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"There Is Nothing Wrong With Us," cont.

(From Fabric of the Future: Women Visionaries Illuminate the Path to Tomorrow)
The Bind We Are Caught In


Little in social conditioning and childraising teaches self-acceptance. We have few models for how to be generous with ourselves–in fact, quite the opposite. "Inappropriate" needs, wants, impulses, emotions, attitudes, and beliefs are systematically stripped from us and replaced by whatever the people responsible for our survival believe is best (if we are raised by someone who cares). Even if this is done in gentle ways, we conclude that we are flawed, that our natural responses are wrong and bad. We internalize this search-out-and-destroy survival system so that we can monitor ourselves and stop inappropriate behavior before it goes too far. As adults we unconsciously carry this around with us, and it is still running our lives. We no longer express "inappropriate needs." We no longer require another person to point out what we are doing wrong; we do that for ourselves. When we do not meet certain standards, we punish, blame, berate, discipline, and abuse ourselves until we are who we "should" be. And if we do not, we feel guilty. We spend our lives either resigned to the fact that there is something wrong with us, feeling hopeless and inadequate, or we spend our lives trying to "fix" ourselves, never quite knowing what is wrong or how to fix it but feeling compelled to keep trying. I call this punishing, blaming process "self-hate."

Two places where many can see how lack of self-acceptance controls their lives are "going on a diet" and "getting regular exercise." Both are often begun as self-hate's response to what it sees in the mirror. And while it might be true that shedding a few pounds and exercising regularly would be a wonderful thing to do for ourselves, beginning a program with self-hate at the helm cannot succeed. Self-hate's job is to hate you; self-rejection's job is to reject you; self-improvement's job is to judge you. We cannot use conditioning to release ourselves from conditioning! You could starve until nearly dead (some have), you could exercise until unable to walk (many have), and still not like what you see in the mirror. With self-hate in control, you will never hear the words, "Good job, goal achieved." It is relentless, and it has us right where it wants us.

Self-hate will talk you into dieting and exercising, complain when the going gets hard, dupe you into quitting, and beat you up for having quit. Not pretty, but highly effective at keeping you trapped in its illusion. What is its illusion? The illusion is that it is on your side, that it is the voice of reason and common sense, and that to succeed at life you must listen to it.

The bind we are caught in is trying to end self-hate with self-hate, trying to find self-acceptance through self-rejection, trying to become who we believe we should be by destroying who we are. The really good news is we cannot destroy who we inherently are. The miracle of existence gives us the opportunity to find out who that is.

The How-To of Self-Acceptance

First of all, what is self-acceptance? My answer to this is quite simple though often not easy to realize in our lives. Self-acceptance is allowing ourselves to be exactly as we are without needing to change anything.

"But, Cheri," you might say, "I really, really want to change some things about myself. Are you saying I should just accept those things and not try to make my life any different?"

When I suggest we accept ourselves as we are, people get upset. The belief is that if we just accept, if we don't struggle to change, we will never be different and evil will win out over good. I further suggest that struggle perpetuates the "problem," and that it is really rather arrogant of us to presume that we can control something by not accepting it. Let's say I lock my keys in the car. Now, I can stomp around and curse, kick the door, and call myself names. I can do all sorts of things, but if I don't accept that my keys are indeed locked in the car, I'm not going anywhere. Acceptance doesn't mean I have to like it or approve of it or anything else. In fact, I don't have to have any relationship with it at all. I simply must accept that my keys are locked in the car. Yes, this is the reality, where do I go from here? From this place of acceptance, many possibilities become available to me that might never have done so had I persisted in my conditioned responses.

We need to allow ourselves to be as we are long enough to see who we are. Underneath the conditioning, who are we? Don't you agree that we could risk dropping the hate, judgment, and rejection long enough to experience that? Wouldn't that be worth the risk of running amok?

Here is where meditation practice, or awareness practice, is essential in learning self-acceptance.

Meditation

Zen meditation is the practice of sitting still in the present moment, holding on to nothing, pushing nothing away. As we sit, we make ourselves available to whatever arises. Thoughts and feelings come and go. Sometimes our thoughts wander, and we wake up to find our attention has been a million miles away. When this happens, we gently bring the attention back into the present, back into the body, back to the breath, and begin again.

There are three things I always encourage meditators to do: (1) Pay attention. (2) Believe nothing. (3) Don't take any of it personally. I will explain these further because to me they are the basis of a meditation practice.

Pay attention. Pay attention to everything. Develop what I call "passive awareness." I like to use the example of solar heating to clarify what I mean by passive awareness: The sun warms some type of collector–tiles, stones, barrels of water–and the collector stores the heat. The sun is not trying to heat the collector, and the collector is not trying to store the heat, but together they create solar heating. Each is present, and the transformation happens.

In the same way, if I am practicing passive awareness, I am simply here, aware and present. If, on the other hand, I am busy trying to know what is right or wrong, to be a good meditator, to have deep insights, I have missed the point completely. So if I am practicing passive awareness, I am not trying to accomplish anything. I am simply aware and present, noticing everything that happens–not judging, not solving problems, not making plans to improve.

Here is an example of how passive awareness might work. I hope you apply it to whatever "fault" you are on a self-improvement campaign about. It could be something like cutting back on coffee, engaging in fewer mindnumbing entertainments, eating less, being on time, keeping your temper, meditating more–we all have those pet areas of self-torture being perpetuated under the guise of being a better person.

The example: I hate to do the dishes. I put it off for as long as I can, and let everything stack up until it becomes moldy and disgusting. I feel ashamed, guilty, and embarrassed. I know this is a sign of some deep flaw, but life is hard and I don't want to do one more hard thing!

Each time I go into the kitchen the anxiety builds. I decide to bite the bullet and wash those dishes. The voices begin, "Not now. You're too tired. It's been a long day. You deserve to relax. Why are you so compulsive? You can do the dishes later. All you do is work. Go see what's on TV and just relax." Later, as I'm brushing my teeth, a little voice says, "You didn't do the dishes. Again. You know you said you were going to. Now they're going to be awful tomorrow and you won't do them then either." I look myself in the eye in the mirror and say, "No! I'm sick of this. I am going in there right now and do those dishes." On the way to the kitchen I remember I promised to call my sister. "Is it too late? No, I'll only talk for a minute." A half-hour later I'm getting into bed and the little voice says, "You forgot to do the dishes." My heart sinks, I plunge into despair. "Oh, it's okay," comforts the little voice, "you can do them tomorrow."

After having exasperating scenes like this play out over and over with a variety of subjects, I begin to suspect there is more to this than meets the eye. I want to know experientially, not intellectually, what is going on here. I begin to practice compassionate, passive awareness, paying attention, believing nothing, and taking none of it personally.

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Copyright 2003-2011 Cheri Huber