There are five decisions that come from thinking about the nine points for equalizing our attitude toward ourselves:
1. I Shall Stop Being Fickle, But Rather Develop a Kind Attitude toward Myself Equally All the Time
The first decision is: No matter how well or poorly I do, I will develop an equal, kind attitude toward myself. When I have self-hatred or an overly high opinion of myself, it harms my ability to help others. The same is true if I think I’m a nobody: it harms my ability to help others, in addition to just making me unhappy. Therefore the decision here is: “I resolve to try my best to get rid of these disturbing emotions and attitudes toward myself that make my attitude toward myself go up and down. They’re just troublemakers.”
Please think about it and make that decision.
[Pause for practice]
2. I Shall Rid Myself of Self-Cherishing
The second decision is to rid ourselves of self-cherishing. We reach this decision by thinking about how all unhappiness comes from cherishing the false “me.” In this context, “cherishing” means being totally preoccupied with this false “me.” It doesn’t mean liking this false “me.” Remember, the false “me” doesn’t exist at all; it’s just something that we project: a solid “me” that we identify with as being so horrible, or so important, or such a nobody. We remind ourselves, “When I have self-hatred – this low, negative attitude toward myself – it makes me unhappy, doesn’t it? And when I’m so attached to myself so that I’m completely self-preoccupied – worried about what’s going to happen, am I going to succeed, worrying that I’m going to get sick, just clinging and being overly protective toward myself – it’s also a very unhappy state of mind. And thinking, ‘I have no qualities, I’m nothing,’ isn’t a very happy state of mind either.”
What does this cause us to do when we have these attitudes toward ourselves? We’re so busy beating ourselves, or worrying about ourselves, or ignoring our needs, that we can’t really pay attention to the needs of others. Often we act destructively toward them. For example, we might be very annoyed with ourselves: “I did something so stupid!” What happens when we’re in that state of mind? We’re not tolerant toward ourselves, and so we get annoyed with other people as well. In an annoyed state of mind, we snap out at others as well. We say nasty things; we aren’t kind to them or worse, which just brings even more unhappiness.
Or we’re so worried and preoccupied with ourselves not having enough that we don’t give anything to anyone else. Or we give them the smallest or worst piece of whatever it is that we have to eat if they ask for a taste. That causes bad relations. The other person is going to resent us, and it will bring us more unhappiness. Or we ignore our own needs, our own capacities, and we get overtired. What happens when we get overtired? You make more mistakes, don’t you? We don’t pay attention very well. We get irritable. We get annoyed very easily because we’re overtired, overstressed. And in our relations with others, again, it produces more unhappiness.
So really our attitude toward ourselves is very crucial here. If we have a disturbing attitude toward ourselves, it comes from this preoccupation with this false “me,” this disturbing attitude that is based on thinking of ourselves in terms of some solid thing. So we decide to rid ourselves of this preoccupation with a false “me,” and to rid ourselves of the self-cherishing that comes from it.
[Pause for practice]
3. I Shall Work on Improving Myself
The third decision is to work for the benefit of the conventional “me” – in other words, work for self-development – because we realize that it is the source of all happiness. We’re not talking about working on ourselves to develop a bigger ego or a better ego. We’re not talking about that. Rather, the more that we work on self-development, improving ourselves, then not only are we happier, we’re also more able to benefit others. The more we develop our good qualities, the more we’re able to help others, and that truly is the source of happiness.
It’s very interesting. If we are at peace with ourselves and secure with ourselves because we have a healthy attitude toward ourselves, a kind attitude toward ourselves, it gives us a much more stable position to be able to help others. In other words, it doesn’t matter whether the other person thanks me or doesn’t thank me; my mood isn’t going to change. “Oh, I’m so great. They thanked me!” or anything like that. “Oh, they didn’t appreciate me, because they didn’t thank me.” And although of course we want our help to succeed, we don’t base our whole feeling of self-worth on whether what we do succeeds or fails. Whether it succeeds or fails is due to a million causes, not just what we do.
So my sense of self-worth is not dependent on that – this is very important – because I’m stable, I’m secure with myself, as long as I sincerely tried my best to do what I thought would be of help. And if I made a mistake, or gave poor advice, or they didn’t follow my advice – well, I’m human, they’re human, and we all have our shortcomings.
What’s interesting is that in this situation we often have this attitude of “I could have done better.” First we have to analyze: is that realistic? Could I really have done better? Or am I just blaming myself because what I did didn’t work? Is it realistic or unrealistic that I could have done better, that it was within my power to have done better? Well, again we’re human. Sure, if I had been aware of some other factors that were involved in the situation, I could have made a better decision, but I didn’t know. And if I didn’t do my best because I was overtired or I was lazy or whatever, we see what we have to work on in order to be able to do better, but the issue of self-worth is really quite irrelevant. As soon as we start thinking in terms of self-worth, we produce unhappiness for ourselves, regardless of whether our judgment is that “I’m so wonderful,” or “I’m so horrible.” When we think we’re so wonderful, we become arrogant. Then what happens is we become sloppy; we’re not careful. We become overconfident, and then we make mistakes. Think about that for a moment.
