Equalizing Our Attitudes toward Ourselves: Overcoming Self-Hatred
Session Five: Five Decisions for Developing a Positive Attitude toward Ourselves
We’ve been going through the nine points concerning how to develop an equal attitude toward ourselves throughout our lives, namely an attitude of kindness to ourselves. We’ve gone through six of these nine points, and we have three more to cover.
The next one, the seventh: 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.
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 everyone, whether the Pope or a drunkard. The same is true regarding His Holiness the Dalai Lama when he meets presidents of various countries or just ordinary people. As he walks in to an event and greets the people, it’s the same openness, the same warmth. Nobody is special. It doesn’t mean being cold and with no feeling toward everybody equally. It means being open, warm, kind, and happy to meet anybody.
I was always amazed with Serkong Rinpoche because, as we traveled to many Buddhist centers around the world, there would usually be a Tibetan teacher there. Rinpoche didn’t seem to have anybody who was his best friend. No matter whom he was with, he acted 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, but they don’t. They would see us like that if we were truly like that, but they don’t. In fact we could include in this first point that not only the gurus, but everybody would see us this way, but 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.” Again, this is identifying with the false “me.” We are choosing just the negative things about us and exaggerating them and forgetting about everything else concerning ourselves. As I mentioned before several times, everybody has strong points, everybody has weak points. There is nothing special about that – a little bit more of this quality, a little bit less of that one, but nothing special.
The next point, number eight, is that 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 what our attitude is to ourselves when we’re in a good mood and when we’re in a bad mood. It’s quite clear that our attitudes change. 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, irrespective or 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 or negative; some things that we might have done are positive; some things that might have happened to us 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 a basic human right, I have the right to be happy and not to be unhappy.
Shortcomings can be overcome; they’re not something that is permanent and unchanging. If we’ve made mistakes in life – some mistakes you can remedy; others, you just deal with them and make the best of the mistakes that you made. For instance, we made a bad investment and lost money. You try to make the best of it. If you’ve lost the money, you’ve lost the money, and there’s nothing that you can do about that. 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. We have to differentiate here “me” as a person from what I might have done (or various characteristics and qualities that I might have that can change according to circumstances).
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 or something that happened; but that’s impossible.
Here, we’re not talking about being inherently wonderful, or terrible, and so on. We’re talking about my attitude toward myself. If I were definitely one way, my attitude toward myself should always be like that regardless of situations. But the fact is that my attitude changes, and has changed in the past, depending on different situations – I succeeded, I failed, I made a good choice, I made the wrong choice, the wrong decision.
So there’s no point in having this disturbing attitude toward myself: “This is the way that I definitely am, regardless of what happens.” It doesn’t have to be like that. We can change if we understand that our feeling toward ourselves has always 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, an equal one of kindness and respect. Self-respect is very important.
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 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; I’m an ordinary human being and ordinary human beings make mistakes. Just because I make mistakes, there’s nothing special about that, is there? What do I expect? There’s no reason to hate myself, or 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 sometimes fail. All unfortunate things that take place happen because of various circumstances. But underlying whatever happens to me, I’m just a person, a 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.”
There are five decisions that come from thinking about these nine points for equalizing our attitude toward ourselves:
The first decision 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. The same is true 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 these disturbing emotions and attitudes toward myself that make my attitude toward myself go up and down. They’re just troublemakers.”
The second decision is to rid ourselves of self-cherishing. We reach this decision by thinking about how all unhappiness comes from cherishing the false “me.” In this context, “cherishing” means being totally preoccupied with this false “me.” It doesn’t mean liking this false “me.” Remember, the false “me” doesn’t exist at all; it’s just something that we project: a solid “me” that we identify with as being so horrible, or so important, or such a nobody. We remind ourselves, “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 so that I’m 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 and being overly protective toward myself – it’s also a very unhappy state of mind. And thinking ‘I have no qualities, I’m nothing’ isn’t a very happy state of mind either.”
