A few days after I published my last blog post, I met a good friend for lunch. We sat in the creeping April sunshine in downtown Santa Rosa, over a shared plate of quesadillas, and talked about children, school, writing, and degrees of uncertainty. She told me she read my latest post, and that she had been intrigued by my description of lovingkindness meditation.
The flutter of satisfaction lasted for another few days, until, on the drive to pick up my children from school one day, I realized that I had gotten it wrong! And because of my error, my friend was living out an old pattern of mine (which is, in fact, bigger than me). You do not start lovingkindness meditation with someone you love easily, like I said in that post. You start with yourself! And, lord knows, loving myself does not always come easily.
It’s tempting for me, at this point in my life, to chalk it up to being a mother. I’ve lost track of the number of times since my children were born that I’ve recited the mantra: “Put on your own oxygen mask first.” In the middle of the night, holding a screaming baby, feeling terrifying feelings that I did not expect to emerge from my womb. In the middle of a grocery store, trying to rein in an out-of-control toddler, feeling the embarrassment of being “that mother” I swore I would never be. In the middle of the weekend, trying to find the time to go for a run, run an errand, or just breathe.
But it’s a pattern bigger than motherhood, or parenthood, or even womanhood. It’s some deeper, more culture-bound challenge of loving ourselves. Once when I was on retreat at Spirit Rock Meditation Center before my daughter was born, one of the teachers told a story about the arrival of Tibetan lamas in the United States. They could not understand, she said, why it seemed so difficult for Westerners — women and men — to include themselves in the offering of compassion. I’ve forgotten a lot of other things about that retreat, but I’ve never forgotten that story. It struck me like a wave, because I recognized that difficulty in myself. And then when I looked around, I saw it in the constructed world — what Clarissa Pinkola Estés calls the overculture — all around me.
We walk through the world surrounded by fences, labels, and boundaries — many erected by others, many of our own making. We are incessantly showered with praise and blame, and shore up the edges of our uncertain selves with hyper-individualism. Once safe inside our own existence, we are exhorted (and exhort ourselves) to “reach out,” “cross borders,” “only connect.” In such a world, to turn and actively offer yourself love (love, not product-driven affection) is frequently, and quite logically, considered a withdrawal behind the fence. A closing in, a closing down. We are caught in this dilemma, never knowing on which side of the fence we rightfully belong, or where something called virtue can be found.
But how could you not start lovingkindness meditation with yourself? To do so would be like trying to offer ripples to the world without the central event of dropping a stone. Where is the stone? What does it feel like in your hand? What soft or glittering colors does it harbor? What shift in the earth’s patterns led it to this patch of soil? These are stories worth telling. This is not just about self-care. It is about weight, texture, history. The actual contours of your life.
It would be like growing a tree without a seed. Like birdsong without the bird. It’s really impossible. But obviously the taboo against truly loving yourself, against knowing yourself to always inhabit a place where you belong, is so strong in me that it took several days before I even noticed my own erasure. By passing that absence on, I was passing on a pattern that just doesn’t make any sense. I was wrong.
But… “Notice when you try to make yourself wrong,” my Zen teacher has said to me several times over the past year. But, I could say to her, this time I was really wrong. Bad Buddhist! I got the instructions wrong! I didn’t start with myself! But you know what? It’s okay. Everything is a gift. Sometimes even being wrong is a gift. And if I had not made that particular mistake, I would not have realized the strength in me of this tendency to leave myself out. And maybe if I had not realized that, I would not have had the dream I had a few nights later.
I dreamt that my husband and I were on a bus together. He placed his cheek or forehead against mine, softly. It was a gesture that was very sensuous, intimate, and real. And then he said, “It seems as if whenever you wake up, it is always with or through something.” That’s all.
But that was enough to shift the dilemma for me. My interactions with the world since that dream have been washed with a bright tenderness, and a promise, that I have not felt before. Of course we can only wake up with or through people or things. Every thing, every person I encounter is a gift, a compatriot, a gateway. And if that is true in one direction, it must be true in the other. You are not exactly me; you do not have my precise weight, texture, history, or song, but there does not need to be a fence for either of us to reach across, or withdraw behind. I am innately a gift, a compatriot, a gateway for you. I can love that in myself, without fully understanding where it comes from, without needing it to possess a quality called virtue. I can just start where I am. I can start with myself.
Friend — do you feel that ripple?