9 Perspectives for a Positive Attitude toward Ourself


In our discussion about how to equalize our attitudes about ourselves, we have covered the various exercises to help us to develop equanimity – equanimity specifically aimed at ourselves in terms of what we’ve done in life, in terms of how we regard ourselves and treat ourselves, and in terms of various aspects of our body and personality. When we speak about equanimity in this context, what we’re referring to is a state of mind that is free of disturbing attitudes or disturbing emotions. That’s referring to a state of mind that’s free of aversion or repulsion (we don’t like ourselves, we have a negative attitude), on the other hand also free of attraction (we’re in love with ourselves, “I’m so wonderful”), and free of naivety as well, with which we consider ourselves a nothing and we ignore our own needs. But we must be careful not to misunderstand this as meaning a state of mind that is totally without any emotions. We don’t mean that at all.

The problem here is with the conceptual framework. In our Western languages, we have the concept of emotions, and we include a lot of things into this category “emotions.” But in the Sanskrit and Tibetan traditions, there is no equivalent conceptual category of “emotions.” There is no word for emotions. Instead we speak in terms of mental factors. These include almost mechanical types of things, like attention, concentration, interest. Then we have disturbing states of mind, destructive ones such as anger or greed, and constructive ones such as love, patience or perseverance. We have these types of categories. Some elements of these categories – the constructive, destructive, and disturbing attitudes – we would consider emotions, and some we wouldn’t, like indecisive wavering, indecision. “Should I do this; should I do that?” Is that an emotion? What would we call that in our Western conceptual framework? Because of this different scheme for analyzing our minds, it’s confusing, because when we hear the word “equanimity,” we think that means no emotions at all.

In our discussion about developing equanimity toward ourselves, we’re not talking about ridding ourselves of what we would call positive emotions, like patience, enthusiasm, love, compassion, generosity, and so on. These things are fine. They’re not the troublemakers, although of course they could be mixed with disturbing emotions. Together with love, we could also have attachment. So we need to differentiate here constructive emotions and the destructive ones – and more specifically what we would call “disturbing emotions.” No need to get into the technical difference.

If we look at these three troublemakers that I mentioned – which are basically anger, attachment, and naivety – we have here, with attachment and anger, an exaggeration. With anger – and here we’re talking about directing it at ourselves (“I really dislike myself”) – what we’re doing is exaggerating negative aspects (for instance, failure, or shortcomings in our personality, or bad moods that we’re in). We exaggerate them, we make them into something solid, and make them almost into some sort of monster, and we completely lose sight of all the positive things that would counterbalance them – our successes, for example, or the strong points in our personality.

When we have attachment – and we have too high an opinion of ourselves, and so on – then we do just the opposite. We make into a solid thing our good qualities or the positive things that have happened in our life, and we exaggerate them and ignore the negative aspects.

When we have naivety – considering ourselves a nobody and ignoring our needs – we go to the other extreme and deny any qualities whatsoever of ourselves, either positive or negative. We even deny that we are a human being and have certain rights.

With equanimity, we try to have a more objective view of ourselves, our lives, and so on, without exaggerating or denying any aspect. We accept that this is our reality and none of these aspects is solid, frozen and will last forever. We can work on ourselves, we can improve; but first we have to accept what is the actual situation now. Having this more objective view of ourselves doesn’t in any way block having positive emotions, like love, kindness, compassion, patience, and enthusiasm, etc. In fact it makes it much easier to have these positive feelings, because when we have these disturbing emotions, particularly directed at ourselves, it makes a block. When we have anger toward ourselves, when we don’t like ourselves, that can block having a warm feeling toward both ourselves and others.

Developing a Positive, Healthy Attitude toward Ourselves

Let’s go on to the next stages of the training. Now that we have a basis of equanimity – we’re calmed down in terms of these disturbing emotions toward ourselves – we can work on trying to be kinder to ourselves and having a more positive, healthy attitude. For this, we want to try to equalize our attitude about ourselves over our entire lifetime.

