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Home > Approaching Buddhism > Modern Adaptation of Buddhism > Equalizing Our Attitudes toward Ourselves: Overcoming Self-Hatred > Session Five: Five Decisions for Developing a Positive Attitude toward Ourselves

Equalizing Our Attitudes toward Ourselves: Overcoming Self-Hatred

Alexander Berzin
Moscow, Russia, September 2010

Session Five: Five Decisions for Developing a Positive Attitude toward Ourselves

Unedited Transcript
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We’ve been going through the nine points concerning how to develop an equal attitude toward ourselves throughout our lives, an attitude of kindness to ourselves. We’ve gone through six of these nine points and we have three more to cover. 

So the next one, the seventh, is if I were truly horrible, or truly special and wonderful, or truly a nobody, then the Buddhas and the great masters would see me that way – but they don’t. Well, that’s a difficult one if we haven’t met any Buddhas, which probably we haven’t, and if we aren’t closely associated with any great spiritual masters. But I’ve had the privilege to be close to some really great spiritual masters – His Holiness the Dalai Lama, his teachers, and so on – and I can tell you, from my experience, that nobody is special for them. Everybody is the same. They are equally open to everyone. 

I always think of the example of my own main teacher, Serkong Rinpoche. I was with him as his interpreter for nine years, went around the world with him, and was with him when we met the previous Pope and when we would meet drunkards on the street. He was the same toward both, whether the Pope or a drunkard. Or the Dalai Lama with presidents of various countries or just ordinary people, that – as he greets, as he walks in to an event – it’s the same openness, same warmth. Nobody special. 

It doesn’t mean being cold and with no feeling toward everybody equally. That means being open, and warm, and kind, and happy to meet anybody. I was always amazed with Serkong Rinpoche because we traveled to many Buddhist centers around the world and there would usually be a Tibetan teacher there and Rinpoche didn’t seem to have anybody who was his best friend. No matter who he was with, he was acting toward them – toward these Tibetan teachers – as if they were his best friend. It was really quite extraordinary; he was the same with all of them. 

So if we ourselves were truly horrible, or truly special and wonderful, or truly a nobody, the Buddhas and the great teachers would see us as that, and they don’t. They would see us like that if we were truly like that, and they don’t. 

[silence] 

In fact, we could include in this first point that not only the gurus, but everybody would see us this way, and they don’t. It’s really funny because if we analyze we often say, “Well, they don’t really know me. If they really knew me they would know what a horrible person I am. But they don’t know the real me.” But then again, this is identifying with the false “me.” Just choosing the negative things and exaggerating them, and forgetting about everything else concerning ourselves. Again, as I mentioned before several times, everybody has strong points, everybody has weak points. Nothing special about that. A little bit more, a little bit less, but nothing special. 

The next point, number eight. If I were truly an awful person – or truly a wonderful person, or truly a nobody who doesn’t count – I would always have to be like that. That could never change, and our attitudes about ourselves could never change. But that’s not the case. Circumstances do change and our attitudes about ourselves do change, if we look over our lives. Just think about it. When we’re in a good mood, what our attitude is to ourselves; and when we’re in a bad mood. It’s quite clear that our attitudes change. 

[silence] 

You see, the confusion here is that we feel that somehow as a person we are inherently a good person – or inherently a bad person, or inherently a nobody – as if this were our true nature. Irrelevant, not at all dependent or relative to our mood, or to what’s going on, or to different periods in our life, or anything. 

There’s a big difference here when we talk about just me as a person. Being a person, an individual, is a neutral phenomenon, neither good nor bad. A hand is neither good nor bad. A hand is just a hand. Now some things that we might have done are destructive; negative. Some things that we might have done are positive. Some things that might have happened were painful. Some other things might have been pleasurable. That’s something else. But as a person, we’re neither good nor bad. And as part of human nature, I want to be happy and I don’t want to be unhappy. Everybody does. And as basic human rights, I have the right to be happy and not to be unhappy. 

