NOTE: This is the first draft of the “Self Love” essay in my forthcoming book, Fifty-Two Flower Mandalas. Responses and comments welcome, no matter how brief.
Self Love: Evolution
Copyright 2013 David J. Bookbinder
In my more troubled youth, I was often told that to truly love anyone, I needed first to love myself. This advice, though well-intentioned, set up an unhelpful dynamic. To “love myself” seemed as akin to real love as masturbation was to sexual intercourse, a solitary substitute for the real thing. Why would I want that?
A few years later, while riding the subway from Manhattan to Brooklyn, I had an epiphany: to love oneself, we need first to experience being loved – not loved with strings attached, not intermittently loved, and not loved blindly, either, but loved enduringly for who we actually are, at our core. Loved like Dr. Seuss loves: “You are you. Now, isn’t that pleasant?” Or Mr. Rogers: “You’ve made this day a special day by just your being you. There’s no person in the whole world like you. And I like you just the way you are.”
Without this love-at-the-core experience, loving ourselves, as we are so often instructed, is difficult to manage.
About ten years ago, I received a variation of the “love yourself” advice, but this time I was better equipped for it. I had stumbled on love throughout my lifetime, and I had also just spent five days at a Thich Nhat Hanh retreat. While there, I had been liberally sprinkled with what Thich Nhat Hanh called “dharma rain,” and some of it had sunk in. On leaving, a newfound friend said to me, “David, next time, when you think you need something from someone, first try giving it to yourself.”
My first reaction was still to see “giving it to myself” as emotional masturbation, but this was a wise woman and I knew that what she was telling me meant more than that. My receptivity had been enhanced by finding a different kind of love in the temporary community Thich Nhat Hanh and his monks and nuns had built for, and with, 900 strangers. I had felt warmth and affection from nearly everyone I’d met, shared meals and meditations with them, spoken heart-to-heart with one of the monks on a hillside overlooking the lecture hall where we received the dharma. I finally understand that being loved was far broader and more available to me than it had ever seemed before. Being loved unconditionally by one person was not the only way to water the seeds of self love. I felt, viscerally, that the sun, the clouds, the trees, many human beings, as well as most of the creatures of the earth, in some way expressed their love, and that I was among their recipients.
As the months passed, I tried to heed my newfound friend’s advice. Although at first nothing much happened, eventually I felt a little droplet of warmth each time I tried to love myself. Then one day, in the midst of grieving the suicide of a close friend, the love from the “lover” part of me toward the one that was hurting changed from a trickle to a flood. It was overwhelming, unlike any love I’d experienced before, an instant transfusion of compassion and caring from a deep, wise-seeming part of me to a part that had always felt alone.
Later that year, the two parts of the “love yourself” formula united to become a third. Driving home after a 14-hour day of internship and counseling psychology classes, I remembered a comment from a fellow student. “David,” he had observed, “this is spiritual work we’re doing.” I reflected on a particularly moving session I’d had that afternoon, with a young artist whose mother had just died. And it occurred to me that I was preparing for a field in which I would be paid to love people. I – all of me, the lover and the beloved – would be one source of the unconditional love that helped my clients learn to love themselves.
I’d had an inkling that this was so in my first course in counseling psychology. We watched a videotape in which the same client, a young woman code-named Gloria, had a therapy session with three of the big name psychotherapists at the time: Albert Ellis, Fritz Perls, and Carl Rogers. In the film, Rogers demonstrated what is at the heart of his approach to psychotherapy, that the therapist have “unconditional positive regard” for the client’s essential self; that we demonstrate acceptance of and appreciation for each client, regardless of what they do or do not do. He believed this therapeutic love, more than anything else, helped clients heal, opening their wounded hearts to love.
In the years since then, it has been increasingly easier to communicate with and to love my own wounded heart. A key to self love has been consciously encouraging the presence of a part of myself that is aware and open to the parts that need loving. It is as if I am developing within an ever-present father figure who can enable both “David” and “Davey” to feel cared for and accompanied, and thereby to empower me to care for and accompany others.
Although the first rush of self-love can be dramatic in its intensity, the preparation is often gradual. It may at first appear that nothing is happening. But just as water can hover at its boiling point for a long time while energy is still being applied, eventually a quantum change occurs. As the water is transformed into steam, the stuck and unloved place inside transforms into something capable of movement, growth – and love.