“Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.” Rumi
If you are like me, you struggle with feeling like you are enough. You struggle with feeling broken and like you’ve messed up your life, even if your life looks neat on the outside. To take the power away from those feelings, you must tell yourself that it is okay to not be okay. That is the first step in stoking the flames of your inner kindness and love.
“If you suppress or disown parts of yourself, feeling bad about who you are can easily follow, with the sense that there are nasty, weak, shameful, or unlovable things inside you. It may feel uneasy and tense to keep so much at bay. We end up playing small around others to keep them away from all that we cannot accept about ourselves. “ Rick Hanson
After being rejected by my friend in 7th grade, I played small around others to keep them from seeing a nonexistent flaw I had that would make anyone who saw it reject me. Although I could not articulate what it was, I felt there was something wrong with me. This got confirmed when I got divorced. So instead of reaching out for support, I withdrew and never saw the hands reaching out to help me.
In both of those cases, I started the relationship being who I thought they wanted me to be. In 7th grade, the shy girl who would go along with whatever my friend wanted to do. When I started coming out of my shell, and showing my sense of humor, I was beginning to take some of the spotlight off my friend. Thus, she said I no longer fit. I was no longer who she wanted me to be.
When dating and married to my ex, I tried to be as Jackson Browne would say, “the picture of someone you were hoping I might be.” I tried to be more outgoing, to enjoy going out to the bars, to be into music. And I did so for many years. It wasn’t until after I had kids that I didn’t have the energy to continue to be that person. My exhaustion allowed me to begin to see more of who I was.
“The best way to be more of who you are is to understand it’s already inside you. It’s there. It’s just that in order to get there, you have to stop being who you’re not. Stop trying to eradicate what’s “wrong” with you. That’s never the solution.” Katherine Morgan Schafler
It is hard for a people-pleaser to stop being who you’re not. You want to make people happy. You want them to like you. You assume that they won’t like who you truly are. So, we don our mask to hide who we really are. But we don’t need the mask, we just need to develop relationships with the people who accept us as we are.
“Donning masks to hide the pain of unmet needs and to defend our vulnerability, we further narrow our sense of who we are. We wear the disguise of “busy important person,” “angry victim,” “deficient person,” or “obsessed, addicted person.” Tara Brach
“Inner strengths are the supplies you’ve got in your pack as you make your way down the twisting and often hard road of life. They include a positive mood, common sense, integrity, inner peace, determination, and a warm heart. … On average, about a third of a person’s strengths are innate, built into his or her genetically based temperament, talents, mood, and personality. The other two-thirds are developed over time. You get them by growing them.” Rick Hanson
Life won’t get easier, but with more inner strength, you can handle it. We often lie to ourselves by saying as soon as this is over, life will get better. But we know something else will always come up. Our inner strength fuels our ability to handle hard. We need to tell ourselves, “You can do this hard thing.”
My inability to face my vulnerabilities made it near impossible to practice self-compassion or loving kindness for myself. I projected a carefully curated image of being knowledgeable, competent, even keeled and most important of all need free. I didn’t need anything (even if I really did.) There was no room for my needs or negative emotions to get in the way. I swept any negative emotion or problem I could not immediately fix under the carpet. Often this was done unconsciously, yet it consumed a lot of energy.
Shaping Our Brain
Our brains are shaped by where we rest our attention, whether it is our conscious or unconscious thoughts. If we continue to rest them on what is wrong with us, our brain will be shaped into greater reactivity, anxiety, anger or sadness. If we rest our attention on the good within us, our brain will take a different shape, one with strength and resilience hardwired into it.
Love and understanding are not things we are born with. They are the result of how we use our minds and how we practice. We can choose to train our minds to truly love by understanding ourselves and others. Or we can allow our stories and habit energies to make us feel separate, alone and in need of defending ourselves.
