“Be gentle first with yourself if you wish to be gentle with others.” ~Lama Yeshe
It was October, 2012. The U.S. Presidential Election was around the corner. I was paying an unaccustomed amount of attention to political news on TV and to political discussion sites online. At one site in particular, I was eager to become part of the community, to make a good impression, to build a reputation.
To put it mildly, that didn’t work out well.
One evening I was watching an interview with a politician whose name I recognized, but I didn’t know much about him. I thought he was making some cogent points about the topic at hand. I went to the online discussion site to see whether anyone had mentioned this interview yet, and when I found no one had, I hastily composed a post praising the politician and suggesting that others should watch the interview.
The reaction was fast and fierce. How could I have anything nice to say about this nincompoop, who was renowned far and wide as a hypocrite? Where was my sense? Where were my ideals? Where was my head? What did I think I was doing there in the first place?
I was mortified. I, who had always prided myself on intellectual acumen, had totally failed to do my homework. I hadn’t done even the most cursory research to learn anything about the politician’s history.
I felt I’d made an ass of myself. I was so ashamed that I didn’t even visit the site for weeks. I was genuinely in pain.
Now I’m going to have to briefly flash back in time so the next part of the story will make sense.
At that time, in 2012, it had been almost ten years since a beloved spiritual teacher had died. I had shut down my spiritual life to a great extent after his death. You might say it was a long freeze. Or maybe “fallow period” would be a better description. Later events would make that seem like a good way to look at it.
While I was ashamed and hurting in the aftermath of my online blunder, I recalled something I’d heard my teacher say more than once, something like this: “When you see a tack on your chair, sit on it.”
That may sound enigmatic, but I think the metaphor is straightforward. What it meant to me, anyway, was that we should not flee from fully allowing an experience that might impart an important point. We should sit on the point, not avoid it.
I made a vow then. I promised myself I wouldn’t avoid my intense sense of shame. I wouldn’t brush it under the rug. I wouldn’t cover it or deflect it with distractions, entertainments, excuses, or rationalizations. I would experience it fully, let it do its work, and see what happened.
I’m not pretending that I had any specific practice beyond that. I’ve since learned some that I’ll mention a little later. But at the time, I simply stuck to my vow. Whenever the feeling of shame came to visit, I didn’t shoo it away or distract myself. I allowed myself to experience it.
It’s not even that I was inclined to turn toward TV or eating or any other concrete distraction. What I mean by “distract myself” is subtler. It’s a small mental move of avoidance, of turning the attention away from something uncomfortable. Its opposite is mindful awareness, facing experience head-on come what may.
Everything began to change within a few weeks. There was no one moment when the painful sense of shame evaporated, leaving nothing but clarity and peace. No, it happened gradually over a period of weeks. Each time I welcomed shame as a visitor, it lost some of its sting.
What finally became of it? All I can say is it was transmuted. It dissolved, and in its place arose a sense of peace and a new, calm engagement with the truth of being.
I recognized that whatever arises in experience is always already present by the time we can react. Whether it’s comfort or discomfort, joy or distress, calm or chaos, it can be witnessed with equanimity.
I began to notice old friends posting on Facebook about spiritual teachers and teachings they liked. I looked into some of them and found I liked them too. The long freeze had given way to a thaw. The fallow period was coming to an end. I felt a sense of regeneration, of reawakening.
How does this work? If it seems counterintuitive to you that diving into pain is a good idea, that amplifying discomfort can be helpful, consider this simple question: What are we doing when we feel that we’re suffering? In other words, what mental activity are we engaging?
It seems to me that above all else, the answer is we’re actively refusing ourselves compassion. When faced with discomfort or pain, we try to resist it or deny it. We’re judging ourselves, chastising ourselves for the feelings that arise spontaneously. Most of us wouldn’t do it to another, certainly not to a loved one, yet we do it to ourselves. That’s the suffering right there.
In this instance, the active mechanism was a kind of a thought loop. It went something like this:
- That was really stupid, what I did.
- How could I be so dumb? I’m smart, not dumb!
- I humiliated myself in public.
- I can never show my face there again.
- (Repeat forever.)
Each of those thoughts reinforces a sense of emotional pain, of suffering. They whirl around and seem to amplify each other. It feels as if there’s no way out. I kept beating myself up.
That’s exactly what it was. I was beating myself up. I was pummeling myself with those ideas. I was treating myself entirely without compassion and empathy, as if I hated myself, and I didn’t seem to know how to stop.
Notice that by this point the nature of the original mistake didn’t matter. It could have been as trivial as cursing out loud or as serious as committing a felony. The thought loop of suffering was running obsessively on its own momentum. It was no longer about the original offense. It was self-sustaining.
It reminds me of an experience years ago. When I was a teenager, I was admitted to the hospital for an appendectomy. In the recovery room, as I slowly emerged from the anesthetic fog, the room seemed filled with loud screams. I barely had time to wonder what they were about when I noticed that I was the one who was screaming! I stopped immediately. There was pain, yes, but no need to make it worse by screaming.
It’s an imperfect analogy, but I see a significant parallel: I had to notice the self-defeating action before I could stop it. In the instance of my shame it happened that by keeping my promise, by sitting on the tack, by diving into the pain, somehow I created a space where I had an opportunity to notice what I was doing and to stop it, gradually. I began to see an opportunity to embrace myself with kindness and compassion, and I took it.
As I mentioned, I’ve learned some specific practices to take advantage of the opportunity, to enhance and deepen the process.
Metta (lovingkindess) meditation
I find that this traditional meditation opens the heart and helps to cultivate compassion towards oneself and others. My version begins with visualizing the warmth and love I feel when seeing or meeting a loved one. It could be a spouse, child, parent, dear friend, or even a beloved pet. Then I say to myself:
- May they be safe from harm.
- May they be truly happy.
- May they be free from suffering.
- May they be loved.
Then I picture myself at my most open and vulnerable, when I’m hurting and in need of that same love and compassion. And I say to myself:
- May I be safe from harm.
- May I be truly happy.
- May I be free from suffering.
- May I be loved.
I can then extend that to my circle of friends, to the planet, and to all sentient beings everywhere. Practicing this regularly deeply affects the feeling nature.
Based on a traditional Hawaiian practice for community healing, the modernized version I use resembles a variation I heard from Scott Kiloby. Here’s how I engage it:
- When I notice a feeling that seems distressful, first I simply sit quietly with it, acknowledging it and allowing myself to feel it.
- I ask for the stories surrounding the feeling to reveal themselves, and I allow hearing the stories to intensify the feeling. The thought loop I mentioned is a perfect example of those stories.
- I dive into the feeling with naive curiosity, looking to sense all its aspects. I’m not trying to soften it or push it away, but at this stage it may begin to soften.
- I say to the feeling: “I love you. You’re welcome to stay as long as you like.” The important thing is that I have to mean it. I have to be prepared to live with it indefinitely, to welcome it indefinitely. After all, it’s part of me. It is me.
In retrospect, what I did by sitting on the tack of shame was closest to practicing Ho’oponopono.
For me, the whole experience emphasizes how important it is to include the heart in our practice, in our lives. When we find ourselves relying on mental analysis, it’s often judgmental and hurtful, especially to ourselves.
Both aspects can be useful, but the heart never judges, never condemns, never excludes. It knows how to heal us and make us whole.