attachment and anger, an exaggeration. With anger – here we’re talking about directing it at ourselves; “I really dislike myself” – what we’re doing is exaggerating negative aspects. So, for instance, failure, or shortcomings in our personality, or bad moods that we’re in. We exaggerate them. We make them into something solid, and make it almost into some sort of monster, and we completely lose sight of all the positive things that would counterbalance it – our successes, for example, or the strong points in our personality.
And when we have attachment – and we have too high an opinion of ourselves, and so on – then we do just the opposite. We make into a solid thing our good qualities, or the positive things that have happened in our life, and we exaggerate them, as well, and ignore the negative aspects.
And when we have naivety – considering ourselves a nobody, and ignoring our needs – we go to the other extreme and deny any qualities, whatsoever, of ourselves, either positive or negative. We even deny that we are a human being and have certain rights.
So, with equanimity, what we try to do is to get a more objective view of ourselves, our lives, and so on, without exaggerating any aspect or denying any aspect. We accept that this is our reality and none of these things are solid and stuck and forever. We can work on ourselves, we can improve, but first we have to accept what is the actual situation now. So having this more objective view of ourselves doesn’t in any way block having positive emotions, like love, and kindness, and compassion, and patience, and enthusiasm, etc. In fact, it makes it much easier to have these positive feelings, because when we have these disturbing emotions, particularly directed to ourselves, it makes a block. When we have anger toward ourselves, when we don’t like ourselves, that can block having a warm feeling toward others.
Okay. Now let’s go on to the next stages of the training. Now that we have a basis of equanimity – we’re sort of calmed down in terms of these disturbing emotions to ourselves – now we can work on trying to be kinder to ourselves and having a more positive, healthy attitude. And, for this, we want to try to equalize our attitude about ourselves over our entire lifetime. And also we’ve discussed the difference between conventional “me,” which does actually exist – I’m here; I’m doing things; etc. – and the false “me,” which is this horrible thing that I don’t like, or this wonderful thing that I’m in love with, or this nothing that I ignore.
So when we are developing a kinder, more positive attitude toward ourselves, this is directed at the conventional “me,” not at the false “me.” It’s not that “Well, I don’t like myself, but I’ll try to be a little bit kinder to myself. I’ll tolerate it.” Or “I’m so in love with myself, I’ll be even kinder to myself and indulge myself even more.” We’re not talking about that. Or “I feel so sorry for this poor me who’s such a nobody. Out of pity I will be a little bit kind to it, but deep down I know I don’t deserve it.”
So, for developing this more positive attitude toward our conventional “me,” we need to think in terms of our entire lifetime. From a Buddhist point of view, we would think of many lifetimes, but we can, in a lighter version of this, just think in terms of this lifetime. And we have basic Buddhist thoughts that we can apply here: I have a precious human rebirth. I have opportunities to be able to improve myself. Even if I was born into a very poor family in a very difficult part of the world with a war and so on going on; nevertheless, I am a human being, and I have a mind, I have emotions, I have the working materials to try to improve myself. Even if we are in difficult situations in life externally – in terms of our environment, or society, or even if we have some health problems – still, we’re alive. We’re human beings; we’re not an insect. And we have interest in being able to develop ourselves in a more – what we would call “spiritual” way, not just to make more money.
And we have here nine different points of view for equalizing, through which we can look at ourselves and equalize our attitude about ourselves. So this is slightly different from the equanimity that we were discussing before. The equanimity – that’s the first step – is a state of mind that’s free of disturbing emotions toward ourselves. Now we’re talking about how to develop an equal attitude of kindness, a positive attitude toward ourselves in all situations. So that’s a slightly different emphasis here. So how can we be kinder toward ourselves. And we don’t mean in spoiling-the-baby type of kinder, but in a healthier way, more positive toward ourselves, as in taking care of ourselves, eating properly, sleeping properly, setting the limits in terms of how much we can do, and so on.
Setting limits, by the way, has two meanings here. One is: when something is really destructive, being able to say “no” – or really damaging, whether in terms of what another person is doing to us, let’s say, in a very unhealthy relationship, or in terms of engaging in some very dangerous activity that is pointless. Being able to say “no.” The other variant here is in terms of when something is just too much – in terms of work, in terms of time obligations, and so on – it’s too much, so that if we continue like that it’s going to be damaging to us; and so being able to say, “ Enough! I can’t do anymore. I have to take a rest,” or whatever.
Now with the second one – knowing when to take a rest – that’s very important for developing enthusiasm. If we never take a rest, if we never take a break, then our enthusiasm goes way down. We don’t want to continue when we go back to our work. On the other hand, we don’t want to always treat ourselves like a baby. So, for instance, my own teacher, Serkong Rinpoche, for whom I used to translate – when I was really, really tired and felt as though I couldn’t continue any more, he always had me do five minutes more. He always said that no matter how tired you are, you can do five minutes more. You can’t do an hour more, but you can do five minutes more. So that your limits, your endurance, increases. So this way, you don’t always stay as a baby; you grow. So whether we’re engaging in translation or we’re training for a sport, or whatever we’re doing, I think that this is a helpful policy. At least it was helpful for myself.
