How To Live Our Most Meaningful Lives With Compassion and Self-Love

“Live joyfully, without anxiety about imperfection.” – Zen

In 1989, at one of the first international Buddhist teacher meetings, Western teachers brought up the enormous problem of unworthiness and self-criticism, shame and self-hatred that frequently they arise in Western students’ practice. The Asian Lamas and meditation masters attending were shocked. They could not comprehend the word self-hatred. They asked how many of us experienced this problem in ourselves and our students. We all nodded affirmatively. They seemed genuinely surprised. Nevertheless, self-judgment and shame are there in many who come to Buddhist practice.

“What you need” they responded, “is more compassion.”

Each of us has our own measure of pain. Sometimes the pain we suffer is great and obvious; sometimes it is subtle. Our pain can reflect the coldness of our families, the trauma of our parents, the stultifying influence of much modern education and media, the difficulties of being a man or a woman. As a result, we often feel that we have been cast out. To survive we have to cover our heart, build up a layer of clay, and defend ourselves. We lose the belief that we are worthy of love.

The mystic Simone Weil tells us, “The danger is not that the soul should doubt whether there is any bread, but that, by a lie, it should persuade itself that it is not hungry.” Compassion reminds us that we do belong, as surely as we have been lost.

Always remember to put your trust in compassion and self-love. From this comes a shift of identity, a release from the covering of clay, a return to our original goodness.

The courageous heart is the one that is unafraid to open to the world. With compassion, we come to trust our capacity to open to life without armoring. As the poet Rilke reminds us, “Ultimately it is on our vulnerability that we depend.”

This is not a poetic ideal but a living reality, demonstrated by our most beloved sages. Mahatma Gandhi had the courage to be jailed and beaten, to persevere through difficulties without giving in to bitterness and despair. His vulnerability became his strength. We need this same courage to trust our intuition and our basic compassion, to guide us through a difficult divorce without lashing out and increasing the pain and anguish. We need it when our children are in trouble, when things go wrong at work.

In all these situations we are vulnerable and everyone involved needs compassion. In developing compassion start exactly where you are, whatever your situation. Having compassion for your own humanity and your struggles is critical. Let yourself sense a wish to live with greater kindness. Hold your own fear and shame with compassion, and let this practice open you to better self-care and to greater tolerance and kindness for others.

The Buddha taught that we can develop loving-kindness by visualizing how a caring mother holds her beloved child. Slowly and tenderly we can begin by remembering ourself as a child, deserving of love and compassion. We are still that same child, now grown. With practice we can learn to hold our own life with love.

Do not worry if you lose the sense of self-care for a time. When you lose connection with compassion, remember that it can be reawakened simply and directly. Listen deeply. Trust yourself. Compassion is only a few breaths, a moment of kindness, away.

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Jack Kornfield trained as a Buddhist monk in the monasteries of Thailand, India, and Burma, and he is one of the key teachers to introduce Buddhist mindfulness practice to the West. He is the co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society and of Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, California and a best-selling author. Jack was one of the leaders at the first-ever White House Buddhist Leadership Conference in 2015.

This essay was featured in the Jan. 20th edition of The Sunday Paper, Maria Shriver’s free weekly newsletter for people with passion and purpose. To get inspiring and informative content like this piece delivered straight to your inbox each Sunday morning, click here to subscribe.




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