And shortcomings can be overcome; they’re not something which is permanent and unchanging. And if we’ve made mistakes in life – well, some mistakes you can remedy; others, you just deal with it and make the best of the mistake that we might have made. A bad investment and we lost money. I mean, you make the best of it. If you’ve lost the money, you’ve lost the money. So there’s nothing that you can do. So you try to adjust to the situation. The reality is, “Okay, I lost the money. Now what do I do?” Or I might have made a mistake. That doesn’t make me a bad person, as a person. It was a stupid mistake, that’s all. So we have to differentiate here: “me” as a person, and what I might have done, or various characteristics, qualities that I might have, that can change according to circumstances.

And that brings us to the ninth point. If I were truly a horrible person – or so wonderful, or a nobody – I should have been like that my entire life and not just relative to some situation, something that happened. But that’s impossible. Now here we’re talking about not inherently wonderful, or terrible, and so on. We’re talking about my attitude toward myself, right? My attitude toward myself, if I were definitely one way, should be always that way, regardless of situations. But the fact is that, depending on different situations – I succeeded, I failed, I made a good choice, I made the wrong choice, wrong decision – my attitude changes, has changed in the past, and undoubtedly this is how it works. 

So there’s no point in having this disturbing attitude toward myself. “This is the way that I definitely am.” It doesn’t have to be like that. We can change it if we understand that our feeling toward ourselves has been dependent on circumstances or situations, but basically there’s nothing wrong about me, there’s nothing special about me, then we can have an equal attitude toward ourselves at all times. Equal one, of kindness and respect. Self-respect, very important. 

[silence] 

I think that – particularly as Buddhist practitioners, but not necessarily limited to Buddhist practitioners – we tend to think that we need to be perfect. And if we’re not perfect, we’re bad. We think we’re bad. “I’m no good. I’m a failure.” But I think we need to remember that I’m not yet a Buddha. And human beings make mistakes. And so just because I make mistakes, there’s nothing special about that, is there? What do I expect? So there’s no reason to hate myself, have such a low opinion of myself, just because I made a mistake. It’s an unrealistic expectation that I’m never going to make mistakes and that I’m never going to fail in what I try to do. Of course I will. 

All of these unfortunate things that happen, they happen from various circumstances. They happen on the basis of my confusion. There are many, many causes for these unpleasant things to happen. But as a person – person: neutral phenomenon. So we try our best and try to learn from our mistakes without being judgmental about ourselves: “I’m so wonderful,” or “I’m so horrible.” 

Now we have a set of five decisions that come from this way of thinking. The first is: no matter how well or poorly I do, I will develop an equal, kindly attitude toward myself. When I have self-hatred or an overly high opinion of myself, it harms my ability to help others. Same if I think I’m a nobody: it harms my ability to help others, in addition to just making me unhappy. Therefore, the decision here is I resolve to try my best to get rid of it. Get rid of these disturbing emotions and attitudes toward myself. They’re just troublemakers. 

[silence] 

Then second: we think about how all unhappiness comes from cherishing the false “me.” “Cherishing” here means being totally preoccupied with this false “me” – that it’s so, so important. But remember the false “me” doesn’t exist at all; it’s just something that we project, this solid “me” that then we identify with being so wonderful, or so horrible, or such a nobody. But when I have self-hatred – this low, negative attitude toward myself – it makes me unhappy, doesn’t it? And when I’m so attached to myself that I’m absolutely completely self-preoccupied – worried about what’s going to happen, am I going to succeed, worrying that I’m going to get sick, just clinging, overly protective toward myself – it’s also a very unhappy state of mind. And when we are just thinking “Oh, I have no qualities” – like that, that also isn’t a very happy state of mind either. 

And what does this cause us to do, when we have these attitudes toward ourselves? We’re so busy beating ourselves, or worrying about ourselves, or ignoring our needs, that we can’t really pay attention to the needs of others. We act destructively toward others very often. “I’m annoyed with myself,” for example. “I’m very annoyed with myself. I did something so stupid,” and so on. And so what happens when we’re in that state of mind? Well, we’re not tolerant toward ourselves and so we get annoyed with other people as well. “What are they doing!” I’m in this annoyed state of mind and so then we snap out at others as well. So we say nasty things, we aren’t kind to them, and so on, which just brings even more unhappiness. 