[Pause for practice]
4. I Am Capable of Exchanging My Attitudes about the False “Me” and Conventional “Me”
The fourth decision is that I am capable of exchanging my attitudes about the false “me” and the conventional “me.” In other words, up until now we have been so preoccupied about the false “me” and we pretty much ignored the conventional “me,” and what we want to do now is to be able to switch that. This doesn’t mean now to be neurotically self-preoccupied with the conventional “me.” Rather, it means to take care of the conventional “me” in a healthy way and forget about this false “me,” because it never existed at all.
We are capable of doing this. Why? Because when we have benefited ourselves in the past, we’ve in fact been benefiting the conventional “me.” Furthermore, because the false “me” doesn’t exist at all, it can’t be benefited or harmed. So when we’ve thought of ourselves in terms of a false “me” – “Oh, I’m so wonderful,” and “I should do this and do that,” and so on, for this false “me” – if there were any benefit from it, it wasn’t benefiting the false “me”; it was benefiting the conventional “me.” We need to think about that.
If this is a little bit confusing, let me give an example. Let’s say we are totally preoccupied and worried about ourselves: “I have to do perfectly in school.” We’re worried about how we’re going to do, and we study really, really hard for the exam. And we pass. We get a good grade. Who has benefited from this, the false “me” or the conventional “me”? The false “me” doesn’t exist at all. I’ve benefited from it – the conventional “me” has benefited. Even though I was thinking in terms of this false “me” – “Oh, I’m so worried about this,” and “I have to succeed,” and thoughts like that – nevertheless, it’s the conventional “me” that benefits. So although we cause the conventional “me” perhaps to be quite unhappy because we were so worried, we also were kind to that conventional “me” because we passed the exam. That’s why I say we are capable of being kind to the conventional “me” – because we have, in fact, done so. Any benefit that we have given to ourselves has been to the conventional “me.”
[Pause for practice]
5. I Shall Definitely Change My Attitudes about the False “Me” and Conventional “Me”
The last decision is a confirmation that we are going to try our best to stop having these disturbing attitudes and these disturbing ways of treating ourselves, based on identifying with the false “me,” and instead have a positive, kind attitude toward the conventional “me” and treat myself well. For this, we think in terms of the ten destructive actions and the ten constructive actions as listed in the Buddhist literature.
Here we need to be a little flexible and imaginative in our way of understanding these destructive and constructive actions, and not just limit them to exactly the way that they are defined in the texts, but be a little broader in their application. For example, we don’t just think in terms of taking the life of others, but also include in this category physically harming or causing physical pain. And of course here we’re thinking in terms of not doing this to ourselves.
The traditional list of destructive actions includes three physical actions:
- Taking a life
- Taking what has not been given to us
- Engaging in inappropriate sexual behavior – basically referring to indulging in unhealthy or harmful sexual behavior.
Then four of speech:
- Lying – saying what’s untrue
- Speaking divisively – saying negative things to someone about their friends in order to cause division
- Speaking harshly – saying things that hurt
- Chattering meaningless – just “blah blah blah” that interrupts and wastes everybody’s time.
And then three destructive ways of thinking:
- Thinking covetously – thinking with jealousy, “I have to get what this other person has,” and plotting how we can do it
- Thinking with malice – thinking about how can we hurt somebody and plotting and planning what we could say to them when we see them next time that really is going to hurt them
- Thinking distortedly with antagonism – for instance, somebody is doing something positive – let’s say they’re going to some spiritual practice – and then thinking, “This is so stupid. This is so terrible. How can I stop them? What negative things can I say that would make them see this is stupid?” There are many varieties of that.
I think that with some imagination we can think of variants of these that would be applicable here to how we treat ourselves, speak to ourselves and think about ourselves. We think of the disadvantages of each of the ten destructive types of behavior aimed at what we conceive as the false “me” and contrast it with the benefits of directing the opposite of these – the constructive actions – toward the conventional “me.” Whether the destructive actions are aimed at the false “me” or the conventional “me,” still it’s not beneficial at all.
The first one would be trying to punish ourselves because we’re no good, this type of thing, as opposed to taking care of ourselves, taking care of the conventional “me.” We’re thinking of ourselves in terms of the false “me” and treating it badly, as opposed to treating our conventional “me” kindly. We think of the disadvantages of the one and the advantages of the other.
Taking care of the conventional “me” doesn’t mean overindulging and giving ourselves everything that we want. Nor does it mean depriving ourselves of something as opposed to giving ourselves something, depriving ourselves because “I don’t deserve it,” this sort of attitude. That would fall in the category of stealing from ourselves – not giving ourselves something we need. Sometimes we do that. Sometimes we are very cheap and miserly with ourselves. We’ll never spend anything on ourselves to make life a little bit easier, even though we could afford to – we’re talking about when we can afford to – whereas we could in fact be kind to ourselves.
