spiritual inquiry

Givers and takers


If you are a giving sacrificing person, being in a relationship with a taker can be extremely difficult and draining.

Takers don’t know that they’re takers, and they don’t have self-imposed limits. They take would any sense of guilt. They don’t feel bad about continuously taking and then demanding even more.

That means it’s the givers who need to learn how to set boundaries and say “no” without guilt.

Often times, we are so used to being mistreated that it can be hard to recognize what’s really happening – our minds have trouble distinguishing fault, blame, and proper relational obligations. We’ve been conditioned to give and sacrifice our own needs for others, and going against those deeply held beliefs, saying no, creates lots of guilty feelings, and concerns about selfishness.

I like this list of behaviors as a good starting place to identify who the takers are, and where firm boundaries are most needed.

25 Warning Signals That You’re Dealing With a TAKER
Dr. Mark Goulston

1. They act entitled to whatever they’re taking from you.
2. They treat you as an extension of themselves.
3. When they hurt or disappoint you they don’t experience guilt, shame or remorse.
4. They won’t apologize to you, but will expect you to apologize to them.
5. Their wish is your command, and if you don’t comply, you don’t love them.
6. They believe their problems are someone else’s fault.
7. They believe that you and everyone else are in this world to make them happy.
8. When you give to them, they don’t feel compelled to say thank you or be grateful.
9. If they feel taken from by you, they become outraged and entitled to become enraged.
10. They don’t regret taking from you, but they regret not taking even more from you.
11. They need to have the last word in conversations.
12. They don’t take turns well.
13. They are impatient and hate to wait.
14. They interrupt or butt into conversations.
15. They act as if they are always right.
16. They act as if they are never wrong.
17. When they’re frustrated, they feel justified in doing anything to make themselves feel better.
18. They won’t tell you specifically what you are doing is wrong or ask you directly for what they need— they expect you to read their minds.
19. They are stubborn and you may confuse their stubbornness for strength and be attracted to them because of it.
20. They aren’t motivated to know, care or do anything unless it gets them something.
21. They are quick to ridicule or laugh at others, but have little ability to laugh at themselves or tolerate being laughed at.
22. They either cannot or will not put themselves in another person’s shoes.
23. They hold everyone else accountable, but evade being held accountable.
24. They talk much more than they listen.
25. They’ll expect a second, third and fourth chance from you when they hurt you; but they won’t give you a second chance when you hurt them.

Responsible expression

I am responsible for what I say. But I am not responsible for what you hear.

don Miguel Ruiz


This is one of my favorite quotes from don Miguel. It is such an important, healing, and liberating piece of wisdom. I’ve been thinking about this subject a lot lately.

Expressions of truth can be really powerful. The intent behind the words, the part of the expression that is conveyed indirectly, is even more powerful. We are responsible for wielding that power wisely.

Speaking truth does not carry the intent to harm.

In fact, speaking truth must be done very carefully and considerately, so that any collateral harm it does produce is minimized. It is typically done vulnerably, with the intent to cease harm that has already been happening.

If the intent of the words is to harm or diminish the other, that’s not justified as speaking truth – it’s vengeance, retaliation, punishment, even if the words are technically true.

Hurtful things, said in the heat of a conflict, in order to win or dominate over another person are not justified as speaking truth.

We are responsible for the harm that harmful words and intentions convey. 

On the other hand, we are not responsible for the interpretations other people make. We are not responsible for how our words are heard, or received by those who don’t understand, and don’t make an effort to understand.

There are people who are highly reactive, lacking a certain generosity of spirit. Upon hearing something they don’t like, they immediately jump to absurd unjust conclusions, make ridiculous or inappropriate assumptions, become offended, and sometimes work themselves up into hysterical outrage. Typically, they start flinging wild accusations and personal attacks in response, all without ever asking for clarification or deeper explanations. They seem to always be ready for mortal combat at a moment’s notice, completely certain that their views and interpretations are singularly correct, and therefore the speaker must be destroyed. 

Those of us who grew up in oppressive dysfunctional environments know these people well. We were made to believe that we are always responsible for these aggressive inappropriate reactions of others. If they got angry, it was necessarily always our fault. We learned that we must be really careful, tiptoeing around other people, because any careless or unwelcome words would have dire retaliatory consequences. We were made to believe that this is normal, and morally justified, and it was our job to manage their reactions. We learned that we must be thoughtfully sensitive and careful with people who would regularly lash out with cruelty and destructive intent, if we said the wrong things, tried to speak the truth, or expressed unwelcome opinions.

