The general idea presented in traditional teachings on metta, loving kindness practice is that we start with what is easy, and go from there. There is a process of gradual development. Likewise, in cultivating metta for oneself, we can take a gradual approach…
There is such a thing as rational, healthy self interest. Before you can love other selves adequately, you’ve got to love yourself properly. – Martin Luther King
As psychologists and spiritual counselors will tell you, many people in America these days have difficulty being kind to themselves. Many of us have problems with self esteem, and self worth. If we hear a person telling us we should just be loving to ourselves, it can sound like an ideal that is out of reach, and very far from where we are now.
So how does someone actually go about developing this quality? Are there steps that can be pointed out to make the development of love for oneself more accessible? Though I’ve not heard it laid out as I’ll say it here, the principles of classical metta, or loving kindness practice as a whole can be applied just as well to what is usually given as the very first step – that of directing good will towards oneself.
Although some people already naturally have kindness for themselves, for others, having love for our self may be the most difficult category of all.
The general idea presented in traditional teachings on metta is that we start with what is easy, and go from there. There is a process of gradual development. Likewise, in cultivating metta for oneself, we can take a gradual approach.
From what I can see, cultivating love for oneself can develop organically through the following stages, which I’ll list here, and then briefly comment on.
2. being accommodating
3. kind presence
5. recognizing and celebrating our positive qualities
6. looking on oneself with love, which is sincere, unobstructed well wishing, encouragement, and joy
1. We begin with acceptance. Now, I know that some people, myself included at times, feel just the opposite towards our self – non-acceptance, a.k.a. rejection, or to use the Buddhist word for it, aversion. But we do accept some aspects of our life, and so, following the logic of the metta teachings, a first step towards a more inclusive kindness for our self would be to increase this acceptance, slowly and over time, if need be. Step by step this is possible, and within reach for almost all people.
Sometimes we may not feel like practicing, but at other times we can feel ourselves ease up a bit on the self judgment, or self criticism, and gently accept more of who we are. This is not to justify or condone anything we may have done, it’s just an opening to our experience, without turning from it, or pushing it away. Slowly, gradually this is something we can do, and it makes possible all that follows that is of such great value for ourselves and others.
2. I was trying to find a better word for what can take place next in the practice, but the best I could come up with is ‘being accommodating’. Here, we’ve made space for however we’re feeling, and for whatever is going on in us. This requires not only time, but a willing attitude, to be present, and attentive. We hold a larger space for ourselves, as much as we need. We can tell that, already, this is a practice of goodwill towards ourselves.
3. Next, we can gradually cultivate a feeling of closeness for our experience – thoughts, physical sensations, memories, hopes, fears – all of it. The feeling to be aimed at here is something we’re all capable of at times, and is one of tenderness, of being present with a warm, kind feeling. The quality here is one of gentleness, attention, and care. We all know, this is a very soothing quality to receive from another, and this is something we can offer to our self as well.
One of the methods used in metta practice is to move from one category of person to another. As one teacher said, we can ‘borrow’ some of the goodwill we have cultivated towards those easier people, and apply it to another group, or person. So, for example, when developing metta for people we don’t know personally, we can go back to the sincere well wishing we feel spontaneously for friends and family, and then aim to direct some of that same kindness to this new category.
In the same way, we may like to experiment and produce the strong, clear feeling of loving kindness for those we care for most naturally, and then see if we can bring some of that same quality of gentleness, appreciation, and care to ourselves.
We may also like to direct kindness towards ourselves during the practice of its development for friends and family. From time to time we can imagine looking through their eyes at ourselves. We can ask, ‘What is it they see when they look at us with love?’ It can be an awakening. Here, during one session of meditation, we can feel that we are both sending and receiving love.
4. Feeling kindness and closeness towards ourselves quite naturally leads to compassion. Especially for those who have difficulty being kind towards themselves, there’s often a lot of suffering involved, with resistance, and painful self judgment. Whatever hurts needs care, and to be held with compassion, which is the tender wish that one be free from such suffering.
Metta flows like a river. It naturally moves in its development in us, and so, while we may want to stay at any one phase of its development, by itself, it seems, it wants to take the next step, and the next. All this becomes clear as we go on.
5. After compassion, or overlapping with the tender care for what is difficult in us, we find that this kindness we have for ourselves starts to recognize and celebrate our own positive qualities. I’m thinking that before this stage of developing kindness for ourselves, we’re blocked from seeing much that is good in ourselves, but here, after going step by step, we begin to see and feel our own positive side. It’s both mysterious, and marvelous, how this mind of ours can work sometimes.
Often people who are hard on themselves put down their own positive attributes, or resist appreciating them fully. But love really would have us know and celebrate the good in ourselves and others.
We can take delight in our own positive qualities and aspirations, and this is not common arrogance. Rather, it’s an important step for self esteem, and self worth to arise and become strong in us. The cornerstone of self confidence and self respect is just this – directly seeing our own virtues.
6. The metta teachings say that immediate cause for the arising of loving kindness is seeing the good in someone.
At this point, it’s much easier to look on ourselves with loving kindness, which is sincere, unobstructed well wishing, encouragement, and joy.
I know there are bound to be objections to this practice, such as: Isn’t this focus on oneself selfish? I thought spiritual practice was just supposed to be about helping others, and, Isn’t there a danger that focusing on oneself will become narcissistic, self obsession? Doesn’t this just reinforce an immature self centeredness, that there’s already too much of in American culture?
The first of these is easy enough to answer: If we want to help others, we have to know what it is to be a human being, what it is to feel, and to struggle, and to suffer and hope. We are naturally closest to our own experience, and so learning what we most need for our happiness is the essential foundation for understanding that others need the same thing. They need the same level of care and concern, gentleness, respect, and encouragement.
I know that some people, especially in spiritual traditions, would try to skip this step, of learning kindness for themselves, or gloss it over lightly, but I’ve come to realize that this is a mistake. We can only help others to the extent that we understand the human condition, and we develop this understanding by first knowing what it means to care for ourselves.
I’m afraid that those who would skip this step, and even put it down, achieve neither their own personal liberation, or the ability to help others. So this is something that’s absolutely necessary.
The second objection, that it can increase narcissism, is a valid point, but only if we’re not careful with it. We have to watch our own mind, and if, instead of metta, we start to feel like we’re cultivating self pity, or self absorption, then it’s better to shift to cultivating metta for others, and then come back to ourselves at another time.
After we cycle through the metta teachings a few times, we can begin to see now the different categories, of self, family and friends, those we don’t know personally, the difficult person, and all beings complement each other. They each add something to the practice. There’s also a logic at work in it.
As I mentioned earlier, the way it’s set out as a teaching, metta is gradual, and onward leading. From oneself, or those closest to us, in the course of its development, it naturally becomes extended to more and more people, to other categories, and then finally to all beings equally.
Metta for oneself can also progress gradually. We can see it ripening, first as a simple acceptance, and becoming more accommodating, and then as kindness, compassion, joy and true well wishing for our self.
My friends, I offer this prayer
May we all learn to be fully kind towards ourselves
and with this love and understanding,
May we benefit all those we meet.
May we all awaken to the highest happiness.