Making friends with yourself is the ground, path, and fruition of Buddhist meditation, says Judy Lief. It starts by dropping your mask and looking at the real you with honesty and love.
What do we really know about ourselves? Sometimes it feels as if all day long we are switching between various masks. It’s as though we are always trying to be someone. We do a lot of pretending.
We might put on the mask of the hard worker, or the slacker. We might switch to our sociable mask, or the “I am an interesting person” one. Perhaps we then go to the “I look intelligent” one, or the “I am pretending to be interested” one. There are so many choices. We are expected — or expect ourselves — to be a certain way and that is the mask we put on. We need to look the part.
Our participation in this game of appearances can become so second nature to us that we hardly notice it. But occasionally we ask ourselves, which of these is the real me? Apart from all these appearances, who am I really? Do I actually know? We might wonder, do I really want to know? We are afraid of what we might find out.
According to my teacher, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, making friends with ourselves is at the very core of meditation practice, from beginning to end and all the way through. It is both the basis and the goal of the path. But aren’t we already too full of ourselves, you might ask? Don’t we need to cut down our self-focus instead of building it up? Aren’t we already friends with ourselves? After all, thoughts about I, me, and mine are pretty much all that occupies our minds.
The path of friendship Trungpa Rinpoche referred to is very different from this. It is a journey to truly knowing ourselves, rather than building ourselves up.
Many of us suffer from a kind of low-grade fever of self-doubt. We feel that apart from all those roles we play, we are of little value. We feel that deep down we are unworthy, so we engage in a constant game of trying to convince ourselves otherwise. We try to look the right way, say the right words, be with the right people, do the right things.
Because of our inner poverty mentality and self-doubt, we need constant reassurance. People like me, so I must be worthy. I am a good student, so I must be okay. I have a lot of success, so I must be worthy, even special. But our feeling of hollowness doesn’t go away.
Some people think the answer to this is to build people up, praising them for every little thing, and trying to convince them that they are good. The idea is that if we keep hearing that we are okay, we will begin to believe it.
This approach is a good starting point, and it is certainly better than always hearing about how bad we are. The problem is that it can lead to a situation where on top of feeling bad about ourselves, we also have the pressure of trying to feel good, or at least pretending to.
Basically, no matter how skillful we are at juggling our various masks, the juggling act is fundamentally dissatisfying. There are masks we like and those we don’t, but as to the mask wearer—who we are beneath all that—we are clueless.
Strangely, although you are your most intimate companion, you are in some ways the most hidden from yourself. So the process of making friends with yourself goes hand in hand with getting to know yourself at a deeper level. To truly make friends with yourself, you need to go through a process of getting to know this mask wearer—the one without any mask.
The journey of truly making friends with yourself is quite a radical one. It goes beyond simply feeling good about yourself, and it is not based on convincing yourself of anything or being convinced of anything by others.
This journey of deep friendship does not rely on credentials or affirmations, but on a tender step-by-step process of opening. It’s not as if you finally figure yourself out and that’s it. This deepening of self-knowledge and friendship continues. It is a natural unfolding. Here is how it happens on the path of meditation.
As Trungpa Rinpoche said, friendship with yourself is both the basis and goal of meditation practice. Here is how it unfolds according to the traditional Buddhist logic of ground, path, and fruition.
1. The Ground: A Glimpse of Possibility
You start your journey to this kind of friendship the moment you first decide to meditate. Something has inspired you to remove yourself for periods of time from the everyday world, where there is so much pressure to constantly prove yourself to others and yourself. You have made the choice to see what it is like to sit simply and alone with nothing to do and no one to impress.
This step is all about curiosity, inquisitiveness, and the longing to meet yourself at a deeper level. It is based on a suspicion—or even a glimpse of inner knowing—that what you discover will be reliable, true, genuine, and worthy.
In meditation practice, we pare everything down to our immediate, moment-to-moment experience. We learn how to rest simply and be open to whatever arises in our minds. We are given just a few basic guidelines. We are told to observe whatever arises without judgment, not clinging to what we prefer or pushing away what we dislike. We are taught how our thoughts capture us, and how we can simply let them come and go like clouds in the sky. We are encouraged to be steady as our emotional states rise and fall, rather than being jerked up and down by every passing mood.
In short, we are encouraged to take a fresh look at our experience. In the context of making friends with yourself, starting fresh means that you drop your ideas of who you are or who you should be and just look. (You could also try this approach when you meet a new acquaintance—pause for a moment, instead of instantly sizing them up, and try to see that person with fresh eyes.)
There is a quality of tenderness in meditation practice. It is as though a mental window opens and you catch a glimpse of something trustworthy and good within yourself. That glimpse awakens a longing within you. You know you have discovered something valuable and you want to figure out how to go further with it. You realize that you have tapped into an inner dynamism or force for growth.
Although you might have many such glimpses, they usually are not all that stable. They tend to be not only brief but subtle, and because such glimpses are not all that graspable, self-doubt easily creeps back in. You are pretty sure you are onto something good, but maybe it’s too good to be true. At the same time, without your familiar masks and credentials, you feel a bit naked and groundless.
2. The Path: Knowing, Accepting, Loving
We began with a sense of our potential. Something very positive has provided our initial inspiration and gotten us started. It has awakened our innate instinct to grow.