This piece of wisdom resets those false beliefs back on solid ground.

We are responsible for ourselves – to speak with love, to speak with respect and kindness, to express hurt feelings or anger in a measured or careful way. To hold others accountable in a fair and tempered manner.

But we are not responsible for how other people react, how they mis-interpret our words, how angry they get, how destructive they get, or how much gas-lighting or blame-shifting they seek to engage in.

Destructive people like to make others responsible for their emotions. If they are angry, they always find someone to blame, whether it’s justified or not. They are unwilling, or at times unable, to see themselves clearly or control their explosive feelings.

But that does not make us responsible for it. We don’t need to carry that responsibility, nor remain silent in order to avoid upsetting them. If they jump to conclusions, and twist words and intentions out of context, and get angry seeking to provoke escalating chaotic conflict – that is entirely up to them. We don’t have to apologize, nor feel guilty or responsible, for things others choose to get upset about.

Learning to make the distinctions correctly is really important and takes time, courage, and lots of patience to figure out.    

Try as we might, we cannot control how other people receive our expressions. We all want to be thought of as good people, to be liked, admired, accepted, and appreciated, but the reality is that everyone hears, sees, and judges others through their own filters. People make assumptions, judgments, and interpretations based on what they believe about themselves, and the pain they experience in their own realities. There is very little we can do about that in relation to another person. We cannot explain ourselves to someone who is unwilling or unable to see past their own filters. We cannot prove our good or innocent intentions when they are convinced they know our true malicious motives. And we cannot be responsible for how they interpret or react to what we say, when they are stuck entirely inside their own reality. 

When we realize this, we stop trying so hard to affect what others think of us or how they receive our words. You can’t control their opinions of you, or how they react to you. You can only do and say whatever is in your own integrity, guided by your own love, truth, and compassion. And how other people hear you or react is entirely their business. Their emotions, their reactions, are solely under their sphere of control.


Letting go


Along the spiritual path, the instruction of letting go seems to show up constantly. There are so many different kinds of letting go, different things that need to be released, that the words become something of a mantra after a while.

Sometimes letting go means releasing layer after layer of our self-concepts: peeling away who we thought we were, to welcome the reality of the person we actually are. Sometimes we have to let go of our hopes and wishes for how something should go or should be, so that we can make space for accepting how it really is. We might be letting go or surrendering to the moment, to the now, to the feelings and circumstances in the present.

Other times we might have to let go of dreams, fantasies, concepts, relationships, places, or jobs. We might have to let go of fear, let go of worry, let go of control, let go of illusions of safety or permanence, let go of attachments… The list is almost endless. There is a lot of letting go. 

Letting go of our past is one of those list items. It can be very scary; not just to our own mind, but to those around us as well. We come to identify with, and rely deeply on, the stories we tell ourselves about who we are, what we’ve done, and what’s been done to us. Letting go of our victimhood, our suffering, our guilt and pain, is a really significant matter. 

Making the choice to set down all the baggage, and look with fresh eyes, loving, honest, and compassionate eyes, can be daunting. The willingness to see the truth as it is, and then to forgive ourselves and others, to release everyone from the grudges, the debts, and pain, is a hugely important step to take for the healing process. We can’t have love, peace, and joy, while also holding on to our egotistical pride, anger, and self-righteousness. Here we let go of our self-importance, the lies we use to comfort ourselves, and our shame and our defenses. We free ourselves of all those heart-heavy items. 

The ego won’t like it; I can assure you of that. Once the pain is processed through fully, the heart and soul are eager and ready to forgive. It’s most often the mind and the pride that stand in the way. The ego doesn’t understand or value the payoff of forgiveness. It imagines that it will only be happy when perfect vengeance is achieved. This isn’t true, but the ego doesn’t know that, so it creates resistance. That’s why letting go is a pro-active instruction – we have to overcome the egoic resistance and set down all our weapons and balance sheets.  

When you make the decision that the time has come, you will see how quickly and easily all those things actually dissolve. A tiny little crack is all it takes to let the light come rushing in. We can set down the stories, release ourselves of all those burdens and misunderstandings, and let our love shine again.


