Day 14: You're Not Alone

Dear <<First Name>>

One of the most common reasons for finding self-metta hard is that we imagine that our difficulties and setbacks set us apart from other people. So when we have difficulty with something that's important to us, we feel isolated and alone. We assume that this thing, whatever it is, is easy for others, and hard for us. That we're cursed with some deficiency. That we're in some way worse than other people. And having made this judgement about ourselves, we then pile on the self-criticism, and feel despondent because of our perceived failure.

Buddhism has a name for this: conceit. Now you might find this surprising, since we usually consider conceit to be when we feel superior to others. But from a Buddhist point of view, any comparison with the worth of others is a form of conceit, whether we feel superior, inferior, or even equal to others.

I'd like to make three suggestions about how to deal with "inferiority conceit" — this tendency to create a sense of isolation.

1. Treat Your Painful Feelings With Compassion
It's OK to feel disappointment or frustration when things don't go the way you want them to. In Buddhist terms these are feelings rather than emotions. And, unlike emotions, feelings are outside our direct control. Feelings are ethically neutral. The problem is that we often think there's something wrong with us when we experience this kind of discomfort, as if we're doing something wrong in feeling frustrated or disappointed, or taking them as a sign that we've failed. But we're not, and we haven't. The thing is first to accept those painful feelings, second to recognize that they're a form of suffering, and third to respond to our suffering in a compassionate way. Treat your pain as if it's another person who is suffering, and send it thoughts of lovingkindness: "May you be well; may you be happy; may you find peace."

2. Watch Your Thoughts With Skepticism.
There's a saying, "Don't believe everything you think." This is especially true when we're experiencing difficulties. Our thoughts may be telling us stories like: "I've failed. I'm hopeless. I can't do this. This is unbearable." And so on. It's very important to stand back from these thoughts and to recognize that they are stories, and not reality. You can notice the thoughts, but not buy into the stories they're telling you. The other day I noticed thoughts connected with loneliness bubbling up in my mind. Rather than turn them into a drama, I just let the thoughts pass. And then I paid compassionate attention to the loneliness I was experiencing.

3. Consider: You're Not Alone
We all make mistakes; everyone has their strengths and weaknesses; confusion is an integral part of learning: Bearing these things in mind helps us to feel less alone, and to recognize that frustration is a part of everyone's life. The thought that we are worse than others is just one of the many stories that we can treat with skepticism. It's one of the most pernicious, though, and so I've singled it out for special treatment. And this practice of considering that we're not alone is also an illustration that we don't just have to let go of our unhelpful thoughts: we can also consciously cultivate thoughts, like "We all make mistakes," that allow us to be more at peace. 

The other week I made a series of very public mistakes. First I sent out an email to thousands of people on the wrong mailing list. Then I sent out the email again, to the right list, but the link in the email was broken. Finally, I got it right. There was a time when I would have agonized over making a mistake so publicly, but now I just see it as something that happens. We all make mistakes.

These three practices can help liberate us from the additional burden of suffering we impose on ourselves when we take ordinary frustration and turn it into something much more painful. They allow us to let difficult feelings arise and pass way, leaving us lighter and freer.

With metta (lovingkindness),

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