photo: Joris Louwes

photo: Joris Louwes

Have you ever had someone tell you: “You can’t love anyone until you learn to love yourself”?

And did you want to strangle the person who told you that?

Though that wouldn’t be very loving, would it?

Yes, it’s true that if we don’t love ourselves, it’s difficult to love anyone else, but this is easier said than done.

Why is it important that we love ourselves? And why can’t we start with loving others first?

photo: Harry Nguyen on flickr

photo: Harry Nguyen on flickr

Take the Buddhists, for example. In the Buddhist tradition, they talk about the importance of cultivating compassion for others as a spiritual practice. In other words, they start with loving others first.

Back when I was in ministerial school at Holmes Institute, I took a course in Buddhism. The teacher was B. Alan Wallace, an expert on Tibetan Buddhism. At one point, he told a fascinating story about this issue of self love and spiritual practice.

In 1990, Wallace was at a conference with the Dalai Lama and a bunch of other folks – monks, psychologists, and neuroscientists. The theme of the conference was the role of the mind and emotions in healing.

photo: Wonderlane on flickr

photo: Wonderlane on flickr

A well-known Western Buddhist teacher, Sharon Salzberg, posed a question to the Dalai Lama.

It was a version of the question I posed at the top of this blog: Is it better to start our spiritual practice with loving ourselves or loving others? 

Salzberg stated that she was coming from a tradition where students first learn to cultivate compassion for themselves, and then turn this compassion toward others. She said many of her students suffer from a lack of self worth. They don’t think they’re worthy of happiness. So that’s why she starts them focusing on self love.

But she wondered if this might be a covert form of narcissism. She wondered if the Dalai Lama, coming from the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, might view this Western practice as unskillful or even dangerous.

And the most amazing thing happened.

The Dalai Lama had no idea what she was talking about. I mean, he knew she was talking about Buddhist practice. He is Mr. Awesome Buddha Guy, after all.

photo: abhikrama on flickr

photo: abhikrama on flickr

But he didn’t understand the self-hatred piece.

He asked the participants in the conference, all Westerners, if they experienced self-hatred and self-contempt. Every hand went up.

He then consulted the Tibetan monks who were with him, most of whom didn’t speak English. They don’t even have a word for “guilt” in the Tibetan language. They could not relate to the concept at all.

The Dalai Lama then turned back to Salzberg and said – Yes, given the self-hatred you Westerners are carrying, starting your practice with compassion toward the self would be an excellent thing. A most excellent way to begin.

I loved this story. And I have to say, I found it a bit of a relief.

I have often wondered the same thing as Salzberg. Is it really okay to direct love and affection toward the self? Couldn’t this be a trap – a hard-core belly-button self-absorption?

photo: Georgio on flickr

photo: Georgio on flickr

But even those questions, in and of themselves, speak to a view that is based in self-contempt. Or at least a suspicion of any practice that might – God forbid – leave us feeling good about ourselves.

But the Dalai Lama gave the practice of self-compassion a thumbs up!

And I, for one, can speak to the power of turning a loving and accepting gaze on myself. Not in a show-offy, better-than-others way. Instead, such practice generates a kindness and compassion based on true spiritual sight.

Years ago, I took a class on World Religions. When we came to the piece on Christianity, the professor broke down the teachings of Jesus into three simple ideas:

1. The Divine loves you passionately, powerfully, overwhelmingly.

2. You can experience this love.

3. Once you do, you can share this love with others.

This makes a whole lot more sense than all the satan/sinning/penance stuff that’s gotten thrown in the mix.

Indeed, these three principles of Jesus are basically what the Dalai Lama was prescribing to Western students of the Buddhist path. Start with cultivating self-love, which is ultimately the love of the Divine, and then turn this love toward others.

Now that’s a conference I’d love to attend. The Dalai Lama and Jesus, rapping about love. Real love. The kind that can fall on ourselves and others.

Because it’s all the same thing.

photo: Jesslee Cuizon

photo: Jesslee Cuizon

How do you relate to the phrase: “You can’t love anyone until you learn to love yourself”? Share your comments below!

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