We’ve discussed the difference between the conventional “me,” which does actually exist – I’m here, I’m doing things, etc. – and the false “me,” which is this horrible person that I don’t like, or this wonderful person that I’m in love with, or this nobody that I ignore. When we are developing a kinder, more positive attitude toward ourselves, this is directed at the conventional “me,” not at the false “me.” It’s not that “Well, I don’t like myself, but I’ll try to be a little bit kinder to myself. I’ll tolerate myself.” Or “I’m so in love with myself, I’ll be even kinder to myself and indulge myself even more.” We’re not talking about that. Or “I feel so sorry for this poor me who’s such a nobody. Out of pity, I’ll be a little bit kinder to it, but deep down I know I don’t deserve it.” All of those are still directed at the false “me.”

So for developing this more positive attitude toward our conventional “me,” we need to think in terms of our entire lifetime. From a Buddhist point of view, we would think of many lifetimes, but we can, in a lighter version of this, just think in terms of this lifetime. There are some basic Buddhist thoughts that we can apply here: “I have a precious human rebirth. I have opportunities to be able to improve myself. Even if I was born into a very poor family in a very difficult part of the world with a war and so on going on, nevertheless I am a human being, and I have a mind, I have emotions, I have the working materials to try to improve myself.” Even if we are in difficult situations in life externally – in terms of our environment, or society, or even if we have some health problems – still, we’re alive. We’re human beings; we’re not insects. And we have interest in being able to develop ourselves in a more what we would call “spiritual” way, not just to make more money.

Nine Perspectives

There are nine different points of view through which we can look at ourselves and equalize our attitude about ourselves. This is slightly different from the equanimity that we were discussing before. The equanimity that is the first step is a state of mind that’s free of disturbing emotions toward ourselves. Now we’re talking about how to develop an equal attitude of kindness, a positive attitude toward ourselves in all situations. The emphasis is slightly different here. How can we be kinder toward ourselves? And we don’t mean in spoiling-the-baby type of kinder, but in a healthier way, being more positive toward ourselves, as in taking care of ourselves, eating properly, sleeping properly, setting the limits in terms of how much we can do, and so on.

Setting limits, by the way, has two meanings here. One is being able to say “no” when something is really destructive or really damaging, whether in terms of what another person is doing to us in an unhealthy relationship, let’s say, or in terms of engaging in some very dangerous activity that is pointless. It means being able to say “no.” The other variant is seeing limits when something is just too much in terms of work, in terms of time obligations, and so on. It’s too much, and if we continue like that, it’s going to be damaging to us. It means being able to say, “Enough! I can’t do anymore. I have to take a rest.”

This second variant, knowing when to take a rest, is very important for developing enthusiasm. If we never take a rest, if we never take a break, our enthusiasm goes way down, and we don’t want to continue when we go back to our work. On the other hand, we don’t want to always treat ourselves like a baby. For instance, my own teacher, Tsenzhab Serkong Rinpoche, for whom I used to translate – when I was really, really tired and felt as though I couldn’t continue any more, he always had me do five minutes more. He always said that no matter how tired you are, you can always do five minutes more. You can’t do an hour more, but you can do five minutes more, so that your limits and your endurance increase. This way, you don’t always stay as a baby; you grow. Whether we’re engaging in translation or we’re training for a sport, or whatever we’re doing, I think that this is a helpful policy. At least it was helpful for me.

1. There Have Been Times When I’ve Had a Positive Attitude toward Myself

The first of these nine is to think, “At various times of my life, I have been kind to myself, whether I was a child or a teenager, or whatever. There have been times when in fact I have been kind to myself. Whether I was kind to myself and had a positive attitude at one point or another in my life, whether fifteen minutes ago or fifteen years ago, I was still kind to ‘me.’ It’s just a matter of difference in time, but still the object was ‘me.’ It is a fact, then, that I have been kind to myself, and I have felt okay about myself. The conclusion I must draw is that I am capable of that.”

