Patañjali in the Yoga Sutras says, "Yoga is the stilling of the fluctuations of the mind." He then goes on in great detail explaining all the many ways in which one can do this. By cultivating bhavanas, attitudes, of friendliness towards the happy, compassion towards the unhappy, delight in the virtuous, and indifference towards the wicked, the yogi develops a clear and peaceful mind (1.33). The first of these traits, translated here as friendliness, is maitri, which can also be translated as loving-kindness or unconditional love.
How can we learn to show loving-kindness? First, we need to learn to love ourselves. We live in a culture of self-loathing. The selfie, often a symbol of low self-esteem and narcissism feeds the feelings of low self-worth. We watch social media, waiting for the red flags and numbers, purposefully and skillfully popping up in the upper right-hand corner of our screens, that show us that our "friends" "like" us and what we've said or done. And when those numbers don't appear? What does that say about us then? Someone close to me, in a dark time in his life, once asked me if I liked myself, and when I replied that I generally did, he was astounded—he had never liked himself. I think that this is more common than we may realize.
We speak poorly of ourselves in a show of modesty, when really it's a ploy to have others compliment us. We talk about all the ways we need to "be better", as if being thinner or richer or even kinder would make us better. On the yoga mat, we complain about that hip that's too tight, or that rotator cuff injury. We dislike the parts of ourselves that don't work the way we imagine they should.
And off the mat, there are things we do, ways we are, that we loath. It's often these same qualities that drive us crazy in other people. When we see someone behaving in those ways, is it the other person upsetting us? Or is it the truth of the reflection of ourselves that's so unsettling?
What would happen if we took a good, hard look at ourselves, and were really honest about who we are? And what would happen if we decided to show ourselves unconditional love and acceptance, not in spite of those things, but including them? Those same qualities that seem so negative are actually just one expression of who we are. If we stop being that way, we stop being who we are, we deny ourselves.
I drive my family crazy when we are cooking in the kitchen. "Don't use that pan to cook that." "Use dry measuring cups for dry, and wet for wet." Don't use that utensil in that dish." "That's not the right way to cook that food." I like things done well, the correct or the best way. How I am in the kitchen is one expression of that quality. However, this same quality of wanting to find and execute the best way of doing things, of being particular and meticulous, is part of what has made me really good at other things in my life, a good student, a good mom, a good yoga teacher. Two sides of the same coin. By being aware of this, and honest with myself about it, and loving myself for it, I'm now more aware of when I'm exhibiting this in what can be an annoying way. Do I still drive them nuts? Well, yes, but probably less so.
When we learn to accept ourselves—our whole selves—we can then begin to love and accept others as well. In her book The Wisdom of No Escape, Pema Chödrön talks about maitri:
If, at the end of each day, someone were to play a video of you back to yourself and you could see it all, you would wince quite often and say, "Ugh!" You probably would see that you do all those things for which you criticise all those people you don't like in your life, all those people that you judge. Basically, making friends with yourself is making friends with all those people, too, because when you come to have this kind of honesty, gentleness, and goodheartedness, combined with clarity about yourself, there's no obstacle to feeling loving-kindness for others as well.
Picture yourself as a child, about 5 or 6 years old. These things we don't like about ourselves, these ways of being we dislike, are the same things we've done our whole lives. Picture your child-self doing this thing you do. Now, instead of being harsh with this child, instead of scolding or punishing or admonishing the child, send love to her. Walk over to her, and pick her up, give her a hug, and tell her you love her. Show her that you see her for who she is, and that you love her unconditionally.
How does that feel?
We're approaching Valentine's Day, a day where we show people how we love them. This year, instead of just chocolates or flowers or fancy dinners, let's also give the people we love the gift of unconditional love towards ourselves. And then let's watch the love spill out, overflowing to the world around us.
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