May I Be Happy: A Memoir of Love, Yoga, and Changing My Mind
By Cyndi Lee
Dutton Adult 2012; 272 pp., $25.95 (cloth)
Body hatred is suffering.
How many women and men, nationwide, suffer from eating disorders? Why is cosmetic surgery a multibillion-dollar industry? What respite is there from endless media images exhorting us to be thin, beautiful, and youthful?
No one I know has escaped this type of suffering, so one would assume spiritual teachers aren’t immune either. But most teachers aren’t public about it. An exception is Cyndi Lee, in her courageous new book, May I Be Happy. It’s not every day that one of the leaders of the yoga world—in this case, the founder of OM yoga—comes out as having body-image issues. A yoga teacher who hates her body. Huh? It’s about time someone was straight about this. Her willingness to do so takes guts and is an inspiration to the rest of us.
Lee’s journey to “Changing Her Mind,” as the subtitle says, takes us from her self-hating adolescence, her early years in the New York East Village alternative art and dance scenes, and her life as a jet-setting yoga teacher to her current-day search for answers to her health and body fixation, before she settles on metta (loving-kindness) practice, which, in combination with other practices, ultimately transforms her.
Woven throughout the book is the story of her aging mother’s decline, some of the most powerful writing in an occasionally rambling book. I was moved by Lee’s bittersweet compassion and love for her mother, since clearly her mother was a factor in her body struggles.
Though I didn’t connect personally with some of the expert advice she sought, I was impressed by how Lee meets the topic with fearlessness and a determination to heal. Her journey might lead us to ask an important question: Is the dharma the right medicine for these particular cultural and personal maladies—body hatred galore, and more generally, self-judgment and unworthiness?
Historically in Theravada Buddhism (my own practice lineage), the body seems to get a bad rap. We can trace this back to the dominance of a monastic tradition. Monasticism, such as in Burma where I practiced, is infused with patriarchal attitudes such as the inferiority of women, the unworthiness of the body, and the denial of sexuality. It suggests that the Buddha encouraged us to hate this inconvenient bag of flesh and get out of samsara—fast!
But a closer look shows us that throughout the Pali canon, the Buddha exhorted us to find awakening within the body. From the Dhammapada: “They awaken, always wide awake: Gotama’s disciples whose mindfulness, both day and night, is constantly immersed in the body.” Just as the body is a vehicle of awakening, the dharma can, as Lee discovers, be a healing balm. But what if we hate our body? What if our body is too fat or too thin or too saggy or too…?
I suffered in my twenties from comparison, judgment, and perfectionism, and my body was not excluded. When I found Vipassana meditation at twenty-two, I was overjoyed to find that I could concentrate my mind and attain some peace from my periodic bouts of self-hatred. This liberation by seeing through thoughts and emotions, by opening to more and more beautiful states of concentration and understanding, has brought a deeper joy than I’d have ever imagined.
But things would have to crash first, as they did some ten years after my discovery of Vipassana. I was in the midst of a yearlong retreat in the Burmese jungle and came face to face with my belief in my own unworthiness, a belief that I had so carefully pushed away through my meditation practice. If you’re serious about practice, at some point that which needs tending to will emerge. My unworthiness demons arose in full force. The horror of seeing my desperately cultivated emptiness practice fall apart, in combination with unbearable emotions, brought me to a crossroads. I could quit, head to Thailand to numb out on the beach, or face it and try to heal.
What I had to find was my own self-compassion. And this is ultimately what healed Cyndi Lee.
Self-compassion, as defined by scientist Kristin Neff, involves mindfulness, compassion practices, and the recognition of our shared humanity. Neff writes, “Instead of mercilessly judging and criticizing yourself for various inadequacies or shortcomings, self-compassion means you are kind and understanding when confronted with personal failings—after all, who ever said you were supposed to be perfect?”
In Burma I spent hour after hour in intensive self-directed loving-kindness and compassion practices. Vipassana went to the wayside. This was coupled with the understanding that my inherent nature was not flawed or something I had to get out of. (Contrast that with my Theravadin teacher’s daily exhortations to purify my impure nature and get out of samsara immediately.) Instead, I realized that my inherent nature was one of radiance and utter goodness. By connecting with this, everything shifted, in particular my sense of unworthiness. By the time I left the monastery, that chapter had more or less ended.
