Loving our neighbor as ourselves is one of the overarching spiritual laws of our time. It is an irreducible commandment, intended to remind us that we are bound to each other by compassion. It seems obvious that such a way of life would be the panacea for all social maladies, including perhaps the deterioration of civilization itself. If we are keeping our neighbors on equal par with ourselves and our families, then we are bound to build utopian communities, right?
Only if we love ourselves. And there's plenty of evidence out there that many of us don't have a clue how to do that.
I have a neighbor, Alice, who is anxious, overwrought, and succumbing to increasingly poor health, including a complex of diseases. Alice has a spiritual mentor who recently told her to put life on hold and take time for herself. "It's critical to your health that you learn to put yourself first," her mentor had advised. When Alice confided this to me, she said, "I know she's right. I put everyone ahead of myself. Tomorrow I'm going to show myself some love. I'm going to do some shopping, get my nails and hair done, see a movie and go out to dinner." She was elated that someone had given her permission to indulge, permission she really didn't need since overindulgence was at the heart of Alice's complaints.
Although there's really nothing morally wrong with the way Alice decided to interpret her mentor's advice that day, I was a little speechless. I know Alice's mentor well, and I also know that the last thing she intended was that Alice would take the day to shop, pamper, and generally consume. What she'd intended, was for Alice to get to know her spiritual self on a deeper level. She'd wanted Alice to disconnect from superficial influences in order to reconnect to her higher nature. She was saying that Alice's spirit was starved, in desperate need of nourishment. But instead of nourishing her emaciated spirit, Alice feasted on material goods and mental distractions.
Alice isn't the only one who interprets self-love as self-indulgence. We've all been there. This is exactly what the billboards tell us to do. Addictions abound in a self-loathing cycle of overindulgence followed by regret, followed by deep-seated denial, and repeat. Is this how we wish to treat our neighbor? Probably not. Yet, we cannot treat our neighbor well if we mistreat ourselves. We cannot love our neighbor if we do not love ourselves. To love ourselves is not to gorge on the empty calories of consumer distraction, creating sloth and depression. Real self-love calls for a steady diet of spiritual practice capable of rebuilding our divine connection.
The exquisite Maya Angelou said, "I do not trust people who don't love themselves and yet tell me, 'I love you.' There is an African saying which is: Be careful when a naked person offers you a shirt."
To love ourselves in a manner that will strengthen our spirits requires discipline, not indulgence; silence, not noisy distraction; emptiness, not consumption. To begin, pick a time and stick with it, starting with just 5 minutes a day. During this time:
1) Banish all devices that connect you to the outside world.
2) Refrain from food, drink, chatter, any form of stimulation, or material goods.
3) Choose a private area.
4) Sit quietly and concentrate on your breath.
5) Invite the divine presence into your space.
6) Place yourself in that presence with anticipation.
7) Gently turn away all mental thoughts as they intrude.
8) Feel love and allow that love to redefine your intrinsic value.
9) Increase this special time in increments of five minutes (as you are ready) until you are able to feed your spirit this feast for 20 minutes at a time with less and less distraction.
10) See yourself as part of a living whole that is bound by love to all living creatures.
Now go forth and love your neighbor as yourself. It will change the world.