One of the strongest forces of the human heart is the need for connection. Babies deprived of connection will not thrive and even may die. In the very least they will face major challenges throughout their life seeing the world as an unfriendly, dangerous place.
Whether children or adults, the feeling of isolation or loneliness is one of the most painful of all human emotions. But though the yearning for connection is so primal, opening our hearts to ourselves or another is a scary proposition. It leaves us vulnerable to unmet expectations and disappointment, not to mention loss. Even in the best of situations, we sense the truth of impermanence that things will change, whether by shifting circumstances or by death. A classic reflection in Buddhist philosophy that practitioners are encouraged to repeat every day is that “I will be separated from everyone near and dear to me.” This is done both to appreciate the preciousness of what we have when it’s here and also when change inevitably happens the surprise or shock that can easily devastate us.
And so the paradox is that even though we long for intimacy, our hearts are fragile and we may find that it’s safer to protect ourselves from anticipatory hurt by cutting off the very connection we seek. If we feel at all threatened or hurt we may withdraw, become aloof or angry or even shut down rather than expose ourselves to the vulnerability of opening our hearts. Even though we’re motivated by self-care this is a huge price to pay for the illusion of safety. Unless we have naturally rich storehouse of trust and safety, it actually takes real courage to love. This is true whether opening our hearts to ourselves, to others or to humanity in general.
In working with many people over decades probably the most common challenge is the inability to love or even be kind to ourselves. It’s ironic that although we truly want to be happy, the person who gives us the hardest time is the one right inside. We’re often the last to really see all the good qualities that our friends so enjoy in us. I know many really amazing people who have such a hard time seeing what’s so obvious to me.
Instead of noticing all the good shining through us, we focus on the flaws. We can easily be lost in self judgement or unworthiness, not measuring up to some impossible standard of perfection. We live in what Albert Einstein called “an optical delusion of consciousness.” In working with someone, I often see my task as focusing and appreciating the Divine right inside until they start to glimpse it for themselves. After a while with practice they may start to have genuine access to it on their own. I know this is possible because, as I write in my book Awakening Joy, I traveled this path from self-loathing to self-love myself.
An essential part of the process of loving ourselves is accepting and forgiving our humanness and imperfections: our fears, our pettiness, our anger, our unskillful actions, our confusion. Until we can embrace the whole package we try to avoid facing our flaws. What is so prevalent in our society is one mass disconnection, as people close off from their feelings and numb out by distracting themselves with substances, entertainment or the Internet. It takes great courage to honestly and fully accept who you are, feeling your pain as well as your goodness and learning to hold it all with the compassion and kindness you would give to most anybody else. It requires a courageous heart to let go of perfection and allow yourself to just be human.
In her profound poem “Awakening Now”, Danna Faulds writes:
Do you value your reasons for staying small more than the light shining through the open door?
Now is the only time you have to be whole.
Now is the sole moment that exists to live in the light of your true Self.
Perfection is not a prerequisite for anything but pain.
Please, oh please, don’t continue to believe in your disbelief.
And what a gift to everyone we meet, since our natural “enoughness” allows others to relax and just be themselves as well. The good news is that, no matter how deep the wound, this is absolutely possible and a most worthwhile endeavor.