Updated: Jul 5, 2020
For many years I was in personal psychotherapy or psychoanalysis, and also doing intensive spiritual work, all of which greatly helped my life. But like many of us I was still searching, so I read a lot of what are known as “self-help books.” What I found was that these books often start out with emphasizing the importance of “learning to love yourself,” as the old Whitney Houston song celebrated (“Learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all!”)
But I also found myself puzzled and not helped very much. Yes, I got the idea all right. It was the “how to do it” part that always left me mystified. It always felt like a catch-22: if I was where I wanted to be, then I would be able to love myself. But these books were saying that I should learn to love myself first, in order to be where I wanted to be! How to do this? It took me many years of spiritual experience to begin to unravel this puzzle.
What I ultimate found, as many others have also discovered, is that this process actually consists of simple steps that we can slowly learn to do.
Learning to be Kind to Ourselves
First, I found that it is easiest to think of this as “learning to be kind to ourselves.” That seems more achievable. I think I first learned this from His Holiness The Dalai Lama, who when asked what his religion was, answered simply, “kindness.”
These days, as we are all going through the difficult challenge of dealing with the coronavirus, I want to focus on one aspect of learning to be kind to ourselves. This is the question: how can we be kind to ourselves when we are experiencing painful emotional feelings, such as extreme fear, anger, rage, anxiety, depression? What is a skillful way to deal with this? Here’s a way to begin this process.
The Importance of Mindfulness.
First, what we can learn to do – which is challenging but workable – is to develop a certain mental habit that is called “mindfulness.” This consists of being able to practice what seem to be two contradictory habits at the same time: feeling an emotional feeling, and at the same time stepping back from it. How do we do this?
We look inside with our attention, and see if we can find what we are feeling emotionally. This in itself sounds easy, but we will find that it is not. Often it is blurry inside, or we may be feeling many feelings at once. This is normal. We do our best.
Next, we find the place inside us that is not the feeling – in other words, our understanding – and we find a name for what we are feeling. Anxiety. Fear. Terror. Anger. Rage. Depression. Hopelessness. At this point we are doing something interesting that we might not have known we can do, which is splitting our attention. We are both feeling the feeling, and also observing it at the same time by naming it. This is mindfulness.
Letting Ourselves Be Where We Are
Now comes the hard part. We continue simply to keep our attention with the feeling, knowing what it is. We feel it as deeply as we can. We feel it in our bodies, seeing where it is located, and we feel whatever tension, pressure, pain, burning may be included in the feeling. We stay with it. When our mind jumps away to thoughts, which it will, we simply bring our attention back to the feeling.
In other words, as much as we can, we feel and accept our experience as fully as possible, without reservation. We are present in this moment. We accept ourselves. This feeling-knowing-acceptance is our ultimate kindness to ourselves. It is what the Buddhist teacher Tara Brach, in her book of same name (which I strongly recommend), has beautifully called “Radical Acceptance.”
You might rightfully ask, what is the point of this? Yes, it sounds nice, accepting myself, being kind to myself. But how does this work? I’m feeling a very painful feeling, and learning to feel it even more is supposed to help? Sounds like I’ll just feel worse. It doesn’t sound very logical.
How Do Emotional Feelings Work?
What we need is a deeper understanding of how emotional feelings work. If we have been subject to a lot of anxiety, fear, depression in our lives, they often come to feel like constant companions. But as we get to know ourselves better, it turns out this is not true. We discover a deeper truth.
As much as certain feelings have been painful in our lives, it is also true that we have internally been fighting against these feelings – not accepting them. And as we go deeper into ourselves, we discover that much of our pain has not been because of our feelings themselves, but because of our resistance to them. We discover that, paradoxically, the more we resist our feelings, the more they persist.
We then may discover another deep truth about emotional feelings that may surprise us. Left to themselves, without resistance, emotional feelings will naturally pass away. The Tibetan Buddhist teaching is, “feelings self-liberate.” Reading this you may not believe me. Find out for yourself.
What we need to learn to do – which we can learn – is to be kind to ourselves, honor ourselves, by simply experiencing exactly where we are – and tolerating it. Then with a little luck and hard work, some magic can happen.
Stay tuned for more magic.