From “12 Steps to a Compassionate Life” by Karen Armstrong
“The Golden Rule of Compassion”, found in every one of the great faith traditions reads. “Love your neighbour as yourself”
But what if we hate ourselves?
If we hate ourselves but show love to others, surely this is just as much a betrayal of the “Golden Rule” as failing to love others? If we love others but fail to love ourselves then surely we do not love our neighbour as ourselves.
It is so easy to get hung up on our human failings to give ourselves a hard time for not being perfect compassionate beings all of the time; to hate the person looking back at us each morning in the mirror. For an awful long time I hated that man looking back at me in the mirror.
How often have we listened to that voice that has told us we are just not good enough?
How many of us have true compassion for ourselves? Karen Armstrong in “12 Steps to a Compassionate Life” states that:
“The Golden Rule requires self knowledge, it asks that we use our own feelings as a guide to our behaviour with others. If we treat ourselves harshly, this is the way we are likely to treat other people.”
She suggests that we do this by taking an honest appraisal of ourselves and recognise both our positive and negative qualities. This though must be done with a degree of lightness, we need to be careful not to get too lost in ourselves. We need to learn to smile at the person looking back at ourselves each and every morning.
I had a moment of enlightenment myself a few years ago, at a time when I allowed life to really weigh me down. I woke up one day I looked at myself in the mirror, smiled and simply said “Life is too serious, to be taken too seriously...have a laugh” I’ve found myself chuckling away ever since.
Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is a world wide organisation that is held together by the least amount of governance as possible. Alcoholics are notorious for taking themselves too seriously. In the early days of AA the myth of “Rule 62” developed. Now no one is really sure where it came from and there appears to be no rule 1,2,3,4....upto 61 or beyond 62. Yet “Rule 62” appeared...the rule is “don’t take yourself so seriously, lighten up”.
Life really is too serious to be taken too seriously
Maybe we do in fact love or hate our neighbours as we love or hate ourselves. Maybe the real reason that we do not love others is because we do not truly love ourselves? So what do we do? We attempt to suppress those darker qualities that are part of our humanity. By doing so we actually strengthen them, we feed them and they grow stronger. We feed the negative wolf deep within us. When what we ought to be doing instead is developing our compassionate natures and feeding that inner wolf instead.
I love the story of “The Two Wolves. Here is one version I found:
We are not always as compassionate as we could be when it comes to ours or others pain. We tell each other that we must soldier on and ignore it, live with it. But is this a solution?
I remember talking with a counsellor many years ago and she told me that a large number of her clients were elderly men who had experienced some real horrors during the war, but had battened down the hatches and never dealt with this deep rooted pain. Sadly years later they suffered severely because of this.
Is this how we are meant to live? Are we meant to be stoic and strong all the time? Is it in fact weak to show and share our pain?
Armstrong states that “The ancient Greeks had no problem with shedding tears: they believed that weeping together created a bond between human beings; in Shakespeare’s day it was considered quite normal for men to weep.”
I do wonder if we truly honour each other’s pain; if we ever truly allow one another to grieve. Do we instead spend our time trying to cheer one another up and get each other through the suffering as quickly as possible. I know I have been guilty of this in the past and I do have to ask myself is this really about the other person’s pain or me feeling uncomfortable with their pain?
Armstrong says that it is vital that we see and accept our pain, no matter how insignificant it may appear in the grand scheme of things. She says that we need to have compassion for our own pain too, or we will fail to have compassion for others when they themselves are suffering. We will dismiss it, we will tell them to stiffen up and get on with it.
Armstrong is not encouraging self pity, quite the opposite. Instead she advocates that we use our past sufferings to help others during their struggles. This is true empathy, it is compassionate living. No one escapes the pain that comes with the joy of living.
Buddhism teaches all existence is suffering – Dukha –nothing last forever; that there is always a price to be paid for whatever we may achieve in life. The mistake we make is that we believe that we will attain happiness and escape pain and suffering if we get everything that we always wanted. These are human traits and we should not berate ourselves for having them, for being less than perfect. We need to develop compassion for these parts of ourselves. By doing so we will have compassion for the same traits in others and we will also begin to work on the other part of ourselves, our compassionate wolf that also dwells within us.
So how do we develop the compassion within us? How do we feed the loving wolf within us? How do we love ourselves and therefore love our neighbours as ourselves? Armstrong suggests that one way is through the daily practise of meditation. She highlights that the Buddha devised a meditation that made him conscious of the positive emotions that lay dormant within him.
The meditation begins by drawing on the warmth of friendship (maitri), that is already within us and directing it to our whole selves. This enables us to see how much love we do possess and how much we long for loving friendship.
The meditation then asks us to become conscious of our anger, fear anxiety; to unearth the seeds of rage that lay within ourselves; to bring to our minds our past suffering; to attempt to put current irritations to one side. The meditation is attempting to help us feel compassion for ourselves. It asks us to look at the seeds of rage within ourselves; to bring to mind past suffering; to try to put current irritations to one side. The purpose here is to feel compassion (Karuna) for ourselves.
It then asks us to bring our capacity for joy (Mudita) to the surface and become consciously aware of things that we take for granted that bring us joy such as our family and friends or other simple loves, craft work, walking in the countryside, dancing and singing...whatever brings us joy. Whatever puts a smile on our faces.
The final aspect asks us to look at ourselves with even mindedness and none attachment (upeksha) and to be aware that we are not unique in our joy or suffering, that we all have failings and we all have talents and gifts to offer to the world too.
The purpose of the meditation is to help us better serve one another. By developing our compassionate natures we can love ourselves and then truly love others too.
As the Buddha told his followers
“When your mind is filled with love, send it in one direction, then a second, then a third, and a fourth, then above, then below. Identifying with everything without hatred, resentment, anger or enmity. This mind of love is very wide. It grows immeasurably and eventually is able to embrace the whole world.”
The meditations purpose is self transcendence which will bring us into oneness, into wholeness, with all that is. We do not love ourselves because we are trapped in ourselves and we are trapped in ourselves because we are afraid of the darkness that we see in others, the very same darkness we want to remain hidden within ourselves. We can transcend this though and live open and loving and compassionate lives. When we consciously make the effort to abandon the “me first mentality”, which paradoxically begins by truly loving who we are wholeheartedly, our horizons begin to expand and our fears begin to disappear; the selfish wolf begins to die off and we begin to live the life that we are capable of living. As a result the compassionate wolf just naturally comes to the surface.
The purpose of developing our inner compassion is to unleash our true human potential and to encourage others to do likewise, to be the example. By simply practising the two exercises of balanced self examination and daily meditation on love, we can begin to love ourselves wholeheartedly. Then we can truly love our neighbours as ourselves, by showing them compassion, even if they are not doing so themselves. It is only by feeling genuine compassion for ourselves that we are then capable of genuinely extending it to others.
Having said all of that it is just as important that we remain light hearted about all of this. We need to remember “Rule 62”, not to take ourselves so seriously...we need to lighten up at times. I know I do.
Because life is too serious to be taken too seriously.