The release of self-forgiveness

Followers of the Jain religion believe the universe is shaped like a human body. Likewise, Taoists think society at large functions the same as a single person. Thus, when you understand yourself, you can supposedly understand the workings of the entire universe.

Similarly, I’ve noticed I reflect my inner state of mind onto the outside world. If I love and accept who I am, other people tend to pick up on my positive, carefree vibes and treat me more benevolently than if I despise myself. Like most others, I go through periods where I am less than happy with who I am. But I’ve realized this isn’t healthy for me or for anyone I come into contact with. Thus, personal growth is no selfish act. When you shine with joy, you contagiously spread beams of radiance while negativity simply dissipates into the air.

Once I worked with someone who made my blood boil a little. Although he was just a server in an average restaurant, he sauntered around the place reeking of arrogance. He wouldn’t do anybody a favor unless it made him look good. I hardly could have a conversation with him without consciously restraining myself because his stories of womanizing offended my feminist sensibilities.

On the flip side, I know my attitude toward him was just as immature as his cockiness. Seething about the guy only made me look down on him, just like he probably looked down on me.

Someone once told me that hate only hurts yourself. So true. When hatred – or any negative emotion – invades, it swiftly immerses me in a little bubble of red-hot fury. I become irrational. My nemesis appears subhuman in my eyes, and I stop treating him with dignity and respect. Anger never solves a thing. Hating him never made him a more compassionate person – it only transformed me into an immature little kid filled with an exaggerated sense of pride and entitlement. This uncontrollable anger always gripped me when I talked to him. A critical, judgmental coldness overtook any natural sense of goodwill.

Intuitively, my conscience says I should stop looking down on him. Countless religious and spiritual seekers have proven that happiness isn’t becoming superior to everyone – it’s letting go of your big, cumbersome ego and embracing a sense of humility.

Truly strong people don’t spend all their time sabotaging others or thinking about how much other people suck because they don’t need such petty compensation for their insecurities. Strength is kindness in the face of cruelty, not domination and superiority. The Dalai Lama said, “If the love within your mind is lost, and you see other beings as enemies, then no matter how much knowledge or education or material comfort you have, only suffering and confusion will ensue.” Any guru or priest probably will tell you the emotional and spiritual benefits of humility and love hugely outweigh the small and selfish satisfactions of hatred. I’ve noticed that when I am filled with love, I physically feel expanded. I am more connected and receptive to other people, and people sense and reflect my positive energy. Suddenly, the little things don’t seem so irritating. I am a lot happier when that screaming little ego isn’t getting in my way.

I’d love to claim that I am one of those untouchably positive souls who emits beams of radiance and loves everyone. But alas, I have a lot of work to do. And I can’t just tell myself, “Start unconditionally loving humanity, dang it!” You can’t just force yourself to love, like you make yourself get out of bed to get to class in the morning. Your efforts at compassion will seem just as groggy and reluctant as your weary face. Love is a strenuous and nearly impossible task when you feel about as compassionate as a block of concrete – when you’re locked in the haze of frustration, fear or defense. We’ve spent our entire lives programmed to look out for No. 1 and that won’t change overnight. The only thing that works for me is simply watching myself without judgment. When I’m angry and critical I watch my responses. Amazingly enough, when I simply observe my actions without constant critique, my flaws don’t seem to bother me as much. Then, these flaws are no longer despicable parts of myself – they are something separate from me that I detachedly observe from a distance, like watching a lion in a zoo cage.

You see, my co-worker embodies such an enormous threat to me only because I deeply fear becoming like him: arrogant, selfish and uninteresting. This guy probably makes me mad because he represents something I dread and repress within myself. Otherwise, he wouldn’t challenge me so much. Sometimes I feel selfish, which makes me so ashamed that I have spent my entire life running in the polar opposite direction, dabbling in spirituality, activism and volunteer work the entire way. Meanwhile, he shamelessly flaunts the very things I’ve spent my life running from. No wonder I can’t stand him. But here’s the irony: When I see him as a selfish bundle of pettiness, don’t I begin to engage in that very same pettiness?

Thus, when I unconditionally accept myself, flaws and all, I suddenly can tolerate my co-worker. Once I am in touch with my darker motives, they instantly loosen their iron grip on my actions. So what if he’s arrogant and rude? It doesn’t have to make my life any worse. And after all, he has good points I overlook when I’m seething mad. He makes conversation with me when I’m bored. He can be funny. He apologizes when he knows he has offended me.

So don’t waste your good intentions by suppressing your darker side. Accept yourself simply and fully because you can’t magically become someone you’re not. Only when we stop giving so much power to our darkest nature can it truly disappear.

Embracing Imperfection

Sometimes the hardest part of spiritual growth is overcoming the expectation that my problems will disappear once I’m “good” enough.

