We all mentally beat ourselves up from time to time. You know how it goes: "I can't believe I was that stupid," or "I'm too fat or thin," or "I'll never be good enough for him or her" and so forth.
Some of us, however, have deeper levels of self-denigration that have taken us to even darker places in our lives, which may stem from any number of reasons. Maybe we were abused growing up, picked on in school, abused drugs or alcohol or were sexually assaulted. Whatever the reason, it is that much more difficult for us to find a semblance of love and acceptance for ourselves than that of the average person, to which I was reminded of a few days ago while talking with a friend.
As we sat on my floor brainstorming ideas for a project, she asked me out of left field to name five things I like about myself. Well, after beginning to squirm a bit and struggling to come up with anything I said, "I'm compassionate" and "I'll help others whenever I can."
She was not impressed with my response and replied, "Yeah, those are nice, but they're more about helping others than about what you like about you," and damn, she was totally right. I have always been of the giving personality type rather than receiving, and like any good giver, it's often very difficult to receive on any level, whether material, emotional or physical.
Now, what I would have done here in the past is mentally beat myself up for not being able to name five things because, well, that's what a lot of us with low self-esteem and who are givers do. This time however, I didn't.
While I may have not done a stellar job at accomplishing her requested task, it did help me to realize I have come a long way in my process. I was able to tell her, "Yeah, I'm struggling with this, and I'm really fucking uncomfortable with it, but I know the qualities are in here somewhere," and today, I can honestly say I do know that, which is a realization I attribute much of to the practice of loving-kindness.
I first learned of the loving-kindness practice thanks to the wonderful Buddhist Nun Pema Chodron while reading her book The Places That Scare You. The reason I was able to connect with this practice was that it wasn't just about loving myself but loving all sentient beings.
Throughout my life, I've sucked immensely at loving myself, and would make up for it by loving others. I know a lot of people often say you can't love another until you love yourself, and to a certain extent, sure, I understand that. I also believe that everything stems from love, and not in an airy fairy way, but a sincere internal knowing sort of way, while also acknowledging we're a species that is awesome at covering up this love with all sorts of shit.
So the practice of loving-kindness began to teach me to balance the love in my life out a bit. Any time I was uncomfortable making the loving aspiration towards myself, I knew that I'd be shifting focus shortly onto others, and that helped me through it. Over time, however, I found I was at peace making that aspiration toward myself and eventually, I enjoyed receiving it as well.
The traditional practice of loving-kindness opens with the first line of the Four Limitless Ones chant -- "May all sentient beings enjoy happiness and the root of happiness" -- and is followed by seven simple aspirations which I am providing below as taught in Pema Chodron's The Places That Scare You.
1. Awaken loving-kindness for yourself. "May I enjoy happiness and the root of happiness," or put this aspiration in your own words.
2. Awaken loving-kindness for someone for whom you feel sincere goodwill and tenderness. "May (name) enjoy happiness and the root of happiness," or choose your own words.
3. Awaken loving-kindness for a friend, again saying the friend's name and expressing the aspiration for his or her happiness, using the same words.
4. Awaken loving-kindness for someone whom you feel neutral or indifferent. (Use same words.)
5. Awaken loving-kindness for someone you find difficult or offensive. (Use the same words.)
6. Let the loving-kindness grow big enough to include all the beings in the five steps above. (This step is called "dissolving the barriers.") Say, "May I, my beloved, my friend, the neutral person, the difficult person, all together enjoy happiness and the root of happiness."
7. Extend loving-kindness toward all beings throughout the universe. You can start close to home and widen the circle more and more. "May all beings enjoy happiness and the root of happiness."
As with any transformational practice, deep, lasting change typically takes time to accomplish. However, you will most likely begin to experience the benefits of this practice after your first time doing it. You may feel lighter, or an overall sense of well being, or maybe you'll feel nothing at all. At the very least, rest in the awareness that you've taken time out of your day to make positive aspirations for yourself, others, and the universe as a whole, and there's something amazing to be said about that.
As for me, I'm still a work in progress, but today, I'm able to look at myself in the mirror without shying away in disgust. I can own compliments when they are given (albeit humbly, but still) and I know I'm worthy of love and loving-kindness just as much as anyone else. If everything really does stem from love like I said earlier, well then who am I to decide my physical manifestation is any less worthy of it than another's?