Is meditation the new black?

I came across this article, by John Horgan, questioning the benefits of the new meditation craze. I thought he made some interesting observations, and on some level I agree with him. 

I think that one of the problems with mainstream meditation hype is that the benefits are touted in order to sell the idea of it (usually for commercial gain), while the nuanced proper spiritual instructions are not included. It retains its form, but loses its substance, and so it doesn’t really yield what it promises.  

Sitting still and trying to “not think” is not what it’s about.

Carving out a tiny bit of time, in an otherwise hectic day, to sit still and calm the mind is not a bad idea, but that’s not what meditation is for. (Guided meditations can be like a quick vacation for a stressed out mind, but on their own they don’t do much.). Treating meditation as a discipline, trying to somehow master “not thinking,” or sitting still for long periods of time, has no real benefits. It is a forceful attempt at mind and body control, dominating the mental landscape by force of willpower. (That approach is fundamentally philosophically antithetical to authentic transformational spiritual and mystical practice. I’ll explain why in a minute).

Horgan is correct that meditation, as it is widely taught, does very little.

Just having a meditation practice doesn’t make you happier, or more peaceful, or nicer. Some people push themselves really hard to meditate, and then take great pride in their meditation practice, even turning it into some kind of competitive endeavor, which then only feeds the ego and moves them in the wrong direction.

It is what one does during meditation that leads to awakening and all of its benefits (or it doesn’t, as the case may be for most people). What’s missing in most mainstream meditation instruction is the substantive practice of self-inquiry, which what you’re actually supposed to “do” during meditation.

The basic idea is that as you sit and try not to think, thoughts begin arising on their own. It’s one silly thing after another. The more you try to focus on not thinking, the more distracting thoughts come up to grab your attention. Laundry, dinner, errands, to-do list items you forgot, etc. You’re suppose let them pass, as clouds, without hooking into any particular thought stream. This has the effect of training the attention, which is like a muscle. The more you train it to stay put and not follow the thoughts, the better you become at focusing and wielding attention. The attention can then be directed (ie. follow this thought stream, but not that one), which is a useful internal tool. 

What you’re supposed to get (which lots of people don’t) is the realization that you are not your thoughts. Thoughts come and go without you creating them. You don’t make them happen. As this realization slowly permeates your understanding, you begin to dis-identify as the thinker of the thoughts. You start to see the separation between you (the watcher), and the thoughts arising from somewhere else. And because you are not the one doing them, you begin to remove them from your sense of identity. You’re not really responsible for them in the way you used to be. You can watch them with a sense of neutrality, without judging them or being ashamed of having them. This creates a ton of internal space between the watcher and the thinker. 

This leads to the realization that you don’t have to believe your thoughts, which is the ground floor of self-awareness, and the threshold into the inquiry practice (the real heart of spirituality). It’s also the beginning of a lot of other discovery work about who the “watcher” within you actually is…  

The next crucial part is noticing that thoughts produce emotions. You start to understand that if you focus and hook your attention onto a scary thought stream, you actually begin to “feel” scared. And so by training the attention muscle (above), you can unhook yourself from a scary thought stream, and redirect your mind to something that isn’t producing feelings of fear in the body. This is huge!! Where you place your attention determines the emotional state you experience. This is a profound discovery for most people. Learning how to do this is the key to managing all kinds of anxiety and panic issues.

You can see how with proper instruction, at least up to now, meditation practice can lead to greater self-awareness, self-regulation, and emotional intelligence.

Then begins a deepening level of awareness and practice.

Having explored and familiarized yourself with the mental landscape a bit, dis-identified with the thinker, and trained the muscle of attention, now you can being exploring the source of the thoughts. Where are they coming from? Who is the thinker within? You begin to find that all the thoughts you have are perfect emanations of a vast network of subconscious beliefs you hold, about yourself and about other people. Now we are getting into a process called contemplative inquiry.

What you find out here is that if you bring those subconscious beliefs into conscious awareness, one at a time, you can begin changing them, and thus change the thoughts that automatically arise in the mind! As you change your core beliefs, the thoughts that are produced also change. That means you can change your internal landscape, and the emotional states you experience on the whole! You can reprogram the thinker, as it were, to change the kinds of thoughts he sends into your mind. 

