February 2019

Cultivating a Better Relationship with Myself

Author: Michele Roldán-Shaw

Know thyself. This ancient aphorism has been attributed to a variety of sages and philosophers, from Socrates to Shakespeare. But what does it really mean? The most succinct and illuminating explanation I ever heard was given by the late S.N. Goenka, a teacher of Vipassana Meditation in India and around the world. He said that the purpose of knowing oneself is not to satisfy intellectual curiosity or get entangled in egocentric notions of “I am this; I am that.” It is to examine ourselves so that wherever we find something wrong, we can correct it. This simple yet penetrating wisdom is characteristic of Goenka, who has helped hundreds of thousands of people learn to live happier lives through the practice of meditation as it was originally taught by the Buddha 2,500 years ago.

My whole life, I have been a seeker and ardent practitioner of any method for self-development that happened to call to me, from fasting to martial arts to lofty spiritual philosophies. But it wasn’t until 2011 when I learned Vipassana at a course taught by Goenka in Jesup, Georgia, that I found a lifelong path to adhere to with the devotion and confidence born of unmistakable benefits. As the Buddha said, this teaching is “directly visible, giving results here and now, inviting one to come and see, applicable, to be personally experienced by the wise.”

Vipassana is a universal, nonreligious technique of self-purification through self-observation. It has given me a concrete method to look deeply within and not only understand what is happening inside myself, but to dissolve destructive habit patterns while building or reinforcing helpful ones. I find that the more I understand myself, the more I’m able to view my own struggles with compassion, and the more I’m able to understand and have compassion for others who are dealing with essentially the same human condition.

What have I come to know about myself through meditation? In short, that the interior reality is everything. Whatever takes place outside is filtered through my senses and cognition to become thoughts and emotions in my mind and physical feelings in my body—only then does it constitute my actual reality. The world has no meaning other than that, because this mind-matter phenomenon is the only tool I have to experience anything. It’s all happening inside. This becomes so apparent when, sitting stone-still in silent meditation, every facet of human existence seems to manifest apropos of nothing: anger, fear, happiness, sadness, pleasure, pain, worry, desire, suffering and on and on. Endless states arise of their own accord and parade across the stage of my mind and body, only to exit when their scene is up. They don’t require any pulling of puppet strings to dance garishly. If some external cue sets them going, good. But if it doesn’t, they play on their own. What does this tell me? That nothing and no one is responsible for my drama except me.

Abstract though it may sound, the implications of this fundamental paradigm shift are quite tangible and far-reaching. I become 100 percent responsible for my own happiness and suffering. I understand that events don’t matter nearly as much as my reactions to them. That means not only do I need to take charge of setting up my life in a way conducive to my happiness, but wherever things are beyond my control, the focus then falls squarely on my internal states and how to rectify them. More often than not, both efforts take place at the same time. I keep working by various outward means to achieve an end: land a book deal, get my health straight, improve my living conditions. But as long as my desires remain unfulfilled, a significant portion of my energy is devoted to observing, understanding and purifying my thoughts and feelings about them. I keep trying to be patient. I keep trying to be happy. Meditation helps; it gives me strength to face my toughest challenges without sinking.

There is one area where I find it especially important to shift the focus back on myself, and that is in relationships. Human nature is such that we always want to blame the other person; we always want them to do the work. Rarely do we hit the pause button on our emotions long enough to look objectively at our own behavior and try to understand the role we play in any given dynamic. What I have found is, when I make a committed effort to change myself, quite often the other person follows suit! The entire relationship transforms in a way I never would have thought possible when I was fixated on how so-and-so was just a thorn in my side. By getting to the root of what’s happening at the interior level, acknowledging my own feelings with self-love and compassion, then facing up to how I can do better, I gain peace and strength to deal with difficult situations. I know it’s not my imagination, because one of the closest people in my life once told me, “I think your meditation has made me calmer.” I can even testify to instances when, by humbly surrendering to the other person in an altercation, they actually did a 180 and gave me what I wanted! Of course, that doesn’t mean this will work every time, or that one should become a pushover; but it’s something to keep in mind. Humility is a quality the world could use more of.

It’s not easy to look long and deeply at myself. Sometimes I am horrified by what I find. But then I remember it’s a false ego that wants to believe I’m above human frailties like envy, resentment, self-pity, and know-it-all-ism … to name a few of the worst. I try to smile and accept these players dancing across my inner stage, even as I gently work to nudge them off; I cast the spotlight around until I find the real stars—kindness, sincerity, loyalty, devotion and truth—hopefully without letting them go to my head. I keep working to know myself, correct myself, and make my inner world a better place, with the faith that this will spill onto the world around me. There will always be evil abroad; I can’t help that. But let there not be any evil within me.

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