Or I’m so worried and preoccupied with myself, that I have enough, that I don’t give anything to you. I give you the worst piece of whatever it is that we have to eat, for example. And that causes bad relations. The other person is going to resent us, and it will bring us more unhappiness. Or I’m ignoring my own needs, my own capacities, and I get over tired. What happens when we get over tired? You make more mistakes, don’t you? We don’t pay attention very well. We get irritable. We get annoyed very easily, because we’re overtired, overstressed. And in our relations with others, again, it produces more unhappiness. 

So really our attitude toward ourselves is very, very crucial here. If we have a disturbing attitude toward ourselves, it really comes from this preoccupation with this false “me,” this disturbing attitude, which is based on thinking of myself in terms of this solid thing. 

[silence] 

The next point is: working for the benefit of the conventional “me” – in other words, working for self-development – is the source of all happiness. We’re not talking about working on ourselves to develop a bigger ego or a better ego. We’re not talking about that. But the more that we work on self-development, improving ourselves, then the more we’re able to… not only are we happier, but the more we’re able to benefit others. The more that we develop our good qualities, the more that I’m able to help others. And that truly is the source of happiness. 

[silence] 

It’s very interesting. If we are at peace with ourselves and secure with ourselves because we have a healthy attitude toward ourselves, a kind attitude toward ourselves, then it gives us a much more stable position to be able to help others. In other words, it doesn’t matter whether the other person thanks me or doesn’t thank me, my mood isn’t going to change. “Oh, I’m so great!” – they thanked me, or anything like that. “Oh, they didn’t appreciate me” because they didn’t thank me. And although, of course, we want our help to succeed; nevertheless, I don’t base my whole feeling of self-worth on whether what I do succeeds or fails. Whether it succeeds or fails is due to a million causes, not just what I do. So my self-worth, my sense of self-worth, is not dependent on that – this is very important – because I’m stable, I’m secure with myself. As long as I sincerely tried my best to do what I thought would be of help. And if I made a mistake, or gave poor advice, or they didn’t follow my advice – well, I’m human; they’re human. We all have our shortcomings. 

What’s interesting is we have this attitude of “Well, I didn’t try my best. I could have done better.” Well, first we have to analyze is that realistic? Could I really have done better, or am I just blaming myself because what I did didn’t work? So is it realistic or unrealistic that I could have done better, that it was within my power to have done better? Well, again, we’re human. Sure, if I were aware of some other factors that were involved in the situation, I could have made a better decision, but I didn’t. I didn’t know. And if I didn’t do my best because I was overtired, or I was lazy, or whatever, we see what we have to work on in order to be able to do better. But the issue of self-worth is really quite irrelevant. And as soon as we start thinking in terms of self-worth, we produce unhappiness for ourselves, regardless of whether our judgment is that “I’m so wonderful” or “I’m so horrible.” 

When we think we’re so wonderful, we become arrogant. And what happens is we become sloppy; we’re not careful. You become overconfident and then you make mistakes. Think about that for a moment

[silence] 

Then the fourth decision is that I am capable of changing my attitudes about the false “me” and the conventional “me.” In other words, we were so preoccupied about the false “me” and we pretty much ignored the conventional “me,” and what we want to do is to be able to switch that. Which doesn’t mean to be neurotically self-preoccupied with the conventional “me.” It doesn’t mean that either. But, in a healthy way, to take care of the conventional “me” and forget about this false “me” because it never existed at all. 

And we are capable of doing this. Why? Because when we have benefitted ourselves in the past, we’ve in fact been benefitting the conventional “me.” Because the false “me” doesn’t exist at all, so it can’t be benefited or harmed. So when I’ve thought of myself in terms of a false “me” – “Oh, I’m so wonderful”. And I should do this and do that, and so on, for this false “me” – if there was any benefit from it, it wasn’t benefiting the false “me”; it was benefiting the conventional “me.” We think about that. 

