The Origins Of Burden
With pure self-compassion in mind (the ability to simply feel your existence is enough), I ask people what it would mean to be free of that which binds them to burdensome attachments. Cue very long stories wrought with responsibilities of managing assets and relationships, hard fought histories and well-earned gains, love lost and then reclaimed, and the obsessive longing to be worthy of their own self-satisfaction. This is the world we live in. Get more. Give up less. Avoid suffering. Pursue pleasure. Become the idealized version of yourself.
We come by these strivings naturally through social programming. Our grandparents were told to pursue these things to have a good life. They passed on this ideology to their children, who passed it on to us. We, in turn, through confirmation bias (looking out in the world for evidence that confirms our ideas) seek affirmations of this philosophy through social interactions and social media, which reflect these ideas back to us.
So, begins our journey on this carousel of self-improvement. We gain a lot. We begin to feel better. Then, we become disheartened, when the carousel carries us back to our original starting point. Belongings, ideas, and relationships require a lot of upkeep, and lack the consistent stability required for permanent self-validation and encouragement. Inevitably, they fail us. We come to hate the carousel for doing this to us, then we turn this criticism towards ourselves, and suddenly all those things that were supposed to bring us levity have come to feel like a burden.
Burden Meets The Formal Practice Of Self-Compassion
A Buddhist monk, having a conversation with revered meditation teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, assailed Americans for needing to go to formal meditation retreats to cope with their worldly ills. Thich Nhat Hanh asked his friend to be compassionate to the Westerners, explaining that their secular lives required them to take on burdens that were not so easily shed. To live in this world, he explained, they must manage physically and emotionally fatiguing attachments (e.g, cars, homes, jewelry, electronics, social media, business relationships, acquaintances, etc.) For some of them, a formal retreat is their only opportunity to set down these attachments, and rest completely.
Self-Compassion Meditation was designed specifically for this purpose. We acknowledge that we are obligated to carry a lot socially to survive in the world that several generations of object and power seekers have created. We avoid judgment because it only deepens our attachment to these problems. We ask ourselves if we might be kind enough to let these things go, one by one, and notice how the body and mind respond.
Perhaps, we can name the thought, image, or feeling that comes up, accept it, and then come back to our breath. It helps to notice that these focuses change, and other focuses arise. It also helps to notice that there is something inherently wise in setting them down, and bringing kindness to our experience. This practice eventually gives us what self-improvement could not. It gives us self-acceptance.
Understanding The Burden
When I work with new people, who struggle with this practice, but are really committed to the process, I ask them to bring a couple hard cover books to their next appointment. When they arrive, I have them pick up the books, and place them on the couch beside them. They find this work easy. Then, I have them hold the two books up with one hand, and finally set them down once they feel too heavy to hold up any longer. This practice is much more difficult, and painful.
And so, they come to understand the effects of choosing self-improvement or acquisition over self-compassion. Namely, the tangible objects, memories, relationships, wisdom, and abilities we collect are valuable and life-giving when our participation in them is modest, but an obsessive an unyielding grasp on them can just as easily lead to feelings of burden, pain, and then suffering. Being able to put them down allows us time to heal and regenerate. It is invaluable.
Before coming to a more traditional meditation practice, people are often made more comfortable by joining a familiar activity with this new, and foreign philosophy. I learned this trick from a very bossy, charismatic little girl, who carried a dry erase board with her everywhere.
She would write down the first thought that would come to mind. She would take a nice long in breath and let this thought, feeling, or bodily sensation in, then she would let out a slow out breath and erase it. She said that the dry erase board was like her brain, and it helped to be able to get rid of some stuff. She had found a wonderful way to combine what she had learned form her yoga teaching mother, and the school teachers she emulated every day after school. My great grandfather, similarly, used to write letters to people, who hurt his feelings, and then tear them up afterwards, as a way to compassionately validate his feelings, and then discard, that which had been troubling him.
You may bring a dry erase board with you, or simply imagine doing this in your mind. The goal is not to have no thoughts, but rather to allow yourself to have the thoughts that come up, to dignify your experience by accepting them, and to let them pass away as a kindness to yourself that can only be felt with a great unburdening of your mind.
No Gimmicks Necessary
Pema Chodron once said that the greatest problem with self-improvement is that it persuades us that the self is not already good enough, so we take on all of these gimmicks to feel better, but their mere existence is a reminder of our unworthiness. Leave the gimmicks to others. Let your experience be what it is. Accept it with the kindness you would show to someone you really love, and remember that just like the people you love, you have always been good enough, and will always be worthy of unconditional love.
365 Days Of Self-Compassion. Day 124. In The Books.