As you have heard over and over, practice is not about trying to fix ourselves, or to make a better version of “me.” Yet many students get caught up in equating what it means to make efforts with the compulsion to fix ourselves.
And although it is true that practice is not about fixing ourselves, if we took this truth to the extreme, it would mean we would do nothing, and perhaps fall into passivity and
We have to remember that all truths are paradoxical in nature. That is, two opposite views can be true simultaneously. It’s true that we’re not trying to make a better version of “me,” but of course it’s also true that we need techniques and practices, and that we need to make efforts—lots of efforts. And we need to make them for a very long time.
Here’s the problem: Discipline is so important that it’s easy to detour into a picture of practice as some stoic, almost militant enterprise. At times we hold the belief that unless we maintain our discipline, we will fall apart. So we continue to struggle against those parts of ourselves that we think will undermine our practice. Yet, in buckling down, we can easily fall into the fix-it mode.
When a problem arises, we almost automatically think something is wrong, and we ask, “How can I fix it?” We’ll instinctively feel the need to find safety and comfort in taking whatever is “wrong” away. We need to look at the root of our pattern that leads us to believe something is wrong, and then to want to fix the problem or to take the wrong away.
Here’s the dynamic: We judge our experiences based on our expectations and ideals, many of which are based in fear. For example, we fear that we’ll get hurt, or that things will fall apart. Often we think something is wrong with us. In other words, embedded in our fixing pattern is self-judgment.
When we aren’t aware of the self-judgments from which we live, we will surely inflict pain on both ourselves and often on others. A prime example of a pernicious self-judgment is the
belief in our own unworthiness. This negative self-judgment, in
some form or another, is deeply embedded in everyone I have ever gotten to know, without exception.
But self-judgment is not just found in our deeply buried self-
debasing beliefs. Sometimes our merciless self-judgments are on the conscious, surface level as well, almost like having a built-in inner critic. For example, if we do something a little silly, the critic is right on board, letting us know about it. This can even happen during meditation. How many times have you judged yourself a bad meditator, simply because you were daydreaming?
In my beginning years of practice, my self-judgment was relentless. I truly believed in the starry-eyed ideal that if I were a good meditator, my mind would automatically become calm, and that I would have deep experiences of equanimity.
An expectation like this, however, is a guarantee not only for ongoing disappointment but also for unending self-criticism.
Self-judgment adds a whole extra layer of suffering on top of whatever pain we might already be feeling. We may already feel the pain of disappointment, but by adding the second layer of self-judgment on top of it, the initial pain deepens into excessive and often unnecessary suffering. As we add on layers of self-judgment, we can easily get caught in the desire to get away from all the yuckiness, and so we automatically move into the fix-it mode.
Consequently, to work with the roots of self-judgment, we have to first refrain from the movement toward fixing our experience. Once we refrain, what’s next? We become aware—aware of how pervasive our self-judgments actually are. The more we can see this pernicious pattern with some objectivity, the less we will identify with it as the truth of who we are. We can then begin to cultivate a sense of space around our self-judgments, which allows us to stop struggling against ourselves. We learn what it means to see our “stuff” as simply conditioning, as just ancient wounds and core beliefs. That allows us to be with whatever arises. It doesn’t mean we like it, but we can relate to it in a new way. To soften difficult self-beliefs is to truly understand that these are not the deepest truths about ourselves.
As we learn how to make this soft effort around our relentlessly judging mind, as we learn what it means to awaken a sense of heart, we can relate in a new, more spacious way to the ancient wound of our seeming separateness. But this certainly takes repeated efforts, since the patterns are so deeply embedded. What we’re doing is learning to receive and accept the whole of our being, just as it is, no longer judging, editing, rejecting.
This is the process of awakening of the heart, where we cultivate the attitude of kindness toward our incessant tendency to judge ourselves. To be able to relate to the judging mind with the warmth of kindness is perhaps the single most potent antidote to our deeply rooted tendency to judge ourselves.
I spoke earlier of my initial experiences in meditation, where I would be regularly disappointed by my spinning mind, and then judge myself relentlessly.
Now, many years later, there are still times when I sit down to meditate where my mind is all over the map. However, the difference now is that I am not particularly disappointed, nor do I judge myself as lacking. Instead, I just ride the wave of what is, which in this case is simply scattered energy. To really stay with scattered energy without judgment can actually bring a sense of equanimity.
In summary: As we engage in the practice life, we realize the genuine need to make efforts. However, as soon as we feel that something is wrong, we detour into the fix-it mode, which is often based in the self-judgment that we are not okay in some fundamental way. Then, when observe our mechanical movement into fixing, we can can refrian and bring awareness to our self-judgments, and begin to put some space around them. In other words, we can begin to dis-identify with them. And as we bring the attitude of loving kindness to the whole process, we no longer view the parts of ourselves that we don’t like as obstacles, or as something in need of fixing.
Edited from The Authentic Life: Zen Wisdom for Living Free From Complacency and Fear,
by Ezra Bayda, Shambhala Publications, 2014