So as it stands now, when fear thoughts arise, your mind automatically hooks into that thought stream, and creates those emotions in your body and you feel fear. In order to calm down, you have to use the muscle of attention to stop, and redirect your mind by force, to something not scary, in order to stop the fear reaction in the body.

That takes effort, and usually by the time you notice that you’re scared, you are already pretty far down the rabbit hole, and are already hooked into that fear thought stream.

But if you begin systematically working with and changing the beliefs that are creating the fear thoughts in the first place… well, then you are experiencing a lot more internal peace and calm. The fear thoughts aren’t even arising, and your system isn’t feeling fear as often. You’re not wasting time or energy putting out internal fires trying to calm down, you are just generally more calm, because the fires aren’t erupting as often. 

Further, when you start to see the internal mechanisms, and take account of the countless thoughts and beliefs that are just under the surface, you start to see that you are actually full of fears, and insecurities, and a deep sense of unworthiness (this is true for most of us). You begin to see that most of your words, actions, and behaviors are nothing more than protective strategies to mask those perceived vulnerabilities.

That’s when your own self-love and compassion begin to emerge. Then you start to notice that other people are also just terrified little children, walking around defending themselves in a big scary world. That’s when compassion for others arises, and you become nice and kind to the people around you. You see their fears, and their out of control thought streams, and the underpinnings of all their bad behaviors.

The better you understand the workings of your own mind, the more compassionate understanding you have for others. 

So by now, you have become more self-aware, more emotionally educated and intelligent, more able to self-regulate, you are experiencing less out of control anxious thought streams, and you are starting to feel self-love and compassion for others… All of this naturally makes you much happier.

It’s a process and a practice that starts with meditation – you have to sit still and begin noticing your thoughts to get all of this going. But without this deep nuanced understanding of what to do within, meditation on its own is pretty pointless.



When you look within…

This is a beautiful excerpt from The Art of Sexual Magic, by Margo Anand.

When I put aside my prejudices and looked at my deepest motivations and fears, I was surprised to be confronted by a rather sorry-looking individual, covered with bandages, limping along on a crutch, incapable of hurting anyone.

I immediately recognized him. It was me. It was my wounded self, a symbolic representation of all those doubts and fears about myself that I had so carefully hidden from public view for so many years. And when I looked a little closer at this injured being, my heart was deeply touched. I wanted to reach out and help him to heal, because I could see, beneath the bandages, that he was only a small boy, a helpless, wounded child.

There’s no one out there, just a bunch of mirrors

Throughout the last few months of my work with my teacher, Gaya, we’ve been talking a lot about the people in my life, and how I’m relating to them. Gaya keeps repeating to me that there’s no one “out there;” everyone is really just a mirror reflecting back at me.

At first this was difficult to grasp. Surely, the people in my life are real humans – I can touch them, see them, hear them (even smell them, sometimes). I accepted that what she was telling me might be right, but I didn’t understand what to do with it.

What she was really getting at has a great depth of meaning. Despite it’s seeming simplicity, it is a very profound teaching, and it can be implemented in ever-deepening ways. I began to explore and think about how to understand and apply what she was saying to me.

The most superficial understanding is that the sentient beings we see around us, who they are to us, how we see them, how they make us feel, is nothing more than a reflection of our own unconscious beliefs. Conceptually, what our mind automatically sees in others, the way we see them, and the judgments we make about them, are nothing more than judgments we hold within ourselves, and how we think we ought to be or not be. In psychological terms, this is a form of projection. In other spiritual traditions, this is called shadow work.

The way this plays out is very interesting. I’ll give you an example.

There is a person in my life who is very dear to me, let’s call her Q. I care about her very much. And yet, when we are together, I often feel a distance between us; it’s full of agitation, and anger, and resentment. It’s as though something always seems to stand in the way of actually feeling that love, and acting in a loving way towards her. On the face of it, I recognize that it’s my own judgments and emotional baggage, but I couldn’t really untangle it further on my own. So Gaya and I got into the weeds…

The best and most expedient way into the structure of beliefs that govern my relationship with Q was to list all of the judgments I have about her – all of the things that seem to bother me about her, without holding back, without censoring how I really feel. I sat down with a piece of paper and really let Q have it. I wrote a long list of horrible things. 

