Kindness to Oneself

Tonight’s theme is the value of practicing kindness to oneself. This topic may seem ironic after our discussion last week about the Buddhist concept of “no self.” But even though there is no solid, completely independent self, the Buddha discovered how to witness with Loving Awareness the changing river of sensations, perceptions, feeling tones, thoughts, and moments of consciousness that we call the self.

Each time I go into Noble Silence, I realize that retreats are the best gift I can give myself.  As I slow down and my nervous system becomes calm, I observe what dharma teacher Lila Wheeler calls “the perfect imperfection” of our human incarnation. I learn to be friendly to myself, simply being with my experiences without adding reactivity and judgment. When my attention wanders, instead of berating myself for being unmindful, I invite it gently back to the anchor of the breath. I appreciate how Lila reframes the impediment of restlessness: “It’s being lost that allows us to return and permits wisdom to arise.” She suggests that we hold each experience like a baby bird—not pushing it to fly before it’s ready.

During hours of meditation, I identify habitual mental patterns and notice how often my body leans forward while I make plans for the future.   Repeatedly I let go of trying to control an uncertain future, and I return to the reality of the present moment—a breath, a body sensation, or an emotion that is arising and passing away. The discipline of returning again and again to what’s happening in the moment leads to deep concentrated states. But whenever I try to grasp and prolong those pleasant experiences, they dissipate. When meditative states of bliss are followed by dull sleepiness, I notice doubts arising about my capacity to meditate. Then it helps to recall Lila’s story about a monk who witnessed an exotic  bird performing an amazing circus act. Afterwards he said to his fellow monks, “If a cockatoo can ride a bicycle across a tight wire, we should be able to meditate.”

Some of my meditative sessions entail a life review of past actions, both skillful and unskillful. Besides recalling moments of generosity and benevolence, I sit with memories of when I’ve acted out of fear, aversion, greed or delusion. I learn to forgive myself over and over again for times when I’ve harmed myself and others by speaking or acting unskillfully. With a compassionate attitude towards my foibles and mistakes, I remember that in every instance I acted in the best way possible, according to the level of consciousness that I had in that moment. Sometimes I squirm, recalling incidents that have been associated with guilt or shame. Treating these emotions tenderly, I remember my good intentions to learn from past mistakes and to become more aware of the consequences of my words and actions. Nobody else can do our inner work for us, and it takes bravery to study the inner mechanics of suffering and freedom. Part of our practice is to recognize consciously when we’re being courageous.

As Lila says, “Instead of being self-critical, have loving dialogues with yourself, trusting that basic goodness is underlying impermanent moments of suffering, and is waiting to be discovered.” By practicing kindness to myself, I feel more kindly towards those who have harmed me intentionally or unintentionally. I see that they too acted out of fear, suffering or ignorance—mental states that merit gentle compassion instead of harsh judgment. The better I know the workings of my own mind, the more I can understand the complexities of others’ minds. Whatever loving attention I offer to myself is of benefit to whomever I encounter.

The more attuned I am to the intricacies of inner life, the more in awe I am of the mysteries of nature and the cosmos, and the more I sense my deep interconnection with all of creation. Annie Dillard writes, “We are here to notice each thing, so that each thing gets noticed…. Otherwise creation would be playing to an empty house.”

On retreat, I’m moved to write poetry to honor what I notice in nature.  One of my poems celebrates a flower:


Hot under the noontime sun,

I pound my feet angrily

On the baked, cracked earth

Of a switchback trail.

Descending a steep hillside,

I’m lost in reveries

About by-gone days.

A radiant yellow poppy

Startles me into

The present moment.

Amidst tufts of parched grass,

A singular bright bloom

Invites me to appreciate

Its simple, luminous being.

In gratitude, I walk on

With lighter steps.

When I practice kindness to myself, I find that nature mirrors qualities that we human beings share with all creatures.  Another poem attempts to capture such a moment:


A fawn’s wide-open, brown eyes

Stare at me curiously,

As I round a bend

On a forest path.

My red cape alerts his mother.

Her ears erect in alarm,

She nuzzles him from behind.

Standing still, I convey silently,

“All is well.”

She looks skeptical,

But her inquisitive child is

Too young to know fear.

When Mom bows down to graze,

I edge a bit closer.

She catches me in the act

And bolts across the path,

Heading uphill.

From a safe distance,

She turns to summon the fawn.

He pauses a moment

To inspect me

At close range.

I see my own innocence

Reflected in his trusting eyes.

Meditation practice is a path to rediscovering the innocence and radiant beauty of our essential nature that underlies the veils of illusion and ignorance.

This past weekend, Mark and I co-led a Holotropic Breathwork workshop with a colleague. As the participants breathed deeply to evocative music, they embarked on inner journeys and encountered many joys and sorrows. In the closing circle, people spoke about moments of expansive transcendence in which they felt at one with divine light and loving awareness. I noticed an atmosphere of kindness in the group, which was characterized by deep listening and mutual support.

I feel the same kindly ambience in our sangha, where we are practicing kindness to ourselves and to others. What a blessing!