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. Often we act destructively toward them. For example, we might be very annoyed with ourselves: “I did something so stupid!” What happens when we’re in that state of mind? We’re not tolerant toward ourselves, and so we get annoyed with other people as well. In an annoyed state of mind, we snap out at others as well. We say nasty things; we aren’t kind to them, and so on, which just brings even more unhappiness.
Or we’re so worried and preoccupied with ourselves having enough that we don’t give anything to anyone else. Or we give them the smallest or worst piece of whatever it is that we have to eat if they ask for a taste. That causes bad relations. The other person is going to resent us, and it will bring us more unhappiness. Or we ignore our own needs, our own capacities, and we 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 crucial here. If we have a disturbing attitude toward ourselves, it comes from this preoccupation with this false “me,” this disturbing attitude that is based on thinking of ourselves in terms of some solid thing. So we decide to rid ourselves of this preoccupation with a false “me,” and to rid ourselves of the self-cherishing that comes from it.
The third decision is to work for the benefit of the conventional “me” – in other words, work for self-development – because we realize that it 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. Rather, the more that we work on self-development, improving ourselves, then not only are we happier, we’re also more able to benefit others. The more we develop our good qualities, the more we’re able to help others, and that truly is the source of happiness.
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, 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, we don’t base our whole feeling of self-worth on whether what we do succeeds or fails. Whether it succeeds or fails is due to a million causes, not just what we 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, and we all have our shortcomings.
What’s interesting is that in this situation we often have this attitude of “I could have done better.” 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? 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 had been aware of some other factors that were involved in the situation, I could have made a better decision, but 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. 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. Then what happens is we become sloppy; we’re not careful. We become overconfident, and then we make mistakes. Think about that for a moment.
The fourth decision is that I am capable of exchanging my attitudes about the false “me” and the conventional “me.” In other words, up until now we have been so preoccupied about the false “me” and we pretty much ignored the conventional “me,” and what we want to do now is to be able to switch that. This doesn’t mean now to be neurotically self-preoccupied with the conventional “me.” Rather, it means, to take care of the conventional “me” in a healthy way and forget about this false “me,” because it never existed at all.
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.” Furthermore, because the false “me” doesn’t exist at all, it can’t be benefited or harmed. So when we’ve thought of ourselves 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 were any benefit from it, it wasn’t benefiting the false “me”; it was benefiting the conventional “me.” We need to think about that.
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.” 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” – “Oh, I’m so worried about this” and “I have to succeed” and thoughts 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, 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, done so. Any benefit that we have given to ourselves has been to the conventional “me.”
The last decision is a confirmation that we are going to try our best to stop having these disturbing attitudes and these disturbing ways of treating ourselves, based on identifying with the false “me,” and instead have a positive, kind attitude toward the conventional “me” and treat myself well. 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 flexible and imaginative in our way of understanding these destructive and constructive actions, and not just limit them to exactly the way that they are defined in the texts, but be a little broader in their application. For example, we don’t just think in terms of taking the life of others, but also include in this category physically harming or causing physical pain. And of course here we’re thinking in terms of not doing this to ourselves.
The traditional list of destructive actions includes three physical actions:
Taking the life of others.
Taking what is not given to us.
Engaging in inappropriate sexual behavior, which entails quite a large discussion, but basically it refers to indulging in unhealthy or harmful sexual behavior.
Then four of speech:
Lying; saying what’s untrue.
Using divisive language, which is basically saying negative things to someone about their friends in order to cause division.
Harsh language; saying things that hurt.
Idle chatter, just meaningless “blah blah blah” that interrupts and wastes everybody’s time.
And then three destructive ways of thinking:
Covetous thinking, with which we think with jealousy, “I have to get what this other person has,” and plotting how we can do it.
Thinking with malice. How can we hurt somebody and plotting and planning what we could say to them when we see them next time that really is going to hurt them.
Antagonistic, distorted thinking. Somebody else is doing something positive – let’s say they’re going to some spiritual practice – and then thinking, “This is so stupid. This is so terrible. How can I stop them? What negative things can I say that would make them see this is stupid?” There are many varieties of that.