The first of these nine is to think: At various times of my life, I have been kind to myself, whether I was as a child or a teenager, or whatever. There have been times when in fact I have been kind to myself. Whether I was kind to myself and had a positive attitude at one point or another in my life, whether fifteen minutes ago or fifteen years ago, I was still kind to “me.” It’s just a matter of difference in time, but still the object is “me.” So I have been kind to myself. And I have felt okay about myself. So the conclusion is that I am capable of that. So we think about that. That it makes no difference when we had this positive attitude. We have had it at some point or another, or various points, so we’re capable of it.
Then the second point is we might object and think, “Well, I’ve only had a positive attitude some of the time. Most of the time I’ve been quite negative and really not liked myself at all.” But if we think about it, we’ll see that our kindness has been greater and more frequent than the times that I’ve treated myself badly. Because, after all, I’ve fed myself every day of my life – except when I was a baby and my mother fed me – I’ve brushed my teeth; I’ve slept. I’ve done what was necessary to take care of myself and my basic needs; otherwise I wouldn’t be alive. And so, although we might trivialize these things, actually these are quite important. No matter how negative we might have felt about ourselves, we still ate, and we still slept, and we still got dressed, and dealt with life, didn’t we? So that, if you analyze it, is based on – or is a demonstration of – being kind to ourselves. So, in that perspective, we have been more frequently kind to ourselves than treated ourselves badly. I might not have eaten a very good diet, but I ate something. And I might not have slept enough, but I did sleep – this type of way of thinking. So we think about this.
It’s quite interesting, here, if we analyze why we tend to emphasize incidents or periods in which we’ve treated ourselves badly. I think it’s because there is a strong emotional component – disturbing emotional component – of those periods, rather than when we just feed ourselves and eat. There isn’t a very strong emotion there, is there? So, because the emotion is stronger, particularly if it’s a disturbing emotion, we tend to count that as or consider that more real, in a sense, which is, of course, absurd. How can one incident in our life be more real than another incident? It all took place.
So I’m thinking of examples like, for instance, we are in an unhealthy relationship which is rather abusive. The other person treats us badly or speaks very badly to us and so on. It doesn’t have to be that they beat us. But all of that is based, usually, on a tremendous amount of attachment and insecurity. We’re so attached that we don’t want to say “no” because we’re afraid that then we’ll be abandoned. “Poor me. I’ll have nothing.”
Or another example are people who eat so much they become obese. Usually they have quite a negative attitude about themselves and the naivety of thinking that somehow they can overcome this by the pleasure of eating. This is quite naive and also mixed with attachment, but it’s based on very low self-esteem, very bad attitude toward oneself. Or anorexia, or bulimia – these things where you starve yourself, or you throw up after you’ve eaten. That also is based on very low self-esteem. “I have to be perfect. I’m not perfect.” And then you have quite a distorted idea of what perfect is, and then you treat yourself so badly – in terms of an eating disorder. But, as I said, just the fact that the times when we have treated ourselves kindly, taken care of ourselves, might not have been emotionally dramatic, they are no less real than these more dramatic emotional incidents. And if you look at it, they far outweigh the times when we have been negative toward ourselves. So let’s think about that for another moment before we go on.
Question: We are talking about what’s going on when we have taken drugs, drink alcohol, smoking. In the meantime, understanding these are negative deeds. So this point of view that we are talking about, it’s the kind of situation inside. It’s like a split in your mind – in my case, for example. One part inside me saying, “You, don’t do that!” and another part thinks “Okay, maybe today is a bad day to give up the smoking” – or some other habit that people do. What is this?
Alex: So, in a situation in which we’re doing something self-destructive like taking drugs or alcohol, smoking, then we could have two conflicting attitudes here. One is that we discriminate that this is destructive, this is harmful; but on the other hand, we have attachment, which exaggerates any positive qualities or effects that we have from these substances and ignores the drawbacks.
So the Buddhist point of view: we analyze the mental factors that are involved in this state of mind. So here we have discriminating awareness and we have attachment. And what we have is not only is it that the discriminating awareness is not stronger than the attachment, the attachment seems to be stronger. So all of these mental factors have a spectrum between being very weak and very strong. Then what else is here in this state of mind is indecisive wavering: “Should I not smoke?” “ Should I not take another drink?” or “Should I take another drink?” So indecision is there, which is an unsettling state of mind; you’re not sure what to do. And very weak self-control or discipline: discipline to say “no” to the attachment and go on the side of the discriminating awareness that understands that this is harmful to me.
