How can I develop compassion towards myself?

A Student asks:

I find it easy to develop compassion towards others but not towards myself. I suffered from depression and self-hatred. I always feel more comfortable with pain than with pleasure. When I have pleasure I begin to feel insecure and uncomfortable. How can I develop compassion towards myself?”

Lama Shenpen replies:

I often get asked about compassion towards oneself. A lot of people feel more comfortable when they are suffering than when they are enjoying themselves. It is curious isn’t it?

Sometimes Tibetans are amazed to find that we Westerners feel guilty about pleasure, as if pleasure itself is sinful or indulgent and that somehow we will have to ‘pay for it.’ Sometimes people even call their pleasures their ‘samsara’ and that they don’t want to give up samsara because they don’t want to give up pleasure.

All this is very confused thinking and needs to be sorted out right at the beginning of the path. Otherwise there will be a tendency to look on meditation and Dharma practice as some kind of self-punishment and that won’t lead to liberation, peace and happiness at all!

I recognise this kind of attitude in my own upbringing. My mother used to often remark that there was no virtue in my being a Buddhist nun and doing lots of solitary retreat because I enjoyed it. To her this meant that I was simply doing what I wanted and this seemed to her to be self-evidently bad. Strangely, she did not apply the same criterion to my brothers who, as far as I know, did what they wanted. I am not sure if the reason for this was that I was a girl and somehow this is how women have been conditioned to think women should be. It was probably a mixture of that and a sense of having her values of the importance of home and family so blatantly rejected by me.

Anyway, whatever the reason, this kind of attitude is very prevalent in our society. I wonder if it is as prevalent in the younger generation as it is in my own. I expect it varies according to the particular sub-culture one was raised in.

Having said all that, one is left wondering what one can do about it if one finds that one is conditioned that way.

First of all, it is important to notice the voice, that ego character that is constantly judging and saying, ‘not good enough,’ ‘should do better,’ ‘should do more,’ ‘you are being selfish,’ ‘you are going to be punished,’ ‘if you relax and enjoy yourself, everything is going to go wrong’ and so on and so on.

You need to really notice that all these are thoughts and that these thoughts have a definite feeling tone. There is a kind of anxiety associated with them, just as you have described, so that when you try to ignore the thought, the feeling stays there making you feel uncomfortable and insecure.

It is very important to turn towards that feeling of insecurity and discomfort and not let yourself be driven by it. It will probably have to get worse before it gets better. What I mean by this is that, usually, when we feel discomfort and insecurity we tend to try to do something to get rid of it. So we do something that makes us feel we are ‘being good’ however bizarre a form this might take.

One form this could take is that we make quite unrealistic demands on ourselves or blame ourselves excessively for anything that has gone wrong. It kind of makes us feel better in a way. But not really, not in the long run. If we don’t let the voice and feeling drive us, we just have to stay with it and that could be very uncomfortable. But it is important not to be driven by it. We just have to keep turning towards that feeling of uncertainty and learn to live with it.

Awareness of bodily sensations helps a lot with this. By noticing your bodily sensations, you cut through the ‘drivenness’ associated with voices and feelings constantly impelling you onwards along old established route ways and patterns.

In particular it helps to become aware of your ‘heart.’ By heart I mean physically where your awareness or attention focuses when you use heart language. All your good qualities are in your heart. So just to let your awareness rest there and feel in touch with your heart; that by itself naturally strengthens the heart response, and that is what is needed really. This doesn’t mean any particular response. You are not trying to feel more compassion or love particularly.

This will probably happen at some point as a spin off. What you need to do at first though, is simply be in touch. Just give space and time for a heart response to well up and you may be quite surprised by the form it takes. But don’t mind what form it takes. Just keep returning to that heart area, almost physically, maybe for five whole minutes at a time and just let it respond naturally. I think this might have a very strong effect.

When you do this you may simply find yourself thinking: ‘I don’t feel anything there.’ It doesn’t matter. Just do it anyway. Just be quietly interested, do it several times a day and see how you get on with that.

After a while you can begin to gently ask yourself what you really want, in your heart of hearts. You don’t have to articulate any particular answer, but if an answer comes up, just ask yourself why you really want that, and open out even more fully to that heart feeling that is behind the answer. It’s where the answer is or is not coming from that is important here. Somehow you know how to ask and where to look for the response and that is the important thing, simply to be in touch with that and not let yourself be so driven by the conditioned thoughts and feelings that seem to have taken you over.