We think about that: it makes no difference when we had this positive attitude toward ourselves and have treated ourselves kindly. We have had it at some point or another, or at various points in our life, so we’re capable of it.

[Pause for practice]

2. I’ve Had a Positive Attitude toward Myself More Often Than a Negative Attitude

The second point is we might object and think, “Well, I’ve only had a positive attitude toward myself some of the time. Most of the time I’ve been quite negative and really not liked myself at all.” But if we think about it, we’ll see that our kindness has been greater and more frequent than the times that we’ve treated ourselves badly. After all, I’ve fed myself every day of my life (except when I was a baby and my mother fed me), I’ve brushed my teeth, I’ve slept – I’ve done what was necessary to take care of myself and my basic needs; otherwise I wouldn’t be alive. Although we might trivialize these things, actually they are quite important. No matter how negative we might have felt about ourselves, we still ate, we still slept, and we still got dressed and dealt with life, didn’t we? So that fact, if we analyze it, is a demonstration of our being kind to ourselves. From that perspective, we have been kind to ourselves more frequently than we’ve treated ourselves badly. “I might not have eaten a very good diet, but I ate something. And I might not have slept enough, but I did sleep.” Please think about that.

[Pause for practice]

It’s quite interesting here if we analyze why we tend to emphasize incidents or periods in which we’ve treated ourselves badly. I think it’s because there is a strong emotional component – a disturbing emotional component – during those periods, rather than when we just feed ourselves and eat. There isn’t a very strong emotion there, is there? Because the emotion is stronger, particularly if it’s a disturbing emotion, we tend to count that as or consider that more real, in a sense, which is of course absurd. How can one incident in our life be more real than any other? They all took place.

There are many examples I can think of in which we’ve treated ourselves badly and because of the strong disturbing emotion involved, these aspects seem more real to us than other less dramatic aspects of our life. For instance, we are in an unhealthy relationship which is rather abusive. The other person treats us badly or speaks very badly to us and so on. It doesn’t have to be that he or she beats us. But our staying in that kind of relationship is based, usually, on a tremendous amount of attachment and insecurity. We’re so attached that we don’t want to say “no,” because we’re afraid that then we’ll be abandoned. “Poor me, I’ll have nothing.” When we think of our lives, such negative aspects seem more important than the fact that we brushed our teeth every day and went to school.

Another example is people who eat so much they become obese. Usually they have quite a negative attitude about themselves and the naivety of thinking that somehow they can overcome this by the pleasure of eating. This is quite naive and also mixed with attachment, but it’s based on very low self-esteem, a very bad attitude toward oneself. Or consider anorexia, or bulimia – these syndromes where you starve yourself or you throw up after you’ve eaten. They also are based on very low self-esteem. “I have to be perfect, but I’m not perfect.” You have quite a distorted idea of what perfect is, and then you treat yourself so badly with an eating disorder in order to match up to your distorted idea.

As I said, although the times when we have treated ourselves kindly, taken care of ourselves, might not have been emotionally dramatic, they are no less real than these more dramatic emotional incidents. If we look at it objectively, they far outweigh the times when we have been negative toward ourselves. Let’s think about that for another moment before we go on.

[Pause for practice]

When we are comparing being kind toward ourselves with treating ourselves badly, are we talking about our having taken drugs, drunk alcohol, smoked cigarettes, and such things, and understanding how self-destructive they were? But in my case, with smoking cigarettes, I have a split in my mind. One part inside me says, “Don’t do that!” and another part thinks, “Okay, do it, smoke a cigarette. Maybe today is a bad day to give up smoking.” What’s this?

