Karen Armstrong: Finding Compassion For Yourself

01/06/2014 10:40 am ET | Updated Mar 12, 2015
Deborah Cardinal via Getty Images

We are so often the cause of our own misery. The TED Prize winner and author of Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life shows us how to love ourselves -- unconditionally.

By Karen Armstrong

The late rabbi Albert Friedlander once impressed upon me the importance of the biblical commandment, "Love your neighbor as yourself." I had always concentrated on the first part of that injunction, but Albert taught me that if you cannot love yourself, you cannot love other people either. He had grown up in Nazi Germany, and as a child was bewildered and distressed by the vicious anti-Semitic propaganda that assailed him on all sides. One night, when he was about 8 years old, he deliberately lay awake and made a list of all his good qualities. He told himself firmly that he was not what the Nazis said, that he had talents and special gifts of heart and mind, which he enumerated to himself one by one. Finally, he vowed that if he survived, he would use those qualities to build a better world. This was extraordinary insight for a child. Albert was one of the kindest people I have ever met; he was almost pathologically gentle and brought help and counsel to thousands. But he always said that he could have done no good at all unless he had learned, at that terrible moment of history, to love himself.

We have seen that compassion is essential to humanity. We have a biological need to be cared for and to care for others. Yet it is not easy to love ourselves. In our target-driven societies, we are more inclined to castigate ourselves for our shortcomings and become inordinately cast down by any failure to achieve our objectives and potential. But the Golden Rule requires self-knowledge; it asks that we use our own feelings as a guide to our behavior with others. Because if we treat ourselves harshly, this is the way we are likely to treat other people.

Step 1: Make Your List

We need to acquire a healthier and more balanced knowledge of our strengths as well as our weaknesses. As we work through this, we should make a list of our good qualities, talents, and achievements. We recognize flaws in some of our closest friends, but this does not diminish our affection for them. Nor should it affect the way we value ourselves. Before we can make friends with others, we have to make a friend of our own self. Without denying your faults, remember all the people you have helped, the kind things you have done that nobody noticed, and your successes at home and at work. A sense of humor is also important: we should be able to smile at our failings, in the same way as we tease a friend.

Step 2: Accept Your Reptile

It is essential to be aware of our misdeeds and take responsibility for them. But we should also realize that the rage, fear, hatred, and greed that make us behave badly derive from the brain we inherited from our reptilian ancestors. Fear is fundamental to the reptilian brain; it makes us wary and suspicious: instead of reaching out to others, we shrink back into ourselves, warding off the impending menace. Everybody is afraid of something. What fills you with dread? Spiders, loneliness, cancer, death, a demented old age, failure, or poverty? Instead of despising yourself for these anxieties and castigating yourself for cowardice, be compassionate toward yourself and remember that fear is a human characteristic. It is something that links us with other people. If we cannot accept the reality of our own terror, we are likely to dismiss and even ridicule the fears of others. It is useless to castigate ourselves bitterly for feeling jealousy, anger, and contempt, as that will only lead to self-hatred. Instead, we should quietly but firmly refuse to identify with them, saying with the Buddha: "This is not mine; this is not what I really am; this is not my self." It will not be easy, because the emotions of the old brain are powerful and automatic, but we can learn to distance ourselves from them by the practice of mindfulness.

Step 3: Practice Your Karuna

While he was working toward enlightenment, the Buddha devised a meditation that made him conscious of the positive emotions of friendship (maitri), compassion (karuna), joy (mudita), and "even-mindedness" (upeksha) that lay dormant in his mind. He then directed this "immeasurable" love to the ends of the earth. Later he would tell his monks to do the same: "When your mind is filled with love, send it in one direction, then a second, a third, and a fourth, then above, then below. Identify with everything without hatred, resentment, anger or enmity. This mind of love is very wide. It grows immeasurably and eventually is able to embrace the whole world."

But before you are ready to "embrace the whole world," you must focus on yourself. Begin by drawing on the warmth of friendship (maitri) that you know exists potentially in your mind and direct it to yourself. Notice how much peace, happiness, and benevolence you possess already. Make yourself aware of how much you need and long for loving friendship. Next, become conscious of your anger, fear, and anxiety. Look deeply into the seeds of rage within yourself. Bring to mind some of your past suffering. You long to be free of this pain, so try gently to put aside your current irritations, frustrations, and worries and feel compassion (karuna) for your conflicted, struggling self. Then bring your capacity for joy (mudita) to the surface and take conscious pleasure in things we all tend to take for granted: good health, family, friends, work, and life's tiny pleasures. Finally, look at yourself with upeksha ("even- mindedness, nonattachment"). You are not unique. You have failings, but so does everybody else. You also have talents and, like every other being on the planet, you deserve compassion, joy, and friendship.

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