So, the Dalai Lama and a bunch of western psychologists walk into a bar . . .

by Laura San Nicolas

Ok, well, not a bar exactly. Or even close. But they did all sit down together, along with other western Buddhist teachers, at a conference in Dharmsala, India, in 1990. When it was esteemed American Buddhist teacher, Susan Salzberg’s turn to ask a question of His Holiness, here’s what she recalls:

“What do you think about self-hatred?” I asked when it was my turn to bring up an issue for discussion. I was eager to get directly to the suffering I had seen so often in my students, a suffering I was familiar with myself. The room went quiet as all of us awaited the answer of the Dalai Lama, revered leader of Tibetan Buddhism. Looking startled, he turned to his translator and asked pointedly in Tibetan again and again for an explanation. Finally, turning back to me, the Dalai Lama tilted his head, his eyes narrowed in confusion. “Self-hatred?” he repeated in English. “What is that?”

Yep, that’s right. The Dalai Lama didn’t get it. And despite repeated explanation and examples of the type of issues we are so familiar with in the West, he could only conclude, “I thought I had a very good acquaintance with the mind, but now I feel quite ignorant. I find this very, very strange.”

In my life, my mother was my chief teacher and model of compassion, the recognition of our shared humanity, the response to the suffering of others, and a desire to help them. “Jesus, Mary, Joseph, have mercy,” she would say whenever we passed an accident or heard a siren, or saw a news story on TV of someone committing violent crimes, going to jail, or being put to death. Compassion didn’t just extend to the times when bad things happened to good people, but to the bad people as well.

My favorite recollection of my mom’s tendency toward compassion was directed toward a character in a favorite soap opera we faithfully watched every day—Dark Shadows. A Gothic saga of a vampire returning to his family home after being imprisoned for hundreds of years, Barnabas Collins didn’t start out loveable in any way, but as anti-heroes tend to do, he tried to come around in time, or at least we wanted him to. Unfortunately, when he did find his lost humanity, he basically aged hundreds of years in a couple of seconds, and was left in a pile of ash on the floor. “Poor Barnabas,” I’d hear my mom saying for days, if not weeks, after that episode, standing in the kitchen chopping carrots, or even reading the paper as she paused to shake her head and sigh, “Poor Barnabas. Poor, poor Barnabas.”

Dark Shadows, Jonathan Frid as Barnabas Collins

I’ve been forever grateful for the example my mom set for me, but I eventually noticed that while she encouraged compassion for strangers, it stopped short when it came to herself—and by extension, to me. Self-compassion has remained as elusive and confusing to me as the idea of self-hatred was to the Dalai Lama. And so, I was primed to become a therapist at a pretty early age.

Like the western therapists and teachers who sat with the Dalai Lama in India so many years ago, a lack of self-compassion and compassion to others is a centerpiece of the work I do with clients as a therapist. “I’m not worthy,” “I don’t deserve happiness,” “It’s everyone else’s fault,” are laments I hear on a daily basis. This illustrates itself in depression, anxiety, anger, and blame, and effectively blocks us from experiencing the present moment in favor of what has been or what we fear is coming. Helping to remove that block from others is my daily work. Learning to remove that block from myself is my life’s work.

In his book, The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion, psychologist Christopher Germer tells us that although our personal experience may tell us otherwise, self-compassion is the “most natural thing in the world.” Deep within all sentient beings is the wish to be happy and free from suffering. The Buddhists’ (they seem to know a lot about this stuff—remember, no word for self-hatred) Metta or Lovingkindness Meditation is a tremendous tool to increasing our ability for self-compassion, by simply recognizing the common desire in all of us to be safe, happy, and free from suffering. Try it:

Lovingkindness Meditation

Set aside up to 20 minutes a day for formal practice.

Take a few deep breaths and state the intention:

Just as all beings wish to be happy and free from suffering, may I be happy and free from suffering.

Repeat the following phrases over and over for the duration of your meditation:

May I be safe.

May I be happy.

May I be healthy.

May I live with ease.

Good work! What did you notice? Any tension or resistance in your thoughts or in your body? If it seems hard to direct this energy to yourself, don’t worry. Just start with a subject that you feel no tension toward—your puppy, a baby, a tree. Just replace the word “I” with “my puppy,” etc.

Better? Fantastic! And here’s the really good news: when we practice the Lovingkindness Meditation, whether we direct compassion toward ourselves or to others, it all comes back to us if we are willing to receive it (I wish mom had known that part). And if we direct compassion to ourselves, we will naturally develop more compassion for others.

Feeling daring? Once you become proficient at self-compassion and puppy dog compassion, you can do the world a favor and try directing it toward more difficult subjects. Your nosy neighbor, perhaps? President Trump? Kim Jong Un? The insurance companies? Remember, it all comes back to you, and I think we can all agree we could use a kinder, gentler world right now.

Here’s what compassion is NOT, by the way. Compassion is not a virtue. It is not forgiveness or an excuse for bad behavior. It is not a command, and it does not preclude boundaries. Researcher Brene Brown, who has authored numerous books on self-compassion, vulnerability, and what she calls “Wholeheartedness,” lends us this reminder:

“Compassion is not a virtue—it is a commitment. It’s not something we have or don’t have—it’s something we practice.”

So practice. Start today. And remember this other little tidbit from the Buddha himself:

“If you truly loved yourself, you could never hurt another.”


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