[silence] 

If this is a little bit confusing, let me give an example. Let’s say we are totally preoccupied and worried about ourselves: “I have to do perfectly in school.” So we’re worried about how we’re going to do and we study really, really hard for the exam. And we pass. We get a good grade. Who has benefited from this, the false “me” or the conventional “me”? The false “me” doesn’t exist at all. I’ve benefited from it – the conventional “me” has benefited. Even though I was thinking in terms of this false “me” – that “Oh I’m so worried about this,” and “I have to succeed,” and stuff like that – nevertheless, it’s the conventional “me” that benefits. So although we cause the conventional “me” perhaps to be quite unhappy because we were so worried; nevertheless, we also were kind to that conventional “me” because we passed the exam. That’s why I say we are capable of being kind to the conventional “me” – because we have, in fact. Any benefit that we have given to ourselves has been to the conventional “me.” 

[silence] 

The last decision is a confirmation that we are going to try our best to stop having these disturbing attitudes, disturbing ways of treating the false “me,” and instead have a positive, kind attitude and treatment toward the conventional “me.” And for this, we think in terms of the ten destructive actions and the ten constructive actions as listed in the Buddhist literature. 

Here we need to be a little bit flexible in our way of understanding these destructive and constructive actions, and not just limit it to exactly the way that they are defined, but be a little bit more broad. In other words, not just think in terms of taking the life of others, but physically harming, physically hurting, or causing physical pain. Here we’re thinking in terms of not to others, but to ourselves. So that’s in the general category of taking the life of others. So this is damaging the life. 

Now we have to be a little bit imaginative here with these ten. The traditional way of describing them: We have three destructive actions of body, physical actions: [1] Taking the life of others. [2] Taking what is not given to us. [3] Engaging in inappropriate sexual behavior – which has quite a large discussion to it, but what is unhealthy or harmful. 

Then four of speech: [1] Lying; saying what’s untrue. [2] Using divisive language, which is basically saying very negative things to someone about their friends in order to cause division. [3] Harsh language; saying things that hurt. And [4] idle chatter, just meaningless “Blah blah blah blah blah” that wastes everybody’s time, interrupts and wastes everybody’s time – which is meaningless, what we’re saying. 

And then three destructive actions of thinking, destructive ways of thinking: [1] One is covetous thinking, in which we’re really jealous and I have to get what this other person has, and plotting how I can do it. And [2] thinking with malice. How can I hurt somebody? And plotting and planning what I could say to them when I see them next time that really is going to hurt them. And then [3] antagonistic, distorted thinking. Somebody else is doing something positive – let’s say they’re going to some spiritual practice – and then we’re thinking, “Oh this is so stupid. This is so terrible. How can I stop them? What can I say negative toward them that would make them see that this is stupid?” There are many varieties of that. 

Anyway, I think that with some imagination we can think of variants of these that would be applicable here. So we think of the disadvantages of the destructive behavior aimed at the false “me” and contrast it with the benefits of directing the opposite of these – the constructive actions – towards the conventional “me.” And whether the destructive actions are aimed at the false “me” or the conventional “me,” still it’s not very beneficial at all. 

So the first one: Trying to punish myself because I’m no good. This type of thing, as opposed to taking care of myself, taking care of the conventional “me.” We’re thinking in terms of the false “me,” treating it badly as opposed to treating it kindly. Disadvantages of one, the advantages of the other. Taking care of the conventional “me” doesn’t mean overindulging and just giving everything that we want. Or depriving myself of something, as opposed to giving myself something. Depriving because I don’t deserve it. This sort of attitude. Sometimes we do that. Sometimes we are very, very cheap and miserly with ourselves. We’ll never spend anything on ourselves to make life a little bit easier – even though we could afford to; we’re talking about when we can afford to – whereas we could, in fact, be kind to ourselves. 

I’m thinking of an example like, for instance, we’re out late at night. And I don’t know about here in Moscow, but in Berlin the metro, the underground, and the buses do run at night, but very infrequently; and if you have to change once or twice to get home, it could take you hours to get home. So not being willing to spend the money on a taxi in order to go home late at night. This type of thing. And who’s going to suffer? I’m going to suffer because I have to get up in the morning and go to work. So if I only have three hours of sleep, how am I going to be able to do that? This attitude of “I’m not going to spend the money, even though I have the money to take the taxi.” This is what I’m talking about. If we don’t have the money, that’s something else. 