When I reviewed the list, a big glaring theme in all of my judgments about Q is that she is weak, needy, indecisive, irresponsible and helplessly dependent. When Gaya asked me if I’m any of those things, I vehemently shook my head, NO. I pride myself on being strong, independent, decisive, and in control. If I can do something myself, I will. And if I can’t, I’ll go to impossible lengths to figure out how to do it myself. The idea of needing someone, depending on someone, or being helpless in some way, actually makes me cringe. 

I relayed all of this to Gaya, and then she said something that nearly knocked me off my chair.

She said “Think of all the things you do in your life to avoid being weak, needy, and dependent. Look at how hard you work, how you punish yourself, how you deny yourself compassion and tenderness, how you push yourself way past your limits, how you never slow down, how you never let yourself rest, how you won’t ask for or accept help that is offered to you – all in an effort to never allow yourself to be those things.


It’s true. I’ve spent my entire life striving to never be those things. And I created all of these habits and patterns, all in order to compensate for not being allowed to be that way. The belief I have is that those things (which are just synonyms of vulnerability) are bad bad bad, and to be avoided at all costs.

I went all the way back as far as I could into childhood looking for how these beliefs and patterns were created. Obviously, as with all unbalanced traits, they were formed out of traumatic conditioning experiences. So I spent some time bringing those things into awareness and processing through some of the pain that created them. After I did that, my visceral feelings about vulnerability started to change. 

Wisdom teaches us that vulnerability, weakness, neediness, and dependency are not bad things. They are human things. Sometimes they can become extreme and polarized, which is not balanced or healthy, but in moderation they are part of every human experience. Of course, it’s ok to be vulnerable. In fact, it’s a really good thing to have the courage to honestly express our fears and our needs, and it takes quite a bit of courage to allow others to meet them. Learning how to lean on others at times, and to trust them, and to be dependent when necessary is also very important.  

Back to Q – it is precisely because I held these false beliefs about vulnerability, that I judged Q so harshly, and got angry at her when she displayed these qualities. (There is also an element of care-taking here; but that’s a separate boundary issue that isn’t really relevant at the moment. I just mention it because it’s a complex set of issues, not just one thing.)

So, if instead of sitting in self-righteous judgment about Q’s “undesirable” qualities, I can question my judgments and beliefs, and I can do my own work to resolve my negative feelings and mis-alignments, then I can stop being angry at Q when she displays those qualities. And more importantly, I can stop punishing myself, and ease up on all the ways I’ve been pushing myself in order to avoid being those things. I can even give myself a break. I can allow myself to be weak, needy, and vulnerable at times, and the more I do, the less emotionally agitated I become about Q.

Over time, as I work on myself, this brings me closer to Q. It extinguishes my critical sense of arrogant superiority, and it allows me to feel love more often and accept her as she is. Moreover, to the extent that her previously undesirable qualities lead me deeper into myself, triggering me and forcing me to find and repair what is unbalanced within me, I am grateful to her for being as she is. (And, if I had tried to make efforts to change her, back when I found her qualities maddening, I would have missed this golden opportunity to grow and learn). 

A strange and unusual thing that happens during this kind of work is that as soon as I make peace with these things I see and dislike in Q, suddenly, somehow, she changes! Like she actually changes, and she stops being those things. It’s really quite miraculous.

And so, in this view, Q isn’t necessarily statically any of the things I see in her. What I see in her (what bothers me about her) is my own projection. My mind generates the image I have of her, which is my own reflection of what is out of proper alignment within me. The qualities I think I see are just what stands out to me in high contrast. Meanwhile, without awareness, my mind fools me into thinking and believing those projections are true, that that’s how she really is, and then I feel justified in hating and blaming her for being that way.

Spiritually, it’s as though those qualities are being magnified for me to see, and my emotions are responding powerfully to my views of her, all so that I can see my own imbalances and correct them. As I do my own inner work and make authentic changes in my consciousness, my reflection in others changes as well.

It turns out that human personalities aren’t any one consistent thing; they are ambiguous and rather fluid, with infinite universal potential.

And so, Gaya’s words about them all being mirrors is a handy way to understand and think about it. 


Wanting to be wanted


As we courageously explore the rich depths of our consciousness, we sometimes come upon some strange and unexpected things. Sometimes fascinating, other times deeply confounding, these patterns are often well-hidden in the unconscious, and when brought up out into the light of awareness, they seem to defy rationality and contradict truth, wisdom, and expectations.

