How to Love Yourself.
The Ocean and the Wave.
We’re a little obsessed with self-love. It’s touted as The Answer to All Our Problems. Just love yourself, and hey presto! Everything will fall into place.
Maybe. There’s just one problem. Most of us can’t really say what it is. Can you? Maybe you can recite lines you have read. But can you really describe the journey?
So here are a few principles about what self-love really is (and what it isn’t). I’ll sum them up this way. True self-love is the love the ocean has for the wave.
Self-love isn’t narcissism. You wake up. A long day of work awaits you. You splurge on a nice coffee. The day is done. You head to the gym, and work out. You reward yourself afterwards with a fine cocktail. Is this self-love? It’s just self-indulgence, right? It’s a kind of self-conditioning. We set little rewards for ourselves to get us through our days. And that’s OK. But that’s all it is. Love frees us. Conditioning limits us. Often precisely to what we don’t really love.
If we treated others like this, buying them stuff instead of really spending time with them, listening to them, being there for them, they wouldn’t say we really loved them, right? Nor should we believe it for ourselves. Self-indulgence is just a kind of little narcissism. We think we deserve the world. But what do we deserve from ourselves?
Self-love begins in the awareness that there is more in you than the self. True self-love begins with self-awareness. Self-awareness isn’t really what most of us think it is. It’s not just a mind-numbing inventory of your “personality traits” and desires and goals and so on. It’s a more profound and life-changing thing. It’s awareness of the structure of the self, that there’s more in you than the “self”.
True self-awareness is the experience that what you think is your “self” is in fact just a little part of you. You are constantly mentally chatting. So who is listening? You are persistently mentally visualizing? So who is watching? There is an observer in you. That observer is your true self, not the speaker and the image-maker.
Self-love is acceptance of the self by the inner observer. Just be still and let the observer be there for a moment. What is there without the mental chatter, images, thoughts, judgments that the little self produces? The observer doesn’t say, “this is good/bad, right/wrong, success/failure”, right? It just radiates acceptance, gentle compassion, pure love. It just says, “this is”. And “this is” feels true, does it not?
The observer in you doesn’t think “I am”. It just observes “this is”. It is beyond judgment. Only something that is beyond judgment can love, right? So the observer is the part of you that can love you. Now you are learning to let it.
When we observe ourselves, not treat our mental chatter and images as ourselves, but see them forming, rising, falling away, observe the little self struggling to always make new ones, only then can we really begin to accept ourselves. We can finally see our frailties, weaknesses, our fallibility for the first time, from outside the little self. Not just as “I should have done that!!”. But “There is anger and fear in this self”. And so instead of cursing ourselves for our frailties, by really seeing them without judgment, we can begin to accept them. Only the observer can really accept them with love. Only it can reply, “That is OK. Go ahead and think that, feel that, say that, picture that. You are alright. You are loved anyways”. Now you can let fear, anxiety, shame, self-criticism go, right?
Now you are experiencing the beginnings of self-love. But there is further still to go.
Self-love is not something a self gives. It is something a self receives. What does the observer see, hear, know? That the self is just the thought of “I am”. I am this, I am that, I am here, I am there. Self is always “I am”. And whenever there is “I am”, then there is suffering. You may say to yourself, “I am sad”, “I am angry”, “I am frustrated”, and so on.
But you never really say to yourself, “I am happy”, “I am blissful”. You just are those things. What is the difference? When you are happy, blissful, content, the observer becomes all of you. There is no thought of “I am” left. The little self has been extinguished. Just go ahead and just examine it in yourself. When you sit before a beautiful sunrise, or are working on something passionately, or are with your child or lover or family, there is no “I am”, right? There is just “this is”. Now you can be happy. Because first you can just be. There is no self at all here. There is just the observer.
So the observer knows a profound truth about the self, that the self doesn’t. The self is a tiny, limited thing. It is full of suffering. It is always clinging, longing, anxious, afraid. It is full of memory, anticipation, concepts, thoughts. How can it be any other way?
The division into “I am” and “I am not” is really the root of all suffering. The little self is a way to divide reality up into thought, concept. By dividing, it produces anxiety, fear, anger. “I am X” always implies “I am not all that is not X”, right? I am not rich enough, pretty enough, good enough, I am just I, and not I is the whole universe. Now there is something to fear, anger, worry.
Since the self is the thought of “I am”, which implies “I am not”, only the observer can say to the self, “you are only X. You are not what is not X. That is OK. You are loved anyways”. That is what true self-love is.
The observer is the only being in all creation that can have boundless, endless love for the little self. No one else really can. It sees how limited, small, alone it is. And it can wrap its great arms around it.
You are probably used to thinking of self-love as a self-referential action. Something a self does to itself. But that is not really what it self-love at all. It is going beyond the self, to the deeper you. Only what is outside a thing can really love it, beyond judgment, right? So self-love is the deeper you loving the self, the “I am” as a little, limited, suffering thing.
The observer is the ocean. To it, the self is the waves. There are endless waves. And there are endless selves. You wake up today, tomorrow, next week, next month. What is the first thing you think? “I am awake”. “I am”. There is a self now, that suddenly came online. But it is not really last month’s self, or last week’s self. It is not even the same self that went to sleep, is it? It might feel different, act different, and so on.
The thought of “I am” is the wave. But the observer is the ocean. True self love is the love the ocean has for the wave. The ocean can see the wave. But the wave cannot see the ocean. It thinks all there are are waves, does it not? It says, “I am this wave. But that wave is bigger. That wave is faster. That wave is deeper. I am only X. Now I suffer”. And so the ocean is all that can have true compassion, gentle acceptance, boundless and endless love for the wave.
And that is how to love yourself.