In January, I left the full time, somewhat lucrative project I had been working on for a few years to focus on building out my business. With dreams of glory and dollars in my eyes, I confidently projected that I would wake up at 5 AM every day, do a bunch of business activities, work out, eat right, develop new skills, work on this blog, and just generally crush it.
So now I’m here to tell you that I have made a fortune and have 6 pack abs and landed a book deal! We did it!
I became discouraged after the first month and have alternated between states of self-loathing and self-pity while not getting much done at all.
Generally speaking, I’m not the type of person who cares to meet the expectations of others. If I disappoint another person based on their standards, oh well, no big deal.
I do, however, find that not meeting my own expectations is quite crushing. Even when everything is fine by objective standards compared to many people, that inner critic can really cut me down. I wanted to find out if that inner critic was right and I simply needed to buckle down and you know, get shit done, or if I was being too hard on myself.
So, to see which one it was, I turned to my favorite source of advice: ancient wisdom.
I read two books by American Buddhists
Kornfield and Epstein were part of the branch of the American hippies that went overseas to study Buddhism. Kornfield became a monk for a time and is now a teacher and writer. Epstein (who actually studied under Kornfield) is now an author and psychotherapist whose practice focuses on the intersection of Freudian psychotherapy and Buddhist psychology and teachings.
As an aside, my mother-in-law, Jacqueline Mandell, is a friend and contemporary of Kornfield. She teaches meditation in Portland, OR via her non-profit Samden Ling.
Here’s what I took away from their books that has helped me and can potentially help you with your self-loathing:
Enlightenment is not an escape
I will periodically go through phases where I want to escape to some remote monastery and become a monk. The rewards seem attractive (union with God or some type of enlightenment) and the lifestyle, at least on the surface, seems much simpler.
This desire is a fundamentally human one. Not necessarily the literal escape to the monastery, but the desire to experience the sacred, to become enlightened in some way.
What I learned from Kornfield’s book is that it is not only not necessary to escape to a monastery and meditate for years to achieve enlightenment, but that even if you do become enlightened, is it only a temporary experience!
“Even if our transformation is great and we feel peaceful and unshakable, some part of our return will inevitably test us. We may become confused about what to do in life, about how to live in our family or society. We may worry how our spiritual life can fit into our ordinary way of being, our ordinary work. We may want to run away, to go back to the simplicity of the retreat or the temple. But something has pulled us back to the world, and the difficult transition is part of it.”– After the Ecstasy, the Laundry by Jack Kornfield
This comes at a bit of a shock to my linear-thinking Western mind. In the US, we expect that with lots of effort comes lasting results. There are no Sisyphean tasks, only not-yet-accomplished goals that can be attained via hard work or smarts and maybe a little bit of luck.
So it’s a little crazy to think that after years of studying and meditating in the Buddhist tradition that you can achieve enlightenment and still be irritated by your to-do list!
This is a bit maddening, but it’s also a relief.
Once you accept that there is no enlightenment that will let you escape your life, escape that load of laundry, you can learn to take things as they come. You can learn to avoid living anxiously in your future projections of your life and ruminating over your past failures. You simply…live.
In all practices and traditions of freedom, we find the heart’s task to be quite simple. Life offers us just what it offers, and out task is to bow to it, to meet it with understanding and compassion. There are no laurels to acquire.– After the Ecstasy, the Laundry by Jack Kornfield
It’s helpful for me to reframe any sort of personal obstacle, whether real or imagined, as simply another opportunity to practice acceptance, and maybe even appreciation, of my life as it is instead of despairing over what it isn’t.
There is no self to self-loathe
According to Epstein, Americans and Westerners have self-esteem problems so severe that we impressed the Dalai-Lama with them! We’re the best at low self-esteem.
The starting point in the West rarely is an enmeshed self; more commonly it is an estranged one. The emphasis on individuality and autonomy, the breakdown of the extended and even the nuclear family, the scarcity of “good enough” parenting, and the relentless drive for achievement versus affection in our society leave a person all too often feeling cut off, isolated, alienated, empty, and longing for an intimacy that seems both out of reach and vaguely threatening. At the first cross-cultural meetings of Eastern masters and Western therapists, the Dalai Lama was incredulous at the notion of “low self-esteem” that he kept hearing about. He went around the room asking each Westerner there, “Do you have this? Do you have this?” When they all nodded yes, he just shook his head in disbelief. In Tibet, said Sogyal Rinpoche, a positive sense of self is assumed. It is inculcated early and supported through all of the interdependent relationships that are established by the web of family. If a person cannot maintain this positive feeling about himself, he says, he or she is considered a fool.Thoughts Without a Thinker by Mark Epstein
I’ve always scoffed at the self-help gurus who emphasized the importance of building self-esteem. It felt self-indulgent to try to make myself feel good for its own sake.
But Epstein and his hybrid Buddhist/Freudian approach is rooted not simply in your feelings about yourself but in exploring what the self really is.
It is trendy now in “wellness” culture to emphasize being your best self and to be your true self. When you feel something is off, it is because you’re not being authentic. To know what is authentic for you, you must learn to identify the “true self.”
But according to Buddhists, this approach is flawed as it presumes that there is a concrete and distinct self to begin with!
In the Buddhist view, a realized being has realized her own lack of true self. She is present by virtue of her absence and can function effectively and spontaneously in the world precisely because of her ability to see the self as already broken. It is not necessary to impute a true self to imagine qualities that we associate with emotional maturity. Indeed, it may be the absence of grasping for that essential core that unleashes the flood of affect that makes us feel most real. This is the kind of paradox that both Winnicott and traditional Zen masters thrive on: the true self experience that has come to preoccupy Western analysts is achievable most directly through the appreciation of what the Buddhists would call emptiness of self.Thoughts Without a Thinker by Mark Epstein
In my own mind, I’ve identified at various times as a writer, an entrepreneur, a rebellious employee, a military officer, a husband, a friend, and many other identities.
Each comes with its own set of expectations about how one should behave and think of oneself. To be a good writer is to write interesting content every day. To be a good husband is to be kind and supportive to your wife.
When I achieved or failed these expectations, I identify as a good or bad writer or husband. One makes me feel good, and the other makes me feel terrible.
The self-loathing and low self-esteem comes from not meeting the expectations attached to the identities you hold dear.
The key then, is not to figure out which identities are part of your true self, but rather, acknowledge that these identities are simply made up!
Yes, you still have obligations and expectations to meet. But you can simply meet them or not meet them and strive to do better or not do anything at all. It is not necessary to draw conclusions about how good or bad of a person you are.
We do not just let ourselves be happy or sad, for instance; we must become a happy person or a sad one. This is the chronic tendency of the ignorant or deluded mind, to make “things” out of that which is no thing. Seeing craving shatters this predisposition; it becomes preposterous to try to see substance where there is none. The materials out of which we construct our identities become useless and broken when the ridgepole of ignorance is shattered. The Buddha reported that his mind spontaneously attained “unconditional freedom” when he saw his craving clearly, unconditioned by the forces of greed, hatred, or ignorance and therefore free.Thoughts Without a Thinker by Mark Epstein
You will never be free of feelings or emotions of despair, self-loathing, or sadness. You will always have these.
But you do not have to identify with these. You can learn to accept them and then continue living.
There does seem to be a genuine conflict between the values of Western culture and Eastern philosophy and I certainly won’t be the one to synthesize them or ascertain the superior value system. What I do know is that it helps to have even a little knowledge of both. For now, Eastern thinking provides the greater consolation as I wrestle with my own ambition.