If we have the courage to look at ourselves honestly, we see both our flaws and our basic goodness, known in the Buddhist tradition as our buddhanature. This, says Carolyn Rose Gimian, is the ground for truly loving others.
Dissatisfaction : Mick Jagger and Keith Richards wrote a song about it: “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” What we want is just out of sight, just out of reach, but always in mind. We say to ourselves: I would be just fine if… If the internet were working, if I could just find someone to clean up the yard, if my partner weren’t so preoccupied with work, if my job were more interesting, if I could lose that ten pounds, if the weather were better, if I had more money. If, if, if!
Now, let’s say your plump fairy godmother arrives in a poof of light and fixes everything for you: the internet works at blazing speed; an organic gardener appears and offers to rake your leaves; your partner decides to forget about work and take you to Paris; you are offered an exciting promotion; you not only lose the weight but your metabolism changes and now you can eat whatever you want… yada, yada, yada. Are you satisfied now? Well, are you? I didn’t think so.
Your dissatisfaction, however, is good news. It’s the best news, actually. If you’re still dissatisfied, even when you get what you think you want, it’s possible that it will dawn on you that you aren’t going to find fulfillment purely by changing things outside of yourself, or even by changing something in yourself. If you have an inkling that there is something ultimately futile in your search for ultimate satisfaction, then it may occur to you that you need to make friends with your life as it is and with yourself as you are. This kind of friendship is based on openness, honesty, and acceptance. It is about unconditional friendship.
Unconditional friendship with ourselves ultimately affects our friendships with others, allowing us to open genuinely to them. But it begins by unlocking warmth and tenderness in ourselves, for ourselves.
A friendship with yourself that is without conditions means that you are truly comfortable in your own skin, regardless of the circumstances. A lot of the time, you might feel that you’re already comfortable with yourself. What happens, though, if you’re left alone in a room for a long time, with no phone, nothing to read and nothing to do, and no idea when you might get out of there? Maybe you begin to realize that you’re not comfortable being with yourself. You may feel anxious, frightened, or irritated; you may fall asleep or go a little bonkers. There is an analogy often used in the Buddhist tradition of the experience of ego being like a monkey caught in an empty house. The egomaniacal monkey is almost literally bouncing off the walls, feeling hemmed in, and trying to get out. He thinks he’s a prisoner in the house and has no idea that he’s created this prison. He also has no idea that he’s really okay, just as he is.
You and I may not be so different from Mr. Monkey. We spend a lot of time in our lives trying to be sure we don’t get stuck or trying to get unstuck. We try to make sure that we don’t end up alone in that empty room, metaphorically speaking. We fill up the space with activities, appointments, fantasies, ambitions, projects. Especially in this speedy, wired world of ours, we’re uncomfortable with too much space or silence.
Many of us thoroughly modem monkeys have a smart phone, high-speed internet, and a tablet computer. With so many gadgets and things to google, simplicity may not seem like much of a virtue. But making friends with yourself isn’t about being a Luddite monkey. We live in the world as it is, and it includes technology and devices. That said, making friends with yourself is about creating some space in life, allowing yourself to settle down in that empty space and see what comes up. It is the recognition that we are already familiar with that vacant room— that ifs a natural environment rather than something imposed on us, and ifs a good place to begin. It may sound, at first, off-putting or quite boring to settle down with yourself without any entertainment.
However, it is worthwhile, for despite all the entertainment, promotions, and bling she can get, the monkey is still lonely.
She’s a very sad little monkey, when it comes right down to it. She would like to have some real contact with the world, maybe even a mate. It may seem like she’s totally in touch with the world, given all that paraphernalia and all those things to do. But the monkey somehow still feels empty and alone. In this situation, you might ask yourself, “I don’t just want to text my mate, do I? Don’t I want to actually kiss my mate? But how am I going to truly befriend someone else if I don’t befriend myself first?”
There are various opportunities to make friends with yourself. Almost all of them involve a gap in your daily life, something that seems out of the ordinary. Many of them involve silence and solitude of some kind. So, once again, we may find ourselves in that empty room. But instead of fighting with the space, which just solidifies it, we explore it. To do this, we use a mechanism such as the sitting practice of meditation. This is a powerful means to get to know yourself, to introduce yourself to yourself. Meditation is a discipline, a technique to transcend technique. You sit down on a cushion or a chair and simply experience yourself: your body, your breath, and your thoughts. You just be there, very simply.
There are several aspects to meditation that are part of establishing friendship with yourself. One is mindfulness. Mindfulness is keeping track, or keeping a pulse, of being there, in a nonjudg- mental way. There is no good or bad. Everything is allowed to be. Among other things, mindfulness is a stabilizing or pacifying influence. The panic of everyday life and every expectation laid on life can subside. This is a huge relief. It is called the discovery of peace.