That positive vision has provided the ground, but it has also shaken things up. That glimpse of our potential has made it painfully evident how much we have shortchanged ourselves. The way our minds work is by opposites and contrast—good-bad, up-down, in-out, etc.—so glimpses of wholesomeness simultaneously provide glimpses of the opposite. They heighten our feelings of self-doubt, confusion, and lack of genuineness. That poignant contrast is where the real work of friendship begins.
As we practice, we uncover our layers and layers of ideas about ourselves. We uncover memories and hidden corners of our experience. We begin to come up against the limits of our love and friendship for ourselves, and for others as well. It is clear that we habitually compartmentalize ourselves, accepting some aspects of our experience and rejecting others. Some parts of us are so well hidden away that we can pretend they are not there at all.
What friendship we have at this level is quite feeble. It relies on keeping up firewalls to prevent what we dislike or even hate about ourselves from creeping in. Friendship is reduced to a matter of like and dislike.
As we see this in ourselves, we also begin to see the limited nature of our friendship with others. It might seem as if the way to cultivate greater friendship with ourselves, and in turn with others, would be to get rid of as many bad parts as possible. What is left is acceptable and good—it is friend-worthy. We think that if we edit out all our unworthy parts, it will solve the problem. But the real friendship we cultivate in meditation practice is not a matter of like or dislike, and it is not based on getting rid of anything.
Halfhearted friendship is quite fragile. We need to be on the defensive all the time. When we place all sorts of conditions on what or who is worthy of our love and friendship, our love easily flips into disappointment—or even hate—when those conditions are not met.
The challenge of the path of meditation is to continually expand the bounds of our heart, the bounds of our love and friendship. We start with ourselves. By resting simply and looking inside, we touch in with what we actually feel about ourselves.
We come up against our fear of opening up to the whole of our experience. We come up against our embarrassment and feelings of unworthiness or inadequacy. We also come up against our incredible arrogance, which is another manifestation of our fear. And by taking an honest look at the kinds of thoughts and feelings we have, we learn a lot about the limits we place on our friendship with others.
All along the way, the meditative path is one of greater opening and acceptance. We are learning to accept and befriend not just the parts we like, but the parts of ourselves we dislike as well. Sometimes we identify with only our acceptable side, with our successes, and at other times we identify with our flaws and failures. We buy into our thoughts of the moment. But as our meditation practice progresses, we start to touch in more with the mind that sees both sides. We begin to identify with the seeing itself, the observer of our stream of thoughts and opinions. Rather than latching onto one part of us as an identity to cling to, we find we do not need to fixate on either extreme. We learn not to fixate on being one way or another. We are all those things, and our experience is constantly in flux.
Of course, there will always be aspects of ourselves we like and those we dislike, aspects we are proud of and other aspects we are ashamed of. But the more clearly we come to know all these aspects, the more we are able to relax a bit. Instead of seeing so much of who we are as a threat to who we think we should be, we begin to see all of it simply as what we have to work with.
It is as if we are coming out of battle mode and declaring a truce, or signing a peace treaty. We don’t have to fight with ourselves anymore. As we continue with meditation practice and become more familiar with our extremes of thought and feeling, we begin to appreciate the whole spectrum. In fact, we may discover that our failures and flaws are more powerful teachers than our successes.
The benefit of sitting practice is that the more we stay with our experience, without overthinking it or trying to fix anything, the clearer we become about our strengths and weaknesses, our accomplishments and failures, our obstacles and our breakthroughs. Both aspects are challenging. As we begin to sense the extent of our potential as human beings, and how far we could go with our practice and our life, it is almost overwhelming. At the same time, we begin to feel in our guts the terrible burden we carry because of our fixed views and habits.
As we get more familiar with our patterns, we see that we can’t just sweep them all under the rug. The process works like this: we begin to accept the way things are, and as soon as we do that, we take one step further, from mere acceptance to profound appreciation. The more aspects of ourselves we know and accept, the freer we feel. The more that is out in the open, the less threatened we feel. The less we have to hide, the more relaxed and loving we become.
Coming to appreciate ourselves in this way doesn’t mean we become complacent or lackadaisical. Accepting our extremes doesn’t mean that we can’t make decisions about what is beneficial and what is harmful. In fact, we become less fuzzy about what uplifts us and what drags us down. But we don’t take it all that personally. It is just information. It can help us decide what to avoid and what to cultivate on the path and in our life altogether. Now, when we act, we do so from a realistic perspective and from a feeling of warmth and friendship.
Meditation practice is almost like a courtship with ourselves. Through sitting practice, we learn to relax and become less defensive. Every so often, we forget to maintain our facade for a moment, and to our surprise our world does not fall apart. Instead, we make discoveries and experience breakthroughs. It is hard to cut through our fantasies and take a realistic look at ourselves, but it is also a big relief. There is something very enjoyable about the whole process. We find that the more aspects of ourselves we welcome and invite in, the lighter we feel. The burden of self-protection is a heavy one, and it feels good to let it go. We are more likeable without it.
3. Fruition: Friendship with Yourself, Love for Other Beings
There is no particular end point to the process of making friends with yourself. But there is spillover: each time you accept and open your heart to yourself in all your flawed glory, you become a bit more open to those around you. As you develop a base of friendship with yourself, the quality of your meditation practice, as well as of your daily life, changes for the better. Your mindfulness practice begins to be warmed by tenderness.
It is as though a deeper quality of love is out there, just waiting for an opening, and as soon as you extend even a tiny invitation, it comes streaming in. In meditation practice, you are simultaneously taming the mind and opening the heart. It is so simple and natural: from interest comes knowing, from knowing comes acceptance, and from acceptance comes love.