I often assume that I must fix myself: I am acting too disorganized, emotional, insecure, stressed. Then, I seek answers. (Enter this blog, spiritual efforts, and personal growth.) During the process of searching, I uncover some epiphany: perhaps a lesson or a quote that awakens me a little. Maybe I learn that I’ve been too self-absorbed, or that I haven’t been living in the present. Maybe this time, if I really let go in meditation, or maintain the right frame of mind, or if I stop straying from my chosen spiritual path, essentially if I do it right, then I will reach some plateau of infinite fearlessness, calm, confidence, ambition…all my issues will disappear, and I will become effortlessly loving and accepting toward all humankind.

One important piece of wisdom I’ve recently uncovered is this: a lot of my life has consisted of my searching for something I’ve thought to be missing inside myself. While perhaps my goal is to come to terms with the fact that there is nothing missing. I am a process, a work in progress, and I always will be. There is no perfection, only the beautiful acceptance of imperfection.

Goal: to embrace the natural incompleteness of existence!

When I think about it, perfection is one of the most unrealistic expectations anyone could put upon themselves. I’m learning that life is usually an uphill battle. We don’t work hard all our lives just to get to a stopping point, where we can sit and bask forevermore. The turmoil is what shapes us. You will always make mistakes. Sometimes, you will be unreasonable. Angry. Confused. Hurt. You’ll hurt others. You’ll hate people, or even yourself. But over time, we learn and gradually see through our shallow shields of defense. They will slowly subside.

But one quick-fix solution is highly unlikely.

And yet, I keep assuming that if I can find that one thing to change my perspective, then I will be cured of the human experience? No. The principles I uncover in my spiritual path help me gradually, but not immediately. Not at once. And that’s okay.

There are only a few principles I can cling to, which I know will never fail: choosing love over fear, hope over despair, and letting go over a false sense of control.

Maybe the most I, or anyone, can do is to accept our beautifully flawed selves the way we are but to never give up trying to become better.

Let go of a teardrop…gain the entire ocean

If you want something, let it go. Then, you will uncover what you were looking for in the first place.

Today I used a meditation technique to improve my concentration. My attention span typically lasts only a few- look-a-bird! -moments, and my new short-term goal is to develop focus. Here’s the technique I used: I counted each breath, flowing in and out, for ten breaths. And if any distracting thoughts invaded the arena of my focus, I started over.

This was, of course, notoriously difficult. I started over repeatedly and repeatedly. Sometimes I couldn’t even count to two breaths. With a steely determination, I continued…one (in, out), two (in, out)…and as I tried harder, a voice of authority started overseeing the meditation, “fixing” my improper technique.

You shouldn’t try so hard. You should stay in the present. You should observe yourself more. You’re sliding. You’re sliding…

Eventually, this voice became another distraction, and I re-started my counting sooner each time.

Then, I gave up. My mind isn’t used to focusing for this long, I thought. I need a break. And the moment I stopped trying, I was there. My mind was crystal clear, and I counted my ten breaths with ease. Surprised, I stopped and checked myself, and counted ten more breaths without a glitch.

As soon as I started trying again, the same voices and clutter and limitations emerged. Whenever I honestly gave up, I stayed in the present without a problem.

The object of meditation is to let go of the meditator-the part of you trying to do the meditation right. This effort is the voice of your ego (the part of you that needs, wants, desires, and hurts). But when you clear away this ego-clutter of wanting and striving, you are free. And when you are free, you achieve the fulfillment you sought in the first place. You find happiness and peace, by letting go of the need for happiness and peace.

I believe that when we trust ourselves completely instead of obsessively controlling our actions, we will naturally do right. As I wrote in my last entry, love is our very core once we strip away the rest.

Try it right now, as an experiment. Take a breath, and notice how you’re feeling. Don’t try to achieve anything. Just sit…notice that if you try to achieve anything with this exercise, it won’t work. If you’re just sitting, with no underlying intentions, you will feel peace.

What won’t work is controlling your desires- whether you want comfort, possessions, or validation. Let it be. Don’t tell yourself you’re letting go of your desire to stop craving when REALLY you’re just doing it so you can get rid of the craving, because you want to stop hurting. Letting go must be honest, and if it’s not, desire still controls you. Relax- we’re human. It’s natural. (By writing this, I do not imply that I am at some expert stage of “letting go.” It’s not easy for me at all, but it truly works.)

When you stop fearing the loss of what you want, then nothing can hurt you.

Great meditation instruction website here.

Honest Love: how to put yourself aside

Compassion

Love is not what you feel. Love is who you are when you strip everything away.

Why is love important?

Growing up, I remember reading in my first spiritual text, the Bible: “If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them…But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great.”

Since I read this, I have consciously and unconsciously sought to fulfill this universal ideal of unconditional love. I probably always will be. Giving of oneself is psychologically healthy and oddly enough, incredibly joyful. However, selflessness is probably one of the hardest tasks we’ll ever face as humans. After all, we are biologically programmed to look after ourselves first. But the rewards of putting oneself aside are abundant. Don’t believe me? Try a random act of kindness and enjoy the happy buzz afterward.

