Many of us struggle with self-judgment. I sometimes say that I am meaner to myself than I would ever dream of being to anyone else. The things I sometimes think about myself, the negative self-talk, can be terrible and rude, words I would never think about another human being. Yet, if I want to cultivate a compassionate heart toward others, the practice of compassion must begin with me.
A few days ago I was talking with my friend Ginna. She was mentioning her struggles with the behavior of someone we both know, a “difficult” person, and speaking of how judgmental she felt. “What is wrong with me?” she asked. “Um, nothing is wrong with you. It sounds to me like you are human,” was my reply. Ginna had been, in that moment, quick to judge herself. This is oh-so-familiar territory for me.
Like Ginna, I long to be free from the judgmental mind. I despise that icky feeling I get when I am in judgment of others. Yet, the truth is that a heart of compassion must begin with me, with compassion for myself.
Because human experience is so universal we find that when we make friends with ourself, we make friends with the world. When we cultivate compassion for our own weaknesses, we find compassion for others in their weakness. This doesn’t mean we excuse our weaknesses lightly. We still pursue freedom from our foibles. But we do so with kindness, which I think makes our efforts more productive.
Unfortunately, it is our natural reflex to want to push our weaknesses away. When I am lonely, I just want the loneliness to go away. When I am afraid, I want to magically be fearless. When judging another, I simply want my negative thoughts (and also the annoying person) to vaporize. You can see I have a lot to work with! And as counter-intuitive as it sounds, the way to diffuse the power of my loneliness, fear, or judgment is to embrace them. As Pema Chodron writes, “the things that really drive us nuts have enormous energy in them. That is why we fear them.” We are drained when we try to push our fears, our anger, and our jealousies away. We are energized for compassion when we find the courage to embrace them.
So, what is it you want to push away today? For me, I want am wrestling with a fear of failure. I have certain strengths, certain gifts. What if they aren’t all I think they are? What if my gifts themselves let me down? What if I undermine my talents with my own self-doubt? Rather than pretending I do not have these fears, how can I embrace them, look beneath them to what drives the fears themselves? Can I find a place of compassion for myself? Can I then have compassion on the fears of others?
I pause. I breathe in my fears. I breathe out compassion. This is why it is called “practice.”