Over the past few weeks I’ve been writing and thinking and preaching about love. Love and contempt. Love and sacrifice. Love and attention. I’ve asked us to think deeply about who we love and how we love them. I’ve asked us to think about who we don’t love and why. I’ve asked us to do honest self reflection and to take action. I’ve asked us to reach beyond our comfort zones to do the hard work of learning to love better.
But after all this, there’s one thing still stuck in my mind. One thing that hasn’t been named in all of this exploration. Self love. What happens when our contempt is directed inward? What happens when it’s our own mind, heart, or body that we deem unclean? What happens when we’re unable to make sacrifices for our own health and well-being?
The sad fact is, even if we’re not suffering from full fledged self-hatred, many, if not most of us experience some sort of self-judgement on a daily, or even hourly, basis. As a yoga teacher I spend a great deal of time studying thoughts and the habits of thinking. In my work with yoga students and yoga therapy clients I come alongside people as they explore their own thought patterns. Through the years I’ve noticed some commonalities. Many people feel like they live at the whim of their thoughts. When they start to pay attention to the functioning of their mind they begin to realize that the sensory mind has more control over their actions and feelings then it probably should. And some of the most common thoughts running through their minds are thoughts of self-doubt, self-judgement, anxiety, and fear. We often speak to ourselves—in the privacy of our own inner minds—in ways that we wouldn’t allow others to speak to us. In ways that we would never speak to someone else.
This may be a common experience, but it isn’t something to simply shake off as a normal part of being human. What we think about is important. Because our thoughts, especially the ones we think over and over and over again shape our experience of life and our perception of the world. The Buddha says that “All we are is the result of what we have thought.” What you think about shapes who you are and what you become. I have a voice inside me that I’ve started calling “the mean voice.” The mean voice can be really mean. But let me tell you, for a couple of reasons, she’s a lot less mean than she used to be. First, I let the mean voice out. Please understand me, I’m not being metaphorical here. I literally voiced, out loud, the things the mean voice was saying.
Things can get intense locked inside our minds. But when we bring them out into the light of day we’re able to look at them differently. I’m inviting you into the practice of speaking or writing down your thoughts—verbatim. Next time you notice your mind filled with self-judgement start talking out loud or get out paper and write down what you hear. This process of bringing out the mean voice (or whatever you want to name your inner critic and please do name it, it’s helpful) gives you space to analyze the words without getting lost in them. When our mind is just thinking on autopilot we can forget that we’re not actually our thoughts.
I want to make sure you hear me: You are not your thoughts. Our thoughts are just one part of us. Other parts of us include our stomach and it’s hunger, the weird sensation we feel when we hit our elbow—or funny bone—just right so that we feel the ulnar nerve, the emotion of excitement, the hormone of cortisol pumping through our endocrine system, our eye color, and on and on. We are really interesting and complex creatures and thoughts are absolutely part of who we are. But they are not WHO we are. Yoga sutra 1.4 tells us that we spend most of our time—most of our life—lost in the ever changing movement of our minds. This isn’t good, but it’s especially bad if the ever changing movement of our minds is lost on a loop of self-doubt, self-judgement, anxiety, and fear.
So please, let those thoughts out. Once I forced my mean voice to speak in the real world, I was able to respond differently. And I was able to put the mean voice up against other voices in my life. I’m blessed with an amazing, deeply empathetic best friend and once, when we were in the bathroom together while she was drying her hair, I found the courage to tell her how I talked to myself in my own head. Tears welled up in her eyes, she put the blow dryer down, I think she touched my head or pointed at me or something, and said: “You’re not allowed to talk to my friend like that.”
It was a powerful, transformative moment for me. One that highlights the importance of cultivating relationships in which we can share our vulnerabilities. Because love is always multi-directional. In my practice I’m always trying to love the world better. But through my practice I could see the ways I wasn’t loving myself. With this awareness I continued practicing and eventually I found the courage to admit this lack of love out loud. I continued practicing and was finally able to admit it out loud in public—at least in the public of the bathroom with my best friend. And through this action of articulating pain out loud I was offered love. And through the action of receiving love I was able to create the habit of a new inner voice. A voice that stands guard against the mean voice.
In order to love the world, we have to love ourselves. But in order to love ourselves, we have to love the world. As I said, love is multi-directional. It’s active. It’s a current. And while love is always, already within us, sometimes we have to more intentionally place ourselves within its flow.
Author and minister Wayne Muller wrote:
“All we are, said the Buddha, is a result of what we have thought. He might also have added: All we are is a result of what we have loved. What we love draws us forward and shapes our destiny. Our love teaches us what to look for, where to aim, where to walk. With our every action, word, relationship, and commitment, we slowly and inevitably become what we love.”
This brings me back to the practice of pratipaksa bhavanam—cultivating the opposite. We don’t have control over much in this life, but we do get to decide where our attention goes. So let me be a voice for you, as my friend was a voice for me: You are worthy of love, kindness, and self acceptance. You have permission to tell your inner mean voice it’s not welcome anymore. You have my encouragement to take up the practice of directing your attention toward love. The practice of cultivating self-love instead of self-judgment. The practice of cultivating self-acceptance instead of self-doubt. The practice of cultivating inner faith and trust instead of anxiety and fear. The practice of cultivating connection with the love always, already within you. The divine spark of love that exists as an inner sanctuary within your heart.
Before I go, I want to offer you one concrete way to take up these practices:
- Make a commitment to pay attention. When you notice yourself lost down the rabbit hole of self-judgement, pause and say thank you. Be grateful that you noticed.
- In this pause of gratitude, decide with intention to cultivate something different. Turn your attention toward love. You could turn your attention toward the love you feel for your pet, for a friend, for your partner. For the beauty you see in the tree outside your window. It could even, simply, be for the gratitude you feel for interrupting your habitual thoughts of judgement.
- Take a moment—even just a breath—and choose to direct your attention toward love.
- And then move on with your day. Do this over and over and over again. Because as Wayne Muller said: “Our love teaches us what to look for, where to aim, where to walk. With our every action, word, relationship, and commitment, we slowly and inevitably become what we love.”