Inner  Frontier
Cultivating Spiritual Presence

 

Self-Acceptance 

Christian original sin, the Buddhist fetters and hindrances, the lower soul in Sufism and Kabbalah, the inner battlefield of the Bhagavad Gita, and the inner jihad of the Koran — all paint a rather bleak picture of the typical human psyche and the obstacles to be faced on a spiritual path, and with more than an element of truth. For many of us though, an even greater obstacle lies in rejecting those aspects of ourselves that we consider to be liabilities, negative, weak, embarrassing, or just plain unlikable. The rather subtle question of how to approach this side of ourselves requires us to walk a tightrope between repression and indulgence, between severe discipline and passivity, between attempting to eradicate our inner animals and letting them run wild, between engaging in an inner battle and wallowing in a negative self-image. Too many paths focus on the negative in us, while too many others ignore it altogether. Those paths that focus on the negative tend to reinforce the psychological wounds and insecurities we all have, by creating an unnecessary and harmful battle between the “higher” and “lower” in ourselves. Perhaps at one time such an attitude was fruitful, but in the modern cultural milieu we find it inappropriate and destructive of our possibilities. On the other side, those paths that ignore the negative seduce our laziness, feed our imaginary views of ourselves, and pander to our desire for instant spiritual gratification. Both the aggressive and the lazy extremes need to be avoided.

Besides all our inner shortcomings, life plagues us with outer imperfections. Western culture, with its Madison Avenue and Hollywood images of bodily perfection and wealth, engenders a pernicious undertone of self-doubt in the overwhelming majority of us. Not many people compare well physically or financially with the entertainment stars who fill the media. Not many of us can acquire all the attractive cars, homes, baubles, and vacations portrayed as life fulfilling. So our growth-oriented market culture, along with its numerous and very important benefits, perpetuates a life-long hunt for more, a hunt in which we inevitably fall short of the ever-advancing goal posts. We compare ourselves negatively to those who have more beauty or wealth, forgetting that a human being’s value cannot be measured in externals, nor can they substitute for soul nourishment. This results in doubting our own competence, worthiness, abilities, intelligence, creativity, and luck. Whether we sink into a depressed hopelessness, grasp at the long shot that one day our lottery numbers will hit, or stay in the race of acquisition, the cultural tendency toward self-doubt persists, coloring our psyche.

The basic and enduring resolution to the whole predicament must be founded on love for ourselves, on a radical, all-inclusive acceptance of ourselves as we are, today. If we embark on a program of self-improvement, we shall never reach its end. Neither our personality nor our body can ever be perfect, nor our financial net worth large enough. Not even great spiritual masters manifest complete perfection in all their actions, inner and outer. Even they fall prey to mistakes; it comes with being human. Freedom lies in transcending our personal psychology, not in totally reforming it, nor in totally indulging it.

Partial reforms, though, typically are needed. Bodily excesses need management. Emotional excesses such as uncontrolled anger, absorbing greed, shrinking timidity, desperate jealousy, and quaking fear must not be given completely free rein. Such excesses impede our spiritual practice and drain our energies. We need to replace our harmful and wasteful excesses with appropriate moderation.

All the while, we respect these tendencies in ourselves as part of our makeup. We respect and accept that this is me, this is how I am made, this is my conditioning, this is my body, this is my mind, and these are my feelings. Some parts of myself I like, some I don’t like, but it’s all me, and if I am to move along the path, I must open to and accept the whole catastrophe. This sobering act of self-acceptance gradually destroys the false images we have of ourselves. We make the necessary minor reforms toward moderation and move on. Rejection of parts of our inner landscape results from the action of self-centered egoism in the cloak of the pseudo-spiritual. “I will make myself perfect. I will be better than everyone else.” Or “I am terrible, weak, worthless, undeserving, and hopeless.” These are but two sides of the counterfeit coin of self-centeredness, and we can easily waste years careening back and forth between them.

Self-acceptance and self-respect do not mean complacency. Clear seeing leads us to accept our imperfections as imperfections. Self-respect leads us to work on improving in the appropriate places.

Open-hearted self-acceptance empowers us to transcend the quagmire. We accept and we mend. Just as we care for our bodily wounds, so we take care of our psychological wounds, handicaps, and destructive habits, with concern and a healing attitude of kindness, defusing them. Mindfulness helps. When we fall into anger or fear, we do not turn our backs, but stay facing ourselves with open arms. A good psychotherapist also can help us find this attitude. Then we may move on to deeper spiritual work.

As our spiritual work progresses and we have more contact with the conscious energy, we sometimes see previously hidden aspects of our own makeup, of our personality and character. Often these aspects were hidden only from us and not from others. These shocking new glimpses of ourselves, these realizations that we are not exactly who we thought we were, may bring disappointment. But they arise naturally as a result of our inner work and present us with a choice. We may wallow in self-pity and self-hatred and, thereby, short-circuit the process of practice. Or we may simply accept that the good in us exists alongside the not-so-good, and practice with renewed vigor toward transformation. Not necessarily seeking to change the details of our personality, but rather seeking to change our being.

One quite direct way to practice the art of self-acceptance is through mindfulness meditation. We sit and we watch what goes on in us: all the thoughts, emotions, memories, images, and sensations. We see and we allow it all to be as it is, without trying to stop the flow, without encouraging it, without allowing ourselves to be drawn into the drama or into rejection of any of it. This trains us to accept, to accept ourselves as we are. It also develops our contact with consciousness, so that we can see what it is in us, and so that we can be ourselves, rather than mistakenly being our self-generating thoughts and emotions.

Loving and accepting ourselves sets the stage for the challenge of loving and accepting others. Knowing our own limitations and problems enables us to have a more compassionate attitude toward others’ limitations and problems. Self-acceptance allows us to transcend our overarching concern with ourselves and enter into service of the greater Good.

 


     

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