Be Kind to Your Baby Bird

If you’ve done any reading in mindfulness or Buddhist philosophy, you’ve come across the notion of loving kindness, or metta. A central tenet of Buddhist belief, it is simple and easy to grasp, intellectually. In fact, it’s the piece of Buddhism you find in almost every religion. Be kind to others. Treat them the way you would like to be treated. We readily see the value in approaching life that way. Except when it comes to ourselves.

Take me, for example. Like many people, I am very hard on myself. It’s one of my most salient traits, according to those who know me well (the other is my sarcasm, which I’m sure we’re all dying to hear about in another essay. Wink.) Toward myself, I’m like one of those movie drill sergeants whose hostility and relentless demands inspire an overwhelming desire to crap your pants. I kick myself internally after every failure. I set my expectations unrealistically high and berate myself if I don’t reach them. I compare myself to others and brood over how they’re prettier, smarter, funnier, more successful, or just plain better. Fortunately, over the years I’ve learned that this lack of loving kindness, this self-abuse really, does not help at all. Quite the contrary, it is counterproductive. I know this like gospel. So I try to practice metta toward myself. The operative word there being, of course, try to.

Initially, my attempts to exercise loving kindness toward myself start out well, but quickly devolve into the same self-flagellation that my attempts to do anything new devolve into. “Stop beating yourself up! Be kinder to yourself! Forgive yourself already! Why are you taking so long to change?” my inner drill sergeant yells at me, as he kicks me while I’m down and tells me my pants make my butt look big. I’m pretty sure that defeats the purpose of metta.

I struggle with this constantly. Metta turns into expectation turns into demand, and it seems the more I tell myself not to engage in this cycle, the more I find myself doing exactly that. While I know this can’t continue, though I know I need something to silence my drill sergeant, I find that difficult to do.

Lucky for me, this is usually when life hands me a useful analogy. While on a walk with my daughter, I found a crushed bird egg. On the shards of shell you could see nascent feathers and bone. As I examined the sad remains, there it was, the analogy: we’re baby birds.

In order to raise a baby bird, first and foremost, you must pay attention to it. You need to figure out exactly what it needs in this moment. Sometimes this requires some research (What can you feed a baby bird, how much and how often?). Always it requires being present. You cannot determine if the baby bird needs food or needs a little more or less warmth by yelling and making demands or by blindly doing what you’ve always done with other animals in other situations. The baby bird changes daily — even hourly — therefore, its needs change everyday. This means the only way you can care for it is to pay attention to it in this moment and address the need it has right now.

What happens when you give the baby bird this sort of attention (which in reality is loving kindness)? This fragile, helpless creature grows. It becomes more self-sufficient (not less), it develops its wings, and eventually, it flies.

Now imagine what would happen to that baby bird if you treated it the way you treat yourself in your own mind.

We are no different than that baby bird. It is only with patience and attentiveness that we develop our wings. Even when we push ourselves, challenge ourselves, we need to use a gentle touch. Our souls may sometimes seem weak and lost, but there is no doubt. We were meant to fly.

I want to fly. Guess I should take better care of my baby bird.