Wanting to be wanted is one of those patterns.

It is both very subtle, and very pervasive. Wanting to be wanted is a kind of egoic perversion of personal desire; it keeps us trapped in being the object of someone else’s desire, instead of the subject of our own.

Meaning, instead of recognizing, identifying, and asking for what we really want and need (often because we don’t know and our feelings are terribly jumbled about this), we focus entirely on being desirable, pleasing, accepted and wanted by someone else.

This is not confined to the sphere of romance or sexuality, but exists across the spectrum of identity. This particular pattern causes a great deal of emotional pain and psychological suffering. It turns out to be one of the central pillars of the ego’s operation.

When we find these feelings and motivations inside, when we explore them and admit them to ourselves, they seem wrong or deeply confusing. They fly directly in the face of sourcing love and approval from within ourselves; which is precisely the point! This is another lie in the mechanism of the ego. It seeks love and happiness externally by trying to please someone else, and earn their love and approval. The feelings and desire of wanting to be wanted prevent us, somatically, from living in our own integrity. I’ve spent a great deal of time exploring and digesting through the wounding that creates this particular set of feelings. It can be both very deeply and very broadly enmeshed in who we are and how we function. 

For those unfamiliar with this internal experience, I highly recommend the book below. 

Women and Desire, Beyond Wanting to be Wanted, by Polly Young-Eisendrath

Polly is a prominent and powerful voice among many wonderful feminist leaders and thinkers. Her book does an amazing job of articulating how it all works, and distilling a lot of ancient wisdom into a practical modern approach to life (primarily for women, but also often applicable to men).

Polly encourages her audience to get really honest and really clear about their desires, bringing their truths into the light, because it is only when we are aware of what we really feel and what we really want, that we have true freedom to choose how we live in the world.

Here are a few short blurbs from the book:
  • “Wanting to be wanted is about finding our power in an image rather than in our own actions. We try to appear attractive, nice, good, valid, legitimate, or worthy to someone else, instead of discovering what we actually feel and want for ourselves. In this kind of conscious or unconscious arrangement, other people are expected to provide our own feelings of power, worth, or vitality, at the expense of our authentic development. We then feel resentful, frustrated, and out of control because we have sacrificed our real needs and desires to the arrangements we have made with others. We find ourselves always wanting to be seen in a positive light: the perfect mother, the ideal friend, the seductive lover, the slender or athletic body, the kind neighbor, the competent boss. In place of knowing the truth of who we are and what we want from our lives, we become trapped in images.”


  • “Nor is wanting to be wanted the expression of a desire for intimacy or closeness. Rather, wanting to be wanted makes us feel as though we have no clear desires of our own. We focus on how to bring things under control by appearing in a certain way, speaking in a certain manner, implying our needs. Yet we never say directly what we want, and we may never actually know. We have been culturally programmed so thoroughly to tune in to the subtleties of whether or not we are having the “desired effect” that we fail to tune in to what we really want or to see how strongly we are motivated by wanting to be wanted.”


  • “[People cannot read your mind or guess what it is you want. C]lear and direct communication avoids the indirect message that other must intuit our desires. Attempting to evoke response from others without claiming one’s needs not only is confusing but carries the hidden meaning of danger… It is only when we speak directly, with a secure self-confidence, that we step outside this negative meaning of female desire.


  • “The Renaissance metaphysician Paracelsus said that we cannot love something without knowing it, or know something without loving it. When we feel deeply loved, we also know that we have been encountered authentically, that we have been true to ourselves in the presence of the other and found that truth fully embraced and accepted. When we tell the truth to a partner or a friend, we are indeed vulnerable to being judged, blamed, or rejected. If we hide the truth in favor of protecting ourselves and appearing in a certain way, however, we may retain an illusion of control but we lose the possibility of being known for who we really are, and hence of being loved.”

All of that from just the first chapter!! 




The practice of self-love

How much we know and understand ourselves is critically important, but there is something that is even more essential to living a Wholehearted life: loving ourselves.

Brene Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection


Every article, every self help guide, every book on relationships, tells us the same thing – learn to love yourself first! You must love yourself before you can really love anyone else. They’re right, theoretically, but what does that really mean? How do you actually love yourself?