Finding peace in the practice of meditation involves slowing down. Physically, you call a halt. You park your body somewhere, and you stay put. Your mind may continue to race for a while, maybe for a long time, but you become aware of the mind racing. Awareness is being in a bigger space, recognizing that there is always an environment around our thoughts and feelings. When you begin to sense that atmosphere, there is both intelligence, or sharpness, and relaxation. You begin to see things much more precisely and your native intelligence begins to awaken.
Becoming more aware is a very courageous thing to do. You allow yourself to look honestly at your experience. And that solid sense of self— of who you are—is revealed as being not so solid. You begin to experience gaps, holes in your suit of armor. You realize that you are really more like Swiss cheese than Cheddar.
When you are there, just there, without trying to hold everything solidly together, you also begin to find that you don’t need to sustain a storyline about yourself and your life. Who is it for anyway? You can afford to relax with yourself, get to know yourself. You don’t have to put on makeup for yourself; you don’t have to put on a smile. You can leave the mental toupee on the shelf and like yourself just as you are.
There is something genuinely good about being you. You may not like every little thing about yourself, but overall you have an honest heart and you can connect with it through the practice of meditation. You have the courage to face yourself. From that connection with yourself and from actually liking yourself without conditions, you begin to see how brilliant and available life can be when it is without preconceptions or adornments.
As you open yourself to yourself, you become more aware of the world you’re living in. The development of awareness here is a bit like having cataracts removed, or getting a hearing aid; you didn’t know your vision was so obscured until you finally see a brilliant yellow daffodil in the field. You couldn’t hear the first bird of spring singing in the meadow. You couldn’t taste the bitter onion flavor of chives by the stream. You didn’t see the face of your beloved, until you ran right into him. Then suddenly you begin to feel your world. You begin to understand love in an entirely new way.
At that point, as you become more open, you also may begin to see where you’re stuck, how you’re often living in a hall of mirrors that you create for yourself. You see your speed and how that has produced panic. We may actually recognize and experience ourselves as the monkey bouncing off the walls in our house of mirrors. What you’re bouncing off of is often simply the reflections that you project. When you bounce off yourself, this can take the form of self-hatred or it can be twisted into some kind of false arrogance and pride. Unfortunately, your dearest friends, lovers, relatives, and partners are often the mirrors you project your reflections onto most intensely.
We demand a lot from intimacy, often more than it can possibly deliver. We ask ourselves and our closest friends to confirm us by reflecting some things and not others. Essentially, we ask, “Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who’s the fairest one of all?” And we expect the answer, “You, my love!” This a burden to others and to us, and ultimately it doesn’t work. The mirrors crack.
If you want to live in a hall of mirrors, this is a disaster. If you’re willing to find a true relationship with yourself and others, this is welcome relief from your self-imposed isolation. It reveals the tremendous space that is there when the myth of satisfaction is seen to be a fraud.
Over the course of time, if we are committed to meditation as an ongoing practice, then it can provide us with this honest feedback. Although we might try to filter information, if we sit long enough, reality wells up in us and breaks through. This is inevitable, because it is just discovering what is there and we can’t block what is there forever. Facing reality is not creating something new. It’s allowing a barrier to dissolve. It unlocks in us the power of loving-kindness and is the beginning of real warmth toward ourselves and others.
There’s tremendous energy that we try to block and control to keep everything safe and neat in our stories about ourselves and our lives. Making friends with ourselves is messier and less predictable than keeping up the storylines. It may also be more obviously painful. But its a great deal more fun, more spontaneous, more loving, and, in the end, more productive. We realize that we are capable of a real relationship with our world and with those in it.
Reality is ultimately beautiful, and wise people often say that it is sacred. We all have experiences of sacredness, if we don’t reject them or take them for granted. Sometimes there is a big “ahhh!” when we fall in love with another human being, when a painting evokes a deep response in us, or when something of monumental beauty appears before us, something breathtaking. And there are many smaller moments of simple everyday illumination and wonder: rain falling on the roof, a baby’s cry, a friend’s touch, an autumn leaf falling at our feet. Mindfulness and awareness encourage us to acknowledge what we already know, what we already see, but which frightens us a little. In that way, making friends with ourselves is a doorway into a much bigger world, one that is marked by many moments of wakefulness and the potential to genuinely love ourselves and our world and those in it.
Making friends with oneself is, at times, tough stuff. Some days are better than others, but the path continues. I say this as a monkey with an iPhone who usually refuses to leave my house except to harvest bananas. On these outings in the jungle, I have heard and seen a few things about life beyond the cage, and they have been offered here. Although I still live within my hall of mirrors, sometimes I see the first evening star, and that provides the inspiration to guide my journey.