In a situation in which we’re doing something self-destructive like taking drugs or alcohol, or smoking, we could have two conflicting attitudes. One is that we discriminate that this is destructive, this is harmful. But on the other hand, we have attachment, which exaggerates any positive qualities or effects that we gain from these substances and ignores the drawbacks. From the Buddhist point of view, we would analyze the mental factors that are involved in this state of mind. Here we have discriminating awareness that smoking is bad for us, but we also have attachment to it. Not only is the discriminating awareness not stronger than the attachment in this case, the attachment seems to be stronger. Note that all of these mental factors have a spectrum between being very weak and very strong.

Also present in this state of mind is indecisive wavering: “Should I not smoke?” “Should I not take another drink or should I take another drink?” So indecision is there – you’re not sure what to do, which is an unsettling state of mind – and very weak self-control or discipline, discipline to say “no” to the attachment and go on the side of the discriminating awareness that understands that this is harmful to me.

In this case, we need to strengthen our discriminating awareness, which means to reaffirm it, remember it, stay mindful of it. Mindfulness is this mental glue that sticks you to it and keeps you from forgetting. In addition, we need to put the big emphasis on discipline, self-discipline, that even though I feel like smoking another cigarette, or taking another drink, so what? That’s just force of habit, and I’m not going to be a slave to that. Shantideva, a great Indian Buddhist master, said it very nicely. To paraphrase what he said, he said – in our minds, speaking to our disturbing emotions – “I’ve been a slave to you long enough. You have caused me enough trouble and enough harm over time. The time where you can cause me all this trouble is now past.”

It requires strong willpower to say, “Enough already!” Of course that’s not so easy, but that really is the only way, initially, to stop a self-destructive habit such as smoking. Of course, we have to go deeper and deeper into the issue and find out what’s behind our disturbing emotion, but the first step is just discipline, just self-control, just “Enough! Even though I want to have another drink, it doesn’t matter. So what?” Or whatever the situation might be. “I would like to eat another piece of cake, but I understand I’m really just being a pig, and I’m really full. I really have had enough.” And so you say “no,” even though of course you’d love to have another piece. “I’d love to stay in bed longer in the morning, but I have to get up.” There are many examples that we can refer to in our lives to reaffirm that we do have the ability to exercise self-control – even though we would like to stay in bed longer.

You see, your question really is about the first of the nine points here: reconfirming that we do have the ability to be kind to ourselves. Sometimes we think, “I’m incapable.” But we’re not incapable. It’s just that we trivialize the examples in which we have been capable.

3. I Should Have a Positive Attitude Because I Could Die at Any Moment

The third point for developing this equal attitude toward ourselves is to think of death, specifically to think that death can come at any time. And this is true: we could die at any time. We don’t have to be sick. We could be hit by a truck at any time.

So we think, “Suppose these were my last minutes, my last hour.” Let’s say I was a prisoner about to be executed. We don’t have to be a criminal; it could be in a war, and they’re going to shoot us. How do we want to spend our last hour? Do I want to spend that in just thinking with self-hatred how horrible I’ve been and how horrible I am? Or in self-indulgence? I’m going to stuff myself with ice cream during this last hour or have as much sex as I can have in this last hour? Or ignore my need to have a calm state of mind as I am going to be shot – just continue reading a book, for example, or looking at some fashion magazine during this last hour? Is that how I’m going to spend the last hour of my life? Or watch television in a state of denial that this is my last hour? Obviously spending our last hour with a disturbing attitude of anger, over-attachment or naivety toward ourselves would be a waste of whatever precious time we had left.

Similarly, having a disturbing attitude toward ourselves is a waste of time throughout the rest of our life: we could die at any time. Thinking like that helps us to develop always an equal attitude toward ourselves. In any situation we’re in, we will think, “I’m going to be kind to myself. I’m going to try to have a calm state of mind and be at peace with myself, because I might die in the next moment.” Thinking like that is a way to become kinder to ourselves. So we think about that.

[Pause for practice]

4. I Want to Be Happy

The fourth point is that I want to be happy and I don’t want to be unhappy. I think that’s true of everybody.