I’m thinking of an example. Like, for instance, we’re out late at night. I don’t know about here in Moscow, but in Berlin the subway and the buses do run at night but very infrequently; and if you have to change once or twice to get home, it could take you hours to get there. So an example of taking something away from ourselves would be not being willing to spend the money on a taxi in order to go home late at night – this type of behavior. And who’s going to suffer? I’m going to suffer because I have to get up in the morning and go to work. If I only have three hours of sleep, how am I going to be able to do that? This attitude of “I’m not going to spend the money, even though I have the money to take the taxi.” This is what I’m talking about. If we don’t have the money, that’s something else.
Another example is rather than speaking harshly to myself – “You’re such an idiot. You’re so horrible!” – giving the conventional “me” encouragement: “Come on, you can do it.” Instead of lying to myself, being honest to myself. These are examples of treating ourselves unkindly as opposed to treating ourselves kindly, and we see the disadvantages of being self-destructive and treating ourselves unkindly, and the advantages of being kind to ourselves and being constructive. With this last decision, we work with this. We don’t really have time to go through the ten one by one with each of the destructive and constructive actions, but you get the idea.
[Pause for practice]
Applying Tonglen to Our Own Problems
As I mentioned, to develop this training I’ve taken the points that appear in the context of equalizing and exchanging our attitudes about self and others and applied them just to ourselves. The next step in the sequence, when it’s applied to self and others, is the practice of tonglen, giving and taking. Is there a way in which we can apply that here? The 7-Point Mind Training says that you should start with yourself when doing the practice of giving and taking, so how would we do that?
When we’re thinking of taking on the sufferings of others, we imagine them in front of us, or we can do it with people that we see in the subway or on the bus. Of course, when you are doing this with others who are actually physically present, you don’t let them know what you’re doing. To make a show of it or announce to someone, “I’m taking this trouble away from you,” invites trouble because they will think you’re a complete idiot when taking on their problems doesn’t work. It’s just a big ego trip. In the Eight Verses of Mind Training, it says to do this as a hidden practice – sometimes translated as “secret” – “hidden” means you do it in private; you don’t let other people know what you’re doing.
If we’re thinking in terms of taking on our own problems – for instance, the problems of old age – and dealing with them now, we could imagine ourselves as an old person in front of us and take on that problem. Another example is getting sick later in our lives. We could imagine ourselves sick and take on that problem – in terms of how would we deal with this – and give some solutions so that we are ready to be able to deal with these problems if they happen. We don’t deny that these problems may happen.
In contrast to this, when we’re working with taking away a negative attitude that we have toward ourselves and the suffering that that brings about – this is my own idea, I haven’t heard this from anyone else – I don’t think we have to visualize ourselves in front of us. I think we can do that in a slightly different way.
When we’re working with others, we imagine that the suffering, these negative things, come from them and enter us in a variety of different repulsive forms and dissolve into our heart – they dissolve into the calmness of the clear-light mind, as it were – and then we send out happiness to them. It’s not that we keep these negative things inside us and hold on to them, but they are like a disturbance on the ocean of the mind that calms down. Then on the basis of calming down, we can send out positive feelings.
Here, when working with ourselves, rather than visualizing myself in front of myself and doing this type of practice like we would do it with taking on someone else’s negative attitude, instead I don’t visualize anything in front of me. Rather, I just try to feel in my body the disturbing, negative energy of my low self-esteem, for instance, and imagine drawing it in to my heart from throughout my body. We can visualize the negative attitude and energy in many different ways – as dark light or some repulsive substances – but just draw it into the heart, to the center of the heart, and imagine it calms down and dissolves there. Then from our heart, imagine a positive attitude toward our conventional “me” shines out and spreads through our entire body. I think that type of visualization would certainly be less dualistic.
There’s a deeper reason for suggesting this way of visualizing. When we have a negative attitude toward ourselves, our energy is quite disturbed. So when we’re doing this gathering-in and centralizing process with our mind, it also helps us to physically calm down the disturbing energy within our body. I think that would be more difficult to accomplish if we imagined taking on disturbing energy from ourselves visualized in front of us.
Even if we’re only capable of relaxing the tension in our muscles while doing this giving and taking visualization – for instance, relaxing the tension in our shoulders and neck, which is usually where the most tension is – and dissolving it, and then trying to have a calmer, more positive attitude shine out from deep within us to pervade at least our body, if not everything about us, this would be very helpful. This is my idea. Try it.
[Pause for practice]
Low self-esteem and self-hatred cause us a great deal of unhappiness; they hamper our effectiveness in dealing with the challenges of life. Whether we are aiming for the classic Buddhist goals of liberation and enlightenment, or simply wishing to improve the quality of our life and be of more help to our family, friends and others, we need to overcome these negative feelings about ourselves. First, we need to calm down any disturbing self-directed emotions we might have – whether repulsion, obsession or neglect – and gain equanimity toward ourselves. With an open, realistic attitude about our strong and weak points, we can then resolve to work on becoming a better person, based on treating ourselves kindly, with self-respect, the same as we would treat all others.