So these sorts of examples. We don’t have time to go through all ten. But rather than speaking harshly to myself – “You’re such an idiot. You’re so horrible!” – giving the conventional “me” encouragement: “Come on. You can do it.” Instead of lying to myself, being honest to myself. 

So this is treating myself unkindly as opposed to treating myself kindly, and we see the disadvantages of being destructive, self-destructive, treating myself unkindly, and the advantages of being kind to myself, being constructive. So we would work with this. We don’t really have time to do it one by one with each of the destructive and constructive actions, but you get the idea. 

Now, as I said, this training, this series of points – what I have done is taken these points that we have in the context of equalizing and exchanging our attitudes about self and others and applied it just to ourselves. And the next step in the sequence, when we’re talking about self and others, is the practice of tonglen: giving and taking. So is there a way in which we can apply that here? And we do have the Seven-Point Attitude-Training saying you start with yourself when we have this practice of giving and taking, so how would we do that? 

When we’re thinking of taking on the sufferings of others, we imagine them in front of us – or you can do it with people that you see in the metro or on the bus. Of course, when you are doing this with others who are actually physically present, you don’t let them know what you’re doing. You don’t go, you know, “Oooh, I’m trying to take this away from you.” This is really a very dangerous thing to do because you’re really fooling others and they think you’re a complete idiot when such things don’t work – in terms of taking on their problems. It’s just a big trip, ego trip. In the Eight Verse Attitude-Training it says do this as a hidden practice – sometimes translated as “secret” – but “hidden” means you do it in private; you don’t let other people know what you’re doing. 

If we’re thinking in terms of taking on our own problems – for instance, problems of old age – and dealing with that now, or something like that in the future, we could imagine ourselves as an old person in front of us and take on that problem. Or being sick, getting sick later in our lives. We could imagine ourselves sick, and taking on that problem – in terms of how would we deal with this – and give some solutions so that we are ready to be able to deal with these problems. We don’t deny them. Whereas here, when we’re working with taking away a negative attitude that we have toward ourselves and the suffering that that brings about – this is my own idea; I haven’t heard this from anyone else – but I don’t think we have to visualize ourselves in front of us. I think we can do that in a slightly different way. 

When we’re working with others, we imagine that the suffering – these negative things come from them and enter us in a variety of different forms. No need to go into that here, since we only have a few minutes left anyway. But sort of repulsive forms that come in and dissolve into our heart, dissolve into the calmness of the clear light mind, as it were, and then send out happiness. It’s not that we keep these negative things inside us and hold on, but it’s like a disturbance on the ocean of the mind and that sort of calms down. And then – on the basis of calming down – then we can give positive feeling. 

So I could imagine (just my own way of thinking) that rather than visualizing myself in front of myself and doing this, that just the feeling of myself the way that I am, with this body, feeling that I’m taking these negative things – this low self-esteem, this negative attitude, and so on – and, in a sense, just sort of drawing it in. We can visualize it in many different ways – dark light, or some repulsive substances, and so on – but just drawing it into the heart, to the center of the heart, and dissolving it there. And then from the heart, sort of shining out a positive attitude toward the conventional “me.” Giving a positive attitude. I think that would be certainly a little bit less dualistic. 

And there’s a deeper reason for suggesting this way of visualizing. When we have a negative attitude, a disturbing attitude toward ourselves, our energy is quite disturbed. And so when we’re doing this dissolution process in terms of this body, also it helps us to physically calm down and work also on calming down the energy within ourselves, which I think would be more difficult to do – I mean, we wouldn’t even think of doing that – in terms of taking it on, this suffering on, from an object visualized in front of us. So this is my way of thinking. 

Even if we’re only capable of doing this on the level of relaxing our muscles, relaxing the tensions in our shoulder and neck – which is where usually the most tension is – it can be very helpful to relaxing this negative attitude, and dissolving it, and trying to have a more positive attitude shine out from deep within us to pervade – at least our body, if not everything about us. 

We only have a few minutes left, so let’s try this just for a minute and then we’ll have to end. 

[silence] 

So we end with a dedication. We think whatever positive force, whatever understanding has come from this, may it go deeper and deeper and act as a cause to reach enlightenment for the benefit of all.