We think in terms of how other people treat us: “I don’t like it if others reject me or treat me badly, do I? And I don’t like it when others cling to me or are overprotective, worrying about me all the time. And I don’t like it if others totally ignore me either. I’m unhappy when others treat me in any of these ways.”

Then we think about how we treat ourselves: “Actually when I treat myself badly, I don’t feel happy, do I? And if I’m completely preoccupied with myself and always worried about myself and overprotective – about my health or whatever, hypochondria – that’s not a happy state of mind either. And when I ignore my needs, it’s also not a happy state of mind. So if I don’t want others to treat me like that, why should I treat myself like that? It just makes me unhappy, whether somebody else treats me like that or I treat myself like that. And basically I do want to be happy. I don’t want to be unhappy. I don’t enjoy being unhappy. So why make myself unhappy? There are plenty of other people that can make me unhappy. Why make myself unhappy?” Think about that.

[Pause for practice]

5. I Have the Right to Be Happy

Then the next one, the fifth one: Throughout all my life I have the right to be happy and to be treated well by myself, not just some of the time. Think about that. “Do I have the right to be happy? Do I feel that I have to earn it, that I have to deserve it, that somehow it’s a reward? Or isn’t it the case that I have the right to be happy, regardless of what I do?”

[Pause for practice]

This is an interesting point actually. Are we getting into socialist thinking here, or is this just one of the basic human rights, the right to be happy? Basic human rights don’t necessarily imply a socialist political system, do they?

6. I Have the Right Not to Be Unhappy

The sixth point is quite similar: Throughout all my life I have the right not to be unhappy and I have the right not to be treated badly by myself, not just some of the time.

The point with the fifth and sixth points is an equal attitude throughout my life. It’s not just some of the time that I have the right to be happy and not to be unhappy; it’s always the case. It’s not just that I want to be happy and not to be unhappy. I have the basic right to that. It’s not an unreasonable thing to want. There’s nothing wrong with me for wanting to be happy.

[Pause for practice]

7. The Great Masters Don’t See Me as Being Truly Horrible, Truly Wonderful, or Truly a Nobody

The next one, the seventh: If I were truly horrible, or truly special and wonderful, or truly a nobody, then the Buddhas and the great masters would see me that way; but they don’t.

That’s a difficult one if we haven’t met any Buddhas, which probably we haven’t, and if we aren’t closely associated with any great spiritual masters. But I’ve had the privilege to be close to some really great spiritual masters – His Holiness the Dalai Lama, his teachers, and so on – and I can tell you from my experience that nobody is special for them. Everybody is the same. They are equally open to everyone.

I always think of the example of my own main teacher, Tsenzhab Serkong Rinpoche. I was with him as his interpreter for nine years, went around the world with him, and was with him when we met the previous Pope and when we would meet drunkards on the street. He was the same toward everyone, whether the Pope or a drunkard. The same is true regarding His Holiness the Dalai Lama when he meets presidents of various countries or just ordinary people. As he walks in to an event and greets the people, it’s the same openness, the same warmth. Nobody is special. It doesn’t mean being cold and with no feeling toward everybody equally. It means being open, warm, kind, and happy to meet anybody.

I was always amazed with Serkong Rinpoche because, as we traveled to many Buddhist centers around the world, there would usually be a Tibetan teacher there. Rinpoche didn’t seem to have anybody who was his best friend. No matter whom he was with, he acted toward them – toward these Tibetan teachers – as if they were his best friend. It was really quite extraordinary; he was the same with all of them.

So if we ourselves were truly horrible, or truly special and wonderful, or truly a nobody, the Buddhas and the great teachers would see us as that, but they don’t. They would see us like that if we were truly like that, but they don’t. In fact we could include in this first point that not only the gurus, but everybody would see us this way, but they don’t.

[Pause for practice]

It’s really funny because if we analyze, we often say, “Well, they don’t really know me. If they really knew me, they would know what a horrible person I am. But they don’t know the ‘real me.’” Again, this is identifying with the false “me.” We are choosing just the negative things about us and exaggerating them and forgetting about everything else concerning ourselves. As I mentioned before several times, everybody has strong points, everybody has weak points. There is nothing special about that – a little bit more of this quality, a little bit less of that one, but nothing special.