So what we need to develop here is strengthen this discriminating awareness, which means to reaffirm it, remember it, to stay mindful of it. Mindfulness is this mental glue that sticks you to it. And put the big emphasis on this discipline, self-discipline, that even though I feel like taking another drink, so what? That’s just force of habit, and I’m not going to be a slave to that.
Shantideva said it very nicely, a great Indian Buddhist master. To paraphrase what he said, he said speaking to – in our minds – speaking to our disturbing emotions, “I’ve been a slave to you long enough. You have caused me enough trouble and enough harm over time. That time where you can cause me all this trouble is finished.” So this is strong willpower and saying “Enough already!” Now, of course, that’s not so easy, but that really is the only way, initially, to stop it. I mean, deeper and deeper, we have to get into what’s behind the disturbing emotion and all of that. But the first step is just discipline, just self-control, just “Enough!” Even though I want to, want to have another drink, it doesn’t matter. So what? Whatever the situation might be.
I would like to eat another piece of cake, but I understand I’m really just being a pig, and I am really full, and I really have had enough. And then you say, “No!” even though of course I’d love to have another piece. I’d love to stay in bed longer in the morning, but I have to get up. So there are many examples that we can refer to in our lives to reaffirm that we do have the ability to exercise self-control. Even though we would like to stay in bed longer; I’m sure most people would.
You see, that’s really what we had in this first point here, to reconfirm that we do have the ability to do these things. Sometimes we think, “Oh, I’m incapable.” We’re not incapable. It’s just that the examples in which we have been capable, we trivialize.
Now the third point for developing this equal attitude toward ourselves is to think of death, that death can come at any time. And this is true. I mean, we could die at any time. We don’t have to be sick. You could be hit by a truck at any time. So we think, “Suppose this were my last minutes, my last hour.” Let’s say I was a prisoner about to be executed. We don’t have to be a criminal; it could be in a war. They’re going to shoot us. How do we want to spend our last hour? Do I want to spend that in just thinking with self-hatred how horrible I’ve been and how horrible I am? Or in self-indulgence? I’m going to stuff myself with ice cream during this last hour, or have as much sex as I can have in this last hour? Or ignore my need to have a calm state of mind as I am going to be shot? And just continue reading a book, for example, or looking at a magazine during this last hour – some fashion magazine, during this last hour? Is that how I’m going to spend the last hour of my life? Or watch television, and just sort of deny that this is my last hour? Obviously, this is a waste of time – having these disturbing attitudes of either anger, or overattachment, or naivety. And so it’s equal throughout our life in the future, that we could die at any time, and so thinking like that helps us to develop an equal attitude. “Well, I’m going to be kind to myself in this situation. Try to have a calm state of mind and be at peace with myself. I’m going to die.” That’s being kind to myself. So we think about that.
The fourth point is that I want to be happy and I don’t want to be unhappy. I think that’s true of everybody. Then we think in terms of how other people treat me. I don’t like it if others reject me or treat me badly, do I? And I don’t like it when others cling to me or are overprotective, worrying about me all the time. And I don’t like it, I’m not happy, if others totally ignore me, either. So I’m unhappy when others treat me this way.
So then we think in terms of how I treat myself. Actually, when I treat myself badly, I don’t feel happy, do I? And if I’m completely preoccupied with myself and always worried about myself and overprotective – about my health or whatever; hypochondria – that’s not a happy state of mind. And when I ignore my needs, it’s also not a happy state of mind. So, if I don’t want others to treat me like that, why should I treat myself like that? It just makes me unhappy, whether somebody else treats me like that or I treat myself like that. And basically I do want to be happy. I don’t want to be unhappy. I don’t enjoy being unhappy. So why make myself unhappy? There are plenty of other people that can make me unhappy. Why make myself unhappy? Think about that.
Then the next one, the fifth one. Throughout all my life I have the right to be happy and to be treated well by myself. Not just some of the time. You think about that. Do I have the right to be happy? Do I feel that I have to earn it? That I have to deserve it? Somehow it’s a reward? Or don’t I have the right to be happy, regardless?
This is an interesting point, actually. Are we getting into socialist thinking here? Or is this just one of the basic human rights? The right to be happy. Basic human rights doesn’t necessarily imply a socialist political system, does it?
The sixth point is quite similar. Throughout all my life I have the right not to be unhappy – I have the right not to be treated badly by myself – not just some of the time. The point here, with this sixth and the fifth points, is an equal attitude throughout my life. It’s not just some of the time that I have the right to be happy and not to be unhappy. It’s always the case. It’s not just that I want to be happy and not to be unhappy. I have the basic right to that. It’s not an unreasonable thing to want. There’s nothing wrong with me for wanting to be happy.
Okay. Let’s take our break here. And then, in our last session, we’ll look at these last three ways of developing this equal attitude and then the five decisions that follow from that.
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