How do you get to that place where you’re not just repeating silly affirmations, and pretending to love yourself, but genuinely feeling feelings of love for you, within your body?

It’s a process… Unsurprisingly, it involves self-discovery, self-awareness, and changing some internal habits.

It’s quite difficult to love yourself, authentically, when all of the dials and levers inside are set to self-hatred, criticism, shame, and unworthiness. So to correct the internal settings, the process begins with learning the internal landscape, finding all the self-hatred, and doing some work to shift into a more loving direction. The more adjustments we make, the more the real feelings of love can flow. 

First, we have to listen. 

There are many different practices that teach this kind of internal listening, but basically it means refocusing the attention to what’s happening inside at any given moment. We must learn how to listen to our thoughts and judgments, paying particular attention to the internal dialogue.

How do you talk to yourself?

Specifically, what do you say to yourself?

Are you mean and harsh with yourself?

Do you berate yourself for mistakes or embarrassing moments?

One example of this is when I started to pay attention to my thoughts, I found out that every time I looked in a mirror, or walked by a reflective surface, I would almost automatically grimace internally. I braced for a negative reflection, and with lightening speed my eyes would immediately be drawn to everything that was wrong with how I looked in that moment. Do you do that to yourself too? Many of us do…

If you do this with your appearance in the mirror, or in whatever other manifestation you do this to yourself, try to make the shift to kindness for yourself instead of shame and criticism. Actively change the internal dialogue to a more loving tone. Look for the good things in the mirror, and accept whatever you think is “wrong” in that moment.

You can take a judgment like “I’m ugly because I’m overweight” (typically perceived as a negative), and find three things that are good, desirable, and authentically beneficial about being overweight. Really. Question and change the perception of being overweight as a negative, and turn it into an asset. Assume pride about being overweight, rather than shame, and investigate the benefits of begin overweight. (I assure you there are plenty!)

Beginning to change the automatic negative beliefs and assumptions about the reality of what we consider our imperfections is extremely important. This can become a rather radical practice, upending a lot of our previous beliefs about ourselves and others. Turning negative judgments about reality into positives, helps us with acceptance and stops the unending cycle of shame. 

We have to learn how to treat ourselves more compassionately. Remember what you were like when you were three or four years old? Find that innocent child still living within you. Treat yourself as if you were that little child; be an unconditionally loving and wise parent for yourself. When you look at yourself, do it with the eyes of love. When you talk to yourself, talk with the voice of love, with encouragement and tenderness.

Just doing this alone will shift so many things for you.


Second, study your enemy – the inner critic.

This part goes a little bit deeper, and opens the door into real inquiry and discovery.

In a relatively simple sense, there are two voices inside the mind – there is an inner judge (who dishes out criticism), and an inner victim (who is hearing and receiving the criticism). The inner judge says “you’re so stupid! You should be ashamed of yourself! Everyone is laughing at how stupid you are,” and the inner victim hears and accepts the judgement, believing that it’s true, and sending feelings of shame into the body. 

Most of us aren’t aware of the separation of these two internal perspectives, and we are deeply identified with a singular “me,” inside. As we begin to create the space of awareness and separation, and to see the distinct operations of the judge and the victim, we gain a lot more control about what goes on inside of us and how that makes us feel. In effect, we are working on dis-identification with the judge voice, and solidarity with (and a strengthening of) the victim voice, the authentic true self within.

To begin this practice – as you go through your day, when you notice that you’re feeling bad about yourself, focus on what you’re thinking about yourself in that moment (or the 10 seconds prior to the bad feeling arising). Find the source of the bad feelings, typically it’s a negative opinion that your inner judge has generated. 

The negative opinions of the inner judge are not real, and they aren’t true. The inner judge is trying to criticize and shame us into perfection, so that we will be loved and accepted by others. The inner judge doesn’t understand how to source love from within. He is confused about where love comes from or how to experience it, so he pushes and berates us, thinking that that will turn us into perfect humans, incorrectly believing that that will make us feel love.

This entire mechanism operates on the lie that love can be sourced from outside, and that securing the love and approval of other people is the way to feel love and happiness. This is not true. 

When we begin to see and understand the silliness of what’s happening inside, we can take the judge’s power away, and really begin to pursue self-love.