“True love is generated from within. It is not bound up in things being a certain way. You need to stoke the flames of love and kindness hidden deep within you.” Gloria Green
True love includes accepting yourself and others as they are now, with all their strengths and weaknesses. On his podcast, Ten Percent Happier, I heard Dan Harris say that:
“Love is our evolutionary capacity to give a shit. It is our ability to cooperate, communicate and connect. If you ignore this, it is at your own peril.” Dan Harris
True love can only grow on this ground of understanding. Understanding ourselves and understanding others. Mindfulness meditation slows us down so that we can see what is needed for happiness and what causes suffering. When we practice, we can see how much peace, happiness, and lightness we have as well as how much anger, irritation, fear, or anxiety are in us. As we become aware of the feelings in us, our self-understanding will deepen. We see how our fears and lack of peace contribute to our unhappiness. Then we see the value of understanding the ones we love.
Nourishing love is a lifelong kindness practice. The more you practice, the more you see your love grow. Kindness practice counteracts the loneliness and sense of separation that comes from not feeling connected to other people.
You may start by simply changing your self-talk. Instead of saying:
- “I am not good enough,” say, “Wow, my inner critic is very active today.”
- “I’m so selfish.” say “I’ve given all that I am willing to give today.”
- “I’m so lazy.” say, “I am tired and am allowed to rest today.”
While you are learning kindness, it may be easiest to practice in formal meditation sessions. However, kindness can be practiced anywhere. You can use this meditation in traffic jams, in buses, in stores, at work and on airplanes. You can use it at any time to calm your mind and keep you connected to your heart. The practice focuses on the feeling, often using phrases of well-wishing to invoke the feeling.
Stoking the Flames of Loving Kindness Meditation
Ajahn Brahm suggests we use starting a campfire as a simile for cultivating love in our hearts. The campfire starts with paper, your loving kindness practice will start with a puppy, baby or other imaginary creature that invokes the feeling of love. Simply feel that feeling of unconditional love. It is already in you but may be blocked by that brick wall you erected to keep yourself safe.
After the first flames of loving kindness have been established, let go of your imaginary creature and put in its place a real person, someone very close to you emotionally such as your partner, a well-loved one, or even your very best friend. Choose someone for whom it is easy to generate and sustain loving-kindness. In the metaphor of the campfire, they will be the thin pieces of wood called kindling. Feel the unconditional love. If the flame dies down, add more paper (go back to your imaginary creature).
Let go of the image of that person and substitute that of another close acquaintance, creating the feeling of loving kindness around them by using your inner speech in the same way: “May you live in happiness…” Imagine them right before you until your loving kindness glows bright and constant around them.
Next substitute a neutral person, perhaps someone you see often but don’t know. Develop the caring glow of loving kindness around them in the same way: “May you be well and happy…” In the simile of the campfire, you are now putting on the logs.
The fire is now roaring and very hot and can now burn the wet and sappy logs. Think about someone you find very difficult. You are now able to share the healing golden glow of loving-kindness with them as well: “May you learn the way to true happiness. May you hold your fears with compassion and care.” When the fire of loving kindness burns strong, nothing can withstand it.
Next, there is one final “wet and sappy stick” to be tossed into the fire of loving kindness. Most meditators find that the hardest person to give loving-kindness to is themselves. Over time, you will find that practicing loving kindness has a softening effect on your heart. It evokes feelings of love, tenderness, and warmth. However, softening of the heart can expose difficult or painful buried emotions. If that is the case, bring your focus back to your imaginary creature to strengthen your loving kindness muscle.
Stoking the Flames of Selfless Love
Kindness meditation can help us to develop a selfless love. It does so by developing the quality of ‘loving acceptance’. Kindness meditation acts like self-psychotherapy, a way of releasing our troubled mind from its pain and confusion. It has the immediate benefit of sweetening and changing old habituated negative patterns of mind. But that only happens if we do kindness meditation for ourselves.
By doing kindness for ourselves, we develop a calm mind, a mind free from anger, greed and jealousy. Only in the fertile ground of a peaceful mind can love flower. If we calm our mind, even if we don’t feel loving, the practice will work anyway. If you keep doing it, staying with the intention, repeating the phrases and making a connection with yourself, it will inevitably work. We set the intention to be better friends to ourselves and to others, by realizing that we all want to be happy and free of suffering. We stoke the flames of love and kindness already within us.