This unworthiness, the feeling that we are deeply flawed, lies at the heart of body hatred, and dharma practice can bring relief. Lee addresses this, sharing how hard she worked not to take those critical voices in her head so seriously: “That day at the snap of a finger I saw that I had gotten it wrong all those years. I was always getting mad at my body but, in fact, my body has been fine. It’s my relationship to my body that is hurting me and my mind that is the real troublemaker.”
Through determined observation, we can learn to see self-critical voices as just that—voices and our stories arising in our head. We do not have to take them to be “me” or “mine.” I have taught this for years to students, particularly younger women who seem to suffer, on an almost epidemic level, from self-hatred (body and otherwise). Nonidentification is a basic understanding that comes from meditation, but it can be absolutely revolutionary when practiced, internalized, and enacted on the spot to counteract a voice that says, “I hate my thighs” or whatever is the self-loathing du jour.
This observation, often helpfully enhanced by noticing what’s happening in our bodies in the midst of challenging thoughts, is complemented with the practice of self-directed metta. This was Lee’s magic bullet, but I don’t believe she gave the how of the practice the thoroughness it deserves. she simply describes how she learned to direct four metta phrases (“May you be safe / May you be happy / May you be healthy / May you live with ease”) not to others but to herself. And her self-hatred was transformed.
My experience both practicing and teaching self-directed metta is that it’s much more nuanced than Lee describes. It can help, you may find, to slowly repeat metta-related phrases even if they’re in wordings that make sense only to you. It can take work to nail these down; this is more than the mere repetition of canned phrases. In my own practice, I invite creativity: some- times images come, sometimes I engage the practice for myself as a child. Always it is done slowly, with the emphasis on how it feels inside my body. Am I connecting with the feeling of metta? If so, I try to connect viscerally and let it be there and grow. If not—and this is key—I see what gets in the way of opening to more and more love. Usually it’s self-judgment and shame that flood my body, and these are fully revealed. Then I turn my mindfulness to it, tenderly bringing compassion. I say, “What- ever it is I’m feeling, may I hold this too in kindness.”
With persistence, I’ve begun to chip away at my own perceived unloveabilty, my storehouse of metta has begun to grow, and the obstacles to feeling it have dissolved in a greater “ocean of metta.” This is how the practice works for me, and it’s how I teach it. Ultimately, it can transform the very fabric of our being.
So why, if I had that big transformation in Burma in the late ’90s and healed my self-hatred, am I still practicing metta for myself? Well the bad news is that this programming runs deep and requires a lifetime of vigilance. Much of the really crusty and entrenched core unworthiness can get cleared out, but there are always layers upon layers. It just seems to come up again, no matter how hard you work.
When life changes, self-judgment comes up in all-new forms, like the pregnancy weight that doesn’t seem to want to go away, or my most recent battle with wrinkles and aging. Recently it’s been painful to look in the mirror and feel thirty-five-ish inside but see a forty-six-year-old’s face. The level of shame that accompanies this thought stream is not insignificant—and I don’t even have it that bad; I’ve never suffered from an eating disorder, as have so many of my peers. Perhaps the fact that I live in Los Angeles—where a little Botox here and there is seen as good grooming—has reactivated this form of body hatred.
When the shame and comparing and self-judgment rear their ugly heads, my experience tells me to start again. Work with those voices and then turn up the level of metta while reconnecting with your own inner goodness. I turn up my mindfulness to vigilantly catch each self- hating voice: “Oh my god, that wrinkle appeared overnight!” It’s about calming, breathing, remembering the insidious nature of these voices and the fact that the mind states they signify are fleeting. Then I amp up my metta some more, sending it to the deepest recesses of my body shame and hoping it does its magic. Which it seems to do, for a while anyway. And I’m always reconnecting with something way larger than me. Call it buddhanature, innate primordial goodness, or a sense that underneath it all, I’m okay.
The dharma insists it’s possible that we can be liberated in this body, in this lifetime. You don’t have to get outside the body to do it. Instead, it’s about facing our internalized messages and learning to see through them so the body becomes a source of love for ourselves and others, and the vehicle of liberation. Thanks, Cyndi Lee, for bravely paving the way.