Melvin McLeod’s editorial from the March 2011 issue of the Shambhala Sun.
We are honored to feature in this issue three of the most important spiritual voices of our time, Thich Nhat Hanh, Pema Chödrön, and Karen Armstrong. What amazes me is that their basic message is the same: Love thyself.
That’s not something we hear often. Indulge yourself, improve yourself, entertain yourself, make something of yourself, feel good about yourself—these are the messages we’ve been hearing since childhood from parents, churches, advertising, and indeed ourselves, because we’ve all internalized the message that there’s something wrong inside that we need to fix, feed, or cover over. Be a friend to yourself, as you are and without conditions—that we’re not told. Yet these three great spiritual thinkers say that’s where we have to start if we want to be happy, have good relationships with others, and create the human society we all aspire to. It begins that simply: Love thyself.
Of course, love has many different flavors. For Thich Nhat Hanh, it is the tender love of a mother. For Pema Chödrön, it is the honest love of a true friend. For Karen Armstrong, it is the wise and universal love of a sage.
Thich Nhat Hanh invokes a mother’s love in a way that will surely touch your heart—its tenderness, its unconditionality, its instinctive and immediate caring. We must be like that mother, he says, toward the hurts, fears, and vulnerabilities of childhood still within us. The program of healing he recommends, one of love and mindfulness, applies the best of traditional Buddhist psychology to the wounds of the modern Western psyche.
While a mother’s love is comforting and reassuring, a friend’s love may have a sharper quality. Friends look honestly at our faults and love us nonetheless. They give us what we really need, without indulging our games or self-deception.
I have always felt that Pema Chödrön is such a friend to us. Her teachings come from love and acceptance, yet they’re tough-minded and challenging, and the path she shows us is exactly what we need. It starts with what’s called maitri in the Buddhist tradition—unconditional friendship toward yourself.
It sounds so simple: love and friendship. But there’s a catch. You have to make friends with yourself as you are. Not as you imagine you are. Not as you’d like to be. Like a true friend, you need the courage to see the good and the bad, the love and the pain, the whole messy package. Loving yourself is an all or nothing proposition.
Of course, it wouldn’t be worth going through this if all we discovered in the end was some sort of original sin—that we are basically flawed as human beings. But what we actually discover is our basic goodness, or buddhanature. When we are willing to look at ourselves with both honesty and acceptance, when we smile at the fear that cuts us off from ourselves, we discover a more basic, and yet all the more human, way of being. A loving heart that is both sad and tender. A mind that is awake and clear. A new energy that is positive and strong. We were afraid of what we’d discover when we made friends with ourselves, but to our surprise, this is the friend we meet.
Finally, how can we love and help others if we can’t love and help ourselves? The sage’s love connects the personal and the universal. In this issue, the religious historian Karen Armstrong challenges us to think more deeply about the Golden Rule. She argues cogently that the Golden Rule is the basic spiritual teaching and the most important organizing principle of a good human society. Yet often it becomes another stick to beat ourselves with, another way to feel bad about ourselves.
To do unto others as you would have them do unto you, you must first understand and honor your own needs—the joy, love, fairness, and caring that you, and therefore others, deserve. Yes, the Golden Rule says we shouldn’t put our happiness first. But it doesn’t say we should put it last, either. You are not less deserving of happiness than others, just not more deserving, contrary to what ego is always telling us. And as Armstrong points out, when we see that the happiness of each and every being is equally important, another surprising thing happens: that troublesome ego dissolves. It turns out that the remedy to self-centeredness is not self-abnegation. Nothing good ever came out of that.