Our lives lead us through many different stages. Some stages of our lives can feel easy and effortless. Others can feel tinged with conflict, difficulty, or unexpected change. While we can often find states of grace in the expansive, heady times, it can be difficult to find our own goodness when life takes a turn.
The most challenging part, for most of us, is that we get afraid. We treat our pain as an adversary. We try to outthink it, outmaneuver it, or numb it out. We can try to distract ourselves with food, sex, alcohol, drugs or entertainment. We can even use uncomfortable, yet familiar, feelings like shame, blame, or guilt to move away from deeper feelings that we cannot yet fathom.
Our brains are wired to survive. Moving away from pain is instinctive. Something in the primal part of our brains says, “Run for cover!” And, so we do.
Yet, our main conflicts, as difficult as they are, are often not about bare-bones survival. If we’re honest, we can see that most of our struggle is about love- our want of it, the loss of it, the denial of it- and all of its accompanying feelings- anger, fear, grief, desire, and longing.
Our minds are wonderful, but when harnessed to survival, they simply turn the problem over, creating feelings of separation and loss. In our state of incompleteness our lives and our relationships become objects- treated as problems to solve.
How can we grapple with ourselves and our minds when so much in us has been trained to disengage, find fantasy, or create false or temporary solutions? Turning the problem over creates agitation, dissatisfaction and feelings of loss. In an attempt to move away from pain, we inadvertently create more suffering.
So, now what? Our minds are not the solution. Then, what is?
Making Friends with Yourself
The Buddhist nun, Pema Chodron, in her talk titled, “Smile at Fear”, says, “The path of fearlessness is genuineness. (The path is)…to not be afraid of ourselves. Our friendship with ourselves can become more unconditional. We can cultivate unconditional love for ourselves.”1
But how do we do this? How do we stick with ourselves especially when we have a deep fear or tremendous feelings of anxiety?
Chodron answers, “The way I look at myself is one way to do it. The other tool is meditation on self. Meditation presents a way of being with yourself in a genuine way and not faking it… being able to look at yourself more deeply. When you face yourself and face your fear and get to know it …get to know how you run away from it…to the degree that you get to be friends with yourself -to the degree that you get to be kind to yourself and trust your potential …When you turn toward your fear, you don’t right away discover courage. Instead what you discover is shaky, tender vulnerability.”1
She writes further in her book, When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times:
When things are shaky and nothing is working, we might realize that we are on the verge of something. We might realize that this is a vulnerable and tender place. We can shut down and feel resentful or we can touch in on that throbbing quality (9).2
Under the hardness of our armor is the tenderness of genuine sadness. This is our link to all those who have ever loved. This genuine heart of sadness can teach us great compassion. It can humble us when we’re arrogant and soften us when we are unkind. It awakens us when we prefer to sleep and pierces through our indifference. This awakening of the heart is a blessing that when accepted fully can be shared with all (2).3
Chodron speaks about grief and loss as a gift. When we accept ourselves in these places of difficulty, when we turn in to our pain, the heart comes alive. Through this little opening, a whole world rushes in.
A Moment of Kindness
If you take a moment, you may find that kindness is available now. It may feel strange to offer yourself kindness when what you are really feeling is anger, strife, anxiety or hopelessness, but it is possible. See you if you can try it on for just one moment. This may feel awkward, but even feelings like awkwardness, resistance or frustration can be met by your own watchfulness and curiosity. Try it!
Start by breathing deeply, noticing your breath. Allow yourself to really notice your in-breath. Allow yourself to really notice your out-breath. Breathe deeply in; breathe deeply out. Try it again. Breathe deeply in. Breathe deeply out. Do this for a few breaths, just noticing. You may notice ripples of feelings, pulsations in the body, areas of ease, areas of discomfort. Just notice. Thoughts may arise. Let them. Imagine your thoughts as clouds drifting through the sky. Let them float by. See if you can let them come and, then, let them go. Breathe in; breathe out. Breathe in; breathe out. Allow yourself this simple time. A few breaths right here, right now.
If this is all you do- noticing yourself and your breath-, bless you! Notice how this simple practice- just a few breaths- can allow something new.
Sometimes, in order to be a friend to ourselves, guiding words are also helpful. The words below help to quiet our more vigilant thoughts and put us in a place of tenderness and care.
May I be filled with loving kindness.
May I be safe from all harm.
May I be healthy in body and mind.
May I be full of ease.
May I be happy.
As you repeat these phrases, call them into your depths. You can call yourself to remember your sweetness as a child- open, playful, and receptive. You can imagine that these words can touch difficult places inside- the aches you may carry in your body, the tight and rigid places you may have in your muscles, the numb or jagged places you may have in your emotions. “May I be filled (breathe in). With loving kindness (breathe out). May I be safe (breathe in). From all harm (breathe out). May I be healthy (breathe in). In body and mind (breathe out). May I be full of ease (breathe in). May I be happy (breathe out).
Notice again, how these moments can create little openings inside. It isn’t always about soothing or removing a difficult feeling. You may continue to feel agitated, angry, or anxious. Yet, in these little moments, you step into a new alignment. You have agreed to something new. In these moments, you have agreed to treat yourself with kindness and care.
These little moments can be a doorway; a passage; your way back home.
1 Chödrön, Pema. “Smile at Fear- Living from the Heart.” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 12 Dec 2009.
2 Chödrön, Pema. When things fall apart: heart advice for difficult times. Boston: Shambhala :, 1997. Print.
3 Chödrön, Pema. The places that scare you: a guide to fearlessness in difficult times. Boston [u.a.: Shambhala, 2001. Print.