We often approach life as though we were defending ourselves from an attack. Many of us, when we were growing up, were frequently reprimanded in ways that made us feel bad about ourselves. Whether the criticism came from our parents, a teacher at school, or someone else, it tended to reinforce a feeling that there was something wrong with us. Criticism often produced a feeling of isolation, a feeling of you and me, separated by a great divide. We learned many defense mechanisms at an early age, thinking that a good defense would be the best protection from further reproach.
We have continued this approach as adults. Whether it’s a confrontation with a stranger on the street or an argument with our partner in the bedroom, we believe that we need good excuses to explain ourselves and good logic to defend ourselves. We behave almost as though we were professional negotiators, our own little lawyers.
Perhaps we should reexamine these assumptions, to see what really works. We need to investigate whether it’s beneficial to build ourselves up, especially to do so by putting others down. We need to seriously question what is harmful and what is beneficial. In my own experience, I have found that employing a self-centered approach and being constantly on the defensive are not helpful.
Rather than reinforcing our “me-ness” and justifying ourselves constantly, we should base our lives on something more powerful and trustworthy. If we develop real trust in ourselves, constant self-defense is no longer required. That may sound good, but what are we going to trust in ourselves? To begin with, we need to look within ourselves. When we look, what do we see? Ask yourself: Is there something worthwhile and trustworthy in me? Of course there is! But it’s so simple that we tend to miss it or discount it. When we look into ourselves we tend to fixate on our neurosis, restlessness, and aggression. Or we might fixate on how wonderful, accomplished, and invulnerable we are, but those feelings are usually superficial, covering up our insecurities.
Take a look. There is something else, something more than all that. We are willing: willing to wait, willing to smile, willing to be decent. We shouldn’t discount that potential, that powerful seed of gentleness. Generally we don’t make a big deal about this capability, but in some sense we should. We should celebrate or at least acknowledge our capacity for simple acts of generosity and gentleness. When you appreciate yourself, you realize that you don’t have to feel wretched or condemned. You don’t have to artificially puff yourself up, either. You discover your basic dignity, which comes along with gentleness. You have always possessed this, but you may never have recognized it before.
Adapted from Mindfulness in Action: Making Friends with Yourself through Meditation and Everyday Awareness, by Chögyam Trungpa