Most self-help advice stops there – bringing the inner judge (sometimes called the “inner critic”) into awareness, and then trying to dominate or silence him from within. This doesn’t really work. The inner judge is much more powerful than that, and the feelings of shame he produces in the body can’t be merely dismissed with the mind.

The only way to really combat the critic is to understand deeply how it operates, discover the sources of its power, and begin to dismantle it at the source with discovery, awareness, and acceptance. 

Some of the more interesting parts of this work are that the thoughts of the inner judge are not arbitrary nor random! The judgments generated by the inner judge are the results of the standards of perfection we created long ago. It works almost like a perfect computer program inside. This is what’s known as our “programming” or “conditioning.” The standards of perfection, which live deep within, are the codes responsible for creating these critical thoughts.

They sound collectively something like this:

When I am __________ (stronger, faster, richer, in better shape, healthier, more successful, married, etc.), then I will have made it. Then I will deserve my own acceptance, my own love, my own approval. That’s when I’ll finally feel good about myself.

This is how we love and approve of ourselves only conditionally, only on account of having achieved something. There are tons and tons of beliefs and standards like this within, which not only feed the inner judge, but keep us from feeling our own love. 

Our inner judge is always comparing us to some standard of perfection, and letting us know that we’ve failed, and thus making us feel ashamed and unworthy of love.

Here we encounter the second lie in the mechanism – no matter how much we try, how much we achieve, how much effort we exert, somehow according to the inner judge we always seem to fall short. No matter how much we succeed, no matter how “perfect” we become, the goal posts always manage to move farther away.

Just when we think that we’ve finally achieved some standard of perfection, and we will finally feel love and happiness, (earning respect, approval, or admiration from others), the inner judge manages to undo it. We remain in the never-ending hamster-wheel of striving for something we cannot ever achieve. 

This whole psychological mechanism appears almost funny when we really see it. It’s foolishness. 

The thing we are desperately trying to achieve or attain is already here, already freely available within us! It’s been here the whole time. It has nothing to do with our external efforts. It has nothing to do with how we look, or what job we have, what others think of us, or what’s in the bank account. Our own love and acceptance, the thing we most want to feel, is always available unconditionally within. 

By bringing our standards of perfection into awareness, we become able to release them, to release ourselves from the prison of them, and actually feel better now! We can start giving ourselves love now, in the present, not at some future time.

So what are these codes, these standards of perfection? How do we find them? 

They aren’t always self evident. It takes a bit of investigative work within. This is the real purpose of meditation work – to get still enough and quiet enough externally to begin watching and investigating the internal process. I personally am not smart enough to keep all of these things straight in my mind at once, so for me, writing it all down is essential. My meditation work always involves getting still and quiet, and then doing all of my investigative work on paper. 

The practice goes like this: whenever you notice a judgement like “ugh I’m so stupid, why did I just do that thing?

You begin by asking “what or who is it that I should have been in that moment? What/who am I comparing myself to?

The answers you come up with are your standards. Write them down!!
They sound something like this:
  • “I should be the kind of person who doesn’t make mistakes – mistakes are not allowed.”
  • “I should be the kind of person who never skips a day at the gym – I must be super disciplined.”
  • “I should be the kind of person who doesn’t spill the coffee – clumsiness isn’t sexy or cool. I must be suave and cool all the time.”
  • “I should be the kind of person who doesn’t trip or fall in public – I have to always appear in control of my body.”
  • “I should be the kind of person who has a perfectly clean house at all times.”
  • “I should be the kind of person who has perfectly behaved children.”
  • “I should be the kind of person who has a dog that never barks or displays aggression.”
  • “I should be the kind of person who is always stylish and well put together.”

This list can get quite extensive… Seeing it all down in writing, recognizing the internal hostility, recognizing how impossibly contradictory and untenable these standards are, begins a profound dismantling process. Most people are shocked the first time they complete this exercise. They can’t believe how awful and how ridiculous this list can be. 

The more we do this, the more we recognize how silly these standards are (and how unkind, irrational, and untrustworthy that inner judge voice is), the more room we can make within for love. Seeing these standards clearly and honestly, we can begin to let them go, and accept who we actually are – terribly imperfect, flawed, vulnerable (often deeply wounded) humans, who generally have very little control over life’s ups and downs. 

Bringing compassionate acceptance and tenderness to this subconscious process is how we bring light into the darkness.