How can we discover our basic goodness or essential perfection, our “OK”ness? One powerful way is to develop the practice of speaking to our self in the language of these true conditions. We nourish and enhance our self-esteem by talking to ourselves in a loving and supporting manner, replacing the voice of the inner judge, the “merciless rider”, with the voice of the heart, the voice of wisdom and compassion. For many of us this is like learning a new language. We already understand that mercy is the antidote to judgment and self-judgment. When we view our actions with mercy, we simultaneously let go of low self-esteem because compassion for our self is one of the highest forms of self-honoring. By speaking kindly to ourselves and holding ourselves gently, we acknowledge that we are worthy. Acknowledging our worthiness actually brings it forth. It grows, not as an arrogant or conceited condition, but into powerful self-acceptance. The good news is that, as we develop true compassion for ourselves, we are developing it simultaneously for others. We begin to see our condition reflected in the world around us. Seeing our similarity keeps us humble and connected as we begin to see how we are essentially one.
Self mercy is a completely conscious inner gesture, a sacred practice. When we become aware of the voice of self-judgment we consciously choose a different voice, a voice that is patient, kind and understanding. This is a literal choice that soon becomes a wonderful habit. We repeat the gesture over and over until it becomes second nature. So, when we hear the voices of guilt and shame and self judgment, we don’t dwell on them by going into the stories that they are sure to present: “I did it again. I’m so stupid.” “What will so and so think?” or similar old stories that arise like weeds. Instead, we immediately change to the kinder voice in our head that says things like “I see that my action was unskillful, but it does not mean I am a bad person; I know that at heart I am a good person. I can do my inner work and make discovery about this kind of unskillful behavior so that I change it; I can learn to manifest my loving nature more.” These phrases are examples. We can choose whatever kind, merciful and supportive statements we wish. Learning to speak kindly to our selves is an extremely rewarding practice that reduces the stress caused by self-judgment while creating a safe and nurturing inner being to replace our self-judge. Without awareness, specifically the awareness that we are judging ourselves, the rewards of this practice would never be ours.
If we doubt that the foundation for inner work is compassion for self and self-honoring behavior, we need only remind ourselves that the opposite approach, feeling guilty or judging ourselves has never really worked. When we hold ourselves more lightly and regard our actions with more humor and compassion, we experience our difficulties and ourselves in new ways. Much that has been hidden begins to surface, areas that we felt unsafe to consider, or that we have always judged begin to reveal their true nature. They reveal the fear(s) that feed them so that, finally, we are able to see what is really happening underneath all of our awkward and unskillful behaviors. These areas become teachers and allies. To go back to a garden metaphor, the ground of compassion is the place where the seeds of change find nourishment, not in the dry, hard soil of self-judgment, personal rules and self-regulations.
Some of us are still under the illusion that taking care of ourselves is selfish and somehow non-caring of others. We have been brought up to believe that doing for others is more important than doing for ourselves; that these actions are mutually exclusive. We may have been taught that we are supposed to sacrifice ourselves for the greater good. Many of us spend a great deal of time volunteering in so-called “selfless” endeavors. However the true self is not always present for our service work. Instead, the persona of a noble contributor is doing the work. There is nothing bad about this. Being kind and considerate of others is a good thing. It is civility. When this kindness and consideration is rooted in compassion, rather than in a sense of duty or social responsibility, it is more authentic. It can be sustained in more adversarial conditions. It is rooted in the natural and deep love that comes from the experience of self-mercy. It is not an idea but a reality. In our family we changed a traditional phrase in our mealtime grace from “make us ever mindful of the needs of others” to “make us ever mindful of the needs of others and ourselves.”
To believe that helping others in this world precludes self-nourishing behavior is a common misconception that leaves a trail of burned out caregivers in its wake. Compassion is the deep understanding that we are all alike and all equally worthy of love. If we do not spend time discovering who we are and understanding and accepting our own fears, how can we do this with others? If we are not able to nourish ourselves, we cannot nourish others deeply. Through compassion we experience the wisdom that allows us to be at ease in difficult or unusual surroundings, and we are able to demonstrate the “field of possibility” for others.