I think that with some imagination we can think of variants of these that would be applicable here. We think of the disadvantages of each of the ten destructive types of behavior aimed at what we conceive as the false “me” and contrast it with the benefits of directing the opposite of these – the constructive actions – toward the conventional “me.” And whether the destructive actions are aimed at the false “me” or the conventional “me,” still it’s not beneficial at all.
The first one would be trying to punish ourselves because we’re no good, this type of thing, as opposed to taking care of ourselves, taking care of the conventional “me.” We’re thinking of ourselves in terms of the false “me” and treating it badly, as opposed to treating our conventional “me” kindly. We think of the disadvantages of the one and the advantages of the other. Taking care of the conventional “me” doesn’t mean overindulging and giving ourselves everything that we want. Nor does it mean depriving ourselves of something as opposed to giving ourselves something, depriving ourselves because “I don’t deserve it,” this sort of attitude. Sometimes we do that. Sometimes we are 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. I don’t know about here in Moscow, but in Berlin the metro (the underground subway) 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 there. So an example of taking something away from ourselves would be not being willing to spend the money on a taxi in order to go home late at night – this type of behavior. And who’s going to suffer? I’m going to suffer because I have to get up in the morning and go to work. 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.
Another example is 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. These are examples of treating ourselves unkindly as opposed to treating ourselves kindly, and we see the disadvantages of being self-destructive and treating ourselves unkindly, and the advantages of being kind to ourselves and being constructive. With this last decision, we work with this. We don’t really have time to go through the ten one by one with each of the destructive and constructive actions, but you get the idea.
As I have mentioned, to develop this training, I’ve taken the points that appear in the context of equalizing and exchanging our attitudes about self and others and applied them just to ourselves. The next step in the sequence, when it’s applied to self and others, is the practice of tonglen, giving and taking. Is there a way in which we can apply that here? The Seven-Point Attitude-Training says that you should start with yourself when doing the 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 we can do it with people that we 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. To make a show of it or announce to someone, “I’m taking this trouble away from you” invites trouble because they will think you’re a complete idiot when taking on their problems doesn’t work. It’s just a big ego trip. In the Eight-Verse Attitude-Training (Blo-sbyong tshig-brgyad-ma), it says to do this as a hidden practice – sometimes translated as “secret” – “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, the problems of old age – and dealing with them now, we could imagine ourselves as an old person in front of us and take on that problem. Another example is getting sick later in our lives. We could imagine ourselves sick and take 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 if they happen. We don’t deny that these problems may happen.
In contrast to this, 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) – 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 repulsive forms and dissolve into our heart – they dissolve into the calmness of the clear-light mind, as it were – and then we send out happiness to them. It’s not that we keep these negative things inside us and hold on to them, but they are like a disturbance on the ocean of the mind that calms down. Then on the basis of calming down, we can send out positive feelings.
Here, when working with ourselves, rather than visualizing myself in front of myself and doing this type of practice like we would do it with taking on someone else’s negative attitude, instead I don’t visualize anything in front of me. Rather, I just try to feel in my body the disturbing, negative energy of my low self-esteem, for instance, and imagine drawing it in to my heart from throughout my body. We can visualize the negative attitude and energy in many different ways – as dark light or some repulsive substances – but just draw it into the heart, to the center of the heart, and imagine it calms down and dissolves there. Then from our heart, imagine a positive attitude toward our conventional “me” shines out and spreads through our entire body. I think that type of visualization would certainly be less dualistic.
There’s a deeper reason for suggesting this way of visualizing. When we have a negative attitude toward ourselves, our energy is quite disturbed. So when we’re doing this dissolution process with our mind, it also helps us to physically calm down the disturbing energy within our body. I think that would be more difficult to accomplish if we imagined taking on disturbing energy from ourselves visualized in front of us.
Even if we’re only capable of relaxing the tension in our muscles while doing this giving and taking visualization – for instance, relaxing the tension in our shoulders and neck, which is usually where the most tension is – and dissolving it, and then trying to have a calmer, more positive attitude shine out from deep within us to pervade at least our body, if not everything about us, this would be very helpful. This is my idea.
We only have a few minutes left, so let’s try this just for a minute, and then we’ll have to end.
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.
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