November | Stop Telling People to Love Themselves
Article: Rachel Webb / Image: Unknown
An Open Letter to the Spiritual Community:
The first time someone encouraged me to love myself was about ten years ago. I had just entered the yogic and New Age spiritual community. I was a college student living in New York City for the first time. Like many college students, I was propelled by a newly prominent existential fear, and the recognition that my parents and friends had never loved me in the way I wanted them to. I was beginning to turn emotional wounds into the light, recognizing that I would be better without their deep traces. My mind was filled with the confusion and skepticism of adulthood. I was in pain.
Yoga was a dumb liniment. I craved it. I moved my body like a prayer, without knowing why, and felt I was getting closer to some center. I was beginning to connect with myself. But, self-reflection requires remembering.
A teacher read Mary Oliver’s Wild Geese to encourage self-love: “You do not have to be good./You do not have to walk on your knees/For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting./You only have to let the soft animal of your body/love what it loves.”
I tried to do that: be easy on myself, relax, let my desires happen to me. I would close my eyes. I would think, ‘What do I really love?’ Like a reflex, I remembered what the soft animal of my body had led me to do. I had lied to people. I had screamed at lovers in the street. I had judged. I had hurt people close to me. I had revealed their deepest shames with blades of anger. I had hated with the deepest power of annihilation. And I had numbed myself so thoroughly that I couldn’t feel guilt for more than a moment.
I tried to love that part of myself. I thought, “this is what normal people do to heal”. As a result, I oscillated between arrogant pride and deep shame. One moment, I convinced myself that my actions were warranted or excusable— that the brilliance of my passionate nature was above ethics. Another moment, I recognized the impossibility of being both good enough to love and having abused so many people. I felt wretched, weak, disgusting.
I could not love my hatred. I could not love my selfishness. I could not love something that caused pain to others. I did not even want these things as possessions of my memory. I could not understand why spiritual practitioners would encourage such a fallacy. It seemed either lazy or stupid to embrace wrongdoing. I wanted to be good. I wasn’t afraid to work hard and I intuitively refused to excuse or embrace my own vitriol.
A few years later, when I began to study Buddhism, I found an answer that was both logical and compassionate, that I have not yet been able to defeat with skepticism. Though found in Je Tsongkhapa’s Three Principle Paths, one will find this truth saturating any scripture in the Madyamika Prasangika school of Buddhism, or implicitly in any Buddhist teaching, if you know where to look.
My answer to self-love was one of the tripartite vehicle that is at the essence of the entire scope of Mahayana (Greater Way) teachings: the Buddha jewel. At any Buddhist teaching or ceremony, monks and nuns and laypractitioners will recite a prayer of refuge in the Three Jewels in recognition of their power to bring one to a place of the highest spiritual potential, and a place of complete bliss. The Three Jewels are: the Buddha Jewel, the Dharma Jewel and the Sangha Jewel.
The Buddha jewel is not the Buddha. Buddha nature is not a tiny Buddha living somewhere in the center of your heart or brain waiting to be unobscured. The Buddha jewel, also known as 'Buddha nature' is the quality of the Buddha’s mind, which is the same quality our own minds possess. This quality is emptiness.
The emptiness of the mind (ours, the Buddha's) is its ability to be any kind of mind at all. Its emptiness is that it can change. It can be a stupid mind that evolves into an evil mind. An animal mind that evolves into the mind of a saint. The mind of a demon. The mind of a human. This emptiness is what allowed Sakyamuni Buddha, the Buddha that first spoke the truth of Buddhism, to go from a human to a Buddha’s mind in the same lifetime. Our minds are changeable in the exact same way. Now, we are unenlightened. The mind is changeable, so enlightenment is completely possible. This is the Buddha jewel. This is our Buddha nature. This is the unchangeable, untarnished aspect of our mind which we can love purely, without guilt.
It is a waste of time on the spiritual journey to work to embrace imperfections, or to cultivate a dull faultlessness about aspects of ourselves which are not perfect. Direct that energy instead toward the complete recognition of your Buddha nature; the fact that you can become an entirely perfect being simply because you have a mind, regardless of how the mind looks to you now. Then, begin to train the mind.
When a beginner musician purchases a great, expensive, sensitive instrument, they cannot quite use it properly. They cannot yet make it sing to the height of its beauty, but they treasure it for its capacity, and treat it with reverence and care. A sour note does not make this instrument less desirable— it simply reflects on the student’s level of expertise. So too should we treat our own minds and bodies, knowing that once we have understood how to perfectly utilize them, they will produce something so profound it is beyond conception. Each mistake becomes lesson in getting closer to perfection until there are no more mistakes, no more false notes or sour chords. We must simply learn to play.
Recounting tales of mahasiddhas with impressive powers, my teacher said to me that these achievements, ecstatic experiences, and attributes of limitless love and wisdom are not only for the beings in the books. They are for us, in this lifetime.
This love, then, is not for the “self.” That would be missing the point. The self is simply a ever-changing encasement for the truly lovable thing: Buddha nature. Instead, I love that I am wisdom’s perfect instrument. I love that I am love’s perfect instrument. There is nothing my yet unskilled self can do to diminish this love because it is beyond the self. It is not for the self. This applies as equally to my self as it does to yours. All this being said: you can love you now.
Rachel is a yoga instructor and meditation teacher at Three Jewels specializing in Lady Niguma yoga, a subtle body practice that is over 1,000 years old. Rachel is a dedicated dharma student of Three Jewels President Hector Marcel, and receives dharma and yoga training from Coco Korniczky. She credits any wisdom you may receive to these teachers and their teachers who have never given up on her. Rachel also assists in running marketing and social media platforms for Three Jewels. She is lover and feeder of feral Brooklyn cats in her spare time.