Your endless needs and desires disappear when faced with pure love, and you enter a state of abundant,  selfless giving. There’s a reason why every major religion commands this practice!

If love were easy…

Practicing love seemed nearly impossible during my first attempts. People were irritating. Selfish. Cocky. If I didn’t like someone, I ignored them or talked down to them. I yelled at my siblings. I wanted the last cookie. Though my conscience was strong and my intentions were pure, I could only rarely bring myself to give when I didn’t feel like it, or to love someone I despised. Afterward, I felt racked with frustration and guilt.

Little did I know that those feelings of frustration and guilt were part of the problem itself. You can’t act compassionately toward others until you show compassion for yourself first. Here’s a quote (that I have shamelessly stolen from someone’s Facebook profile page). “Your task is not to seek love, but to seek out the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.” -Rumi

These barriers are our defenses. Every time we act selfishly, we are only trying to protect ourselves.

Hate is a symptom that something is not right within oneself. Thus, I cannot rightfully condemn myself nor anyone else for selfish acts. Hatred must be treated with compassion, not more negativity.

Know thyself.

How, then, do we change direction? Compassionately, from within. I cannot stress the importance of being compassionate and nonjudgmental toward yourself. Watch yourself, observe your actions. When you notice patterns of selfish habits, explore them. Ask yourself, why did I do this? I notice that when I’m pushing someone away, I’m usually afraid of letting them in. Maybe this person’s irritating tendency to be clingy or obnoxious is a trait I suppress within myself. Maybe I’m afraid of letting them in because I don’t want to seem vulnerable and weak. Fear, in some form, is at the root, and learning to let go of that fear will bring you closer to natural kindness. Practicing meditation to help you let go of these fears.

Honestly, you will probably screw up. But wallowing in guilt and anger will only add more negativity to the mix.  Go easy on yourself. You have woven these intricate patterns of fear throughout your entire lifetime. They’re not going to disappear overnight.

Eventually, we will cease to automatically think of ourselves when faced with making a sacrifice. We will accept everyone without hesitation, regardless of the way they treat us. Without expecting anything in return (not to serve our own needs). I believe this signifies the ideal state.

Personal growth toward this goal, then, is not selfish. Ultimately, growth is an act of compassion toward everyone in your life. As Leo Tolstoy said, “Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.”

Here’s a beautiful blog entry on Love & Liberation I’d highly recommend.

Heavy Emotions

Emotions can weigh down like a heavy shroud.

This is something I’ve struggled with this summer, which has been a bit of a wake-up call. Normally, I don’t let my emotions control me for long. In fact, I sort of pride myself on my ability to keep my attitude in check.

But sometimes it’s not that simple. I’m not going to lie, my emotions have driven me to the point of physical exhaustion at points in the last few weeks. Dramatic though it sounds, a few days ago a pit of despair (such as I’ve rarely experienced) hit me over my head like a ton of bricks, dragging me to the point of physical immobility. Only lots of willpower got me through daily routine. I’d let stress and anxiety build up within me, then the smallest catalyst threw me into the deep end.

(Please note: I’m not trying to feel sorry for myself. I’m truly fine now. Just using this as an opportunity to explore.)

I did a CD meditation on managing emotions, which helped. The focus was accepting, not resisting, negativity. Letting it “solidify.” I heard an applicable saying, that resisting duhkha (suffering) is still duhkha. Repressing those gnawing feelings is like too many strong antibiotics. It ultimately creates a stronger and more uncontrollable strain. If you’ve ever tried ignoring your emotions, then you know to expect an eventual break down (that will probably hurt someone in the process).

I find that vexing emotions -impatience, irritation, discontent, stress – evaporate when I allow them to flow through me. Honestly embracing the negativity, with no underlying intention of driving it away, can instantly dissipate the tension. Emotions are not what hurts you. Only your reaction to them does.

Looking negativity straight in the eyes is essential. Sometimes emotions are bright flashing arrows to turn around and look within. Maybe there’s a deeper root to that jealous or angry instinct inside yourself. It could point to old fears or a need for self-love. (Negative emotions usually stem from fear, I believe.) And remember that emotions are physical, not just mental…try to notice where the feeling is located in your body and to describe the sensation. Is it in your chest? Your back? Your throat? Stomach?

This is a tricky process. Perspective helps. During my downswing, the more I dwelt on the feeling as something hopelessly consuming me, the deeper I dug myself into a hole. On the contrary, the more I thought of myself as a person with temporary problems, the more manageable things seemed.

This particular doozy disappeared when I came face to face with the root cause of the conflict, but other things helped in the meantime: attention to other people, exercise, artistic release, meditation. Meditation helped me to regain touch with myself as pure consciousness, rather than overwhelming sadness.

Here’s a beautiful article on managing emotions, from a spiritual perspective.

In the words of Eckhart Tolle: “Rather than being your thoughts and emotions, be the awareness behind them.”

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