8. I Have Qualities and Characteristics That Can Change

The next point, number 8, is that if I were truly an awful person – or truly a wonderful person, or truly a nobody who doesn’t count – I would always have to be like that. That could never change, and our attitudes about ourselves could never change. But that’s not the case. Circumstances do change, and our attitudes about ourselves do change, if we look over our lives. Just think about what our attitude is toward ourselves when we’re in a good mood and when we’re in a bad mood. It’s quite clear that our attitudes change. The confusion here is that we feel that somehow, as a person, we are inherently a good person – or inherently a bad person, or inherently a nobody – as if this were our true nature, irrespective or not at all dependent or relative to our mood, or to what’s going on, or to different periods in our life, or anything.

There’s a big difference here when we talk about just “me” as a person. Being a person, an individual, is a neutral phenomenon, neither good nor bad. A hand is neither good nor bad. A hand is just a hand. Now, some things that we might have done are destructive or negative; some things that we might have done are positive; some things that might have happened to us were painful; some other things might have been pleasurable. That’s something else. But as a person, we’re neither good nor bad. And as part of human nature, I want to be happy, and I don’t want to be unhappy. Everybody does. And as a basic human right, I have the right to be happy and not to be unhappy.

Shortcomings can be overcome; they’re not something that is permanent and unchanging. If we’ve made mistakes in life – some mistakes you can remedy; others, you just deal with them and make the best of the mistakes that you made. For instance, we made a bad investment and lost money. You try to make the best of it. If you’ve lost the money, you’ve lost the money, and there’s nothing that you can do about that. So you try to adjust to the situation. The reality is: “Okay, I lost the money. Now what do I do?” Or I might have made a mistake. That doesn’t make me a bad person, as a person. It was a stupid mistake, that’s all. We have to differentiate here “me” as a person from what I might have done (or various characteristics and qualities that I might have that can change according to circumstances).

[Pause for practice]

9. My Attitude toward Myself Changes According to the Situation

That brings us to the ninth point. If I were truly a horrible person – or so wonderful, or a nobody – I should have been like that my entire life and not just relative to some situation or something that happened; but that’s impossible.

Here, we’re not talking about being inherently wonderful, or terrible, and so on. We’re talking about my attitude toward myself. If I were definitely one way, my attitude toward myself should always be like that regardless of situations. But the fact is that my attitude changes, and has changed in the past, depending on different situations – I succeeded, I failed, I made a good choice, I made the wrong choice, the wrong decision.

So there’s no point in having this disturbing attitude toward myself: “This is the way that I definitely am, regardless of what happens.” It doesn’t have to be like that. We can change if we understand that our feeling toward ourselves has always been dependent on circumstances or situations, but basically there’s nothing wrong about me; there’s nothing special about me. Then we can have an equal attitude toward ourselves at all times, an equal one of kindness and respect. Self-respect is very important.

I think that – particularly as Buddhist practitioners, but not necessarily limited to Buddhist practitioners – we tend to think that we need to be perfect. And if we’re not perfect, we think we’re bad. “I’m no good. I’m a failure.” But I think we need to remember that “I’m not yet a Buddha; I’m an ordinary human being and ordinary human beings make mistakes. Just because I make mistakes, there’s nothing special about that, is there? What do I expect? There’s no reason to hate myself, or have such a low opinion of myself, just because I made a mistake. It’s an unrealistic expectation that I’m never going to make mistakes and that I’m never going to fail in what I try to do. Of course I will sometimes fail. All unfortunate things that take place happen because of various circumstances. But underlying whatever happens to me, I’m just a person, a neutral phenomenon.”

So we try our best and try to learn from our mistakes without being judgmental about ourselves: “I’m so wonderful” or “I’m so horrible.”

[Pause for practice]