Awareness is at the core of spiritual awakening. Without awareness or self-knowledge, it’s impossible to generate love, kindness, empathy, and compassion, not only for oneself but also for others. Even for the mind to turn inwards, we need awareness. Our life is mostly an action-reaction loop, and we remain stuck despite knowing its futility. Awareness brings wisdom – a profound knowledge of a different kind that disentangles the knots created by the compulsive thinking mind.
When one door closes, many others open. One needs the right vision to see it. I’m not talking about the eyes. I’m talking about opening the mind to various possibilities – to the infinite potential that you have within you.
The problem with us is that we keep clinging to the closed door. I’ll give you my example. A couple of years back, I was so fixated on the idea of making it big as an entrepreneur that I didn’t consider any other possibility besides entrepreneurship. I was so blinded by my fantasies that I couldn’t see that I didn’t have the right skills to become a successful entrepreneur.
I tried everything in my capacity but kept failing. At that time, my self-esteem was in tatters. I became depressed. We become so mesmerized by success stories in media that we don’t even think about the majority who don’t make it.
And every time we fail, it feels like it’s game over. And guess what happens next? We find someone to blame. I did the same – the economy is not right, nobody helps me, my father is not rich, my friends do not support me, my spouse is not understanding, I have mortgages, the world is a horrible place, I’m unlucky, god is not on my side, and so on and so forth.
People ridiculed me, and it hurt my ego. Things used to go wrong at the last minute and during the most unexpected moments. But that’s life.
The question is – what are you going to do when life dumps you in a garbage pit? You won’t get anywhere without resistance. That’s the nature of existence. So how do you think the turnaround happens?
It happens by developing self-compassion. You must know yourself more than you know anything in this world. When we’re not self-aware, we unconsciously continue with self-sabotaging behaviors.
Beginning With Self-Awareness
The first step is to cultivate self-awareness. How do we do that? Before I answer that, let me tell you a story. There was a great king who desired to meet Buddha because his wife was a devout follower.
She had been following Buddha’s teaching for many years, even before her marriage to the king. The king was curious and wanted to meet the Buddha in person, and as they say nowadays, see what the fuss is all about.
King had heard lots of praises about Buddha from his wife, and he was eager to learn from him. On knowing that the Buddha had agreed to come, the wife asked the king to greet Buddha personally as he reached the kingdom’s gates.
The king agreed and asked his wife, “I’m meeting Buddha for the first time; what should I offer him? I have a very precious gem that has been with us for many generations. Will he be pleased if I offer him this lustrous gem as a gift? Will he accept it?”
The wife knowing the Buddha, suggested that it would be better if the king offered him a fresh lotus flower from the pond instead of the gem. But the king was unconvinced and hesitant to offer the gem.
He said to his wife, “I’m sure Buddha will appreciate receiving something so valuable that I have not deemed anybody in this world to be worthy of its possession.” Still, this did not convince the wife. Finally, seeing that his wife was hung up on giving the lotus, the king decided to offer both.
When Buddha arrived, the king graciously welcomed him and offered the gem. Seeing the gem, the Buddha said, “Drop it!” The king was shocked to see such a reaction from Buddha. He wondered why Buddha was so displeased with being offered something so valuable.
He said, “Oh, great Buddha! Perhaps you have not carefully looked at what I’m offering you here. This is one of the finest gems in the world. It is a part of our legacy and has been in the generation for many ages. Why do you insult me? Don’t you appreciate what I’m giving up to honor your presence?”.
The Buddha again repeated, “Drop It!”. Since his people and Buddha’s disciples surrounded the king, he had no other option but to comply. He dropped the gem with a heavy heart.
After that, he presented the lotus flower, and the Buddha repeated, “Drop It!” Now the king was furious, thinking that this man was crazy. But at that moment, the king had no choice but to throw away the flower, and he did and said, “Now What?”
The Buddha smiled and said, “I did not ask you to drop the objects that you were carrying in your hands, but the mental images of them you hold in your mind.”
Buddha told him to drop the facade, the false image that he had so strongly identified within his mind. He said that there’s no king, popper, wealthy, poor, right, wrong, fool, and learned once you empty your mind.
If you think about it, the gem that the king held on to was nothing more than a generational burden. All our lives, we are brainwashed by our caretakers, teachers, and society to believe in false ideas of self-worth.
And somewhere along the way, we forget who we are and what we want in life. We lose ourselves to the conditioning of the past. And we continue to keep this burden, hoping that it will bring us joy and happiness. Real happiness comes when we awaken ourselves to the absolute truth.
It’s all about dropping the facade and being yourself. It’s about developing the mindfulness to accept yourself with all the imperfections, limitations, and shortcomings. The moment you pay attention to these imperfections and limitations, you realize you were never any of these in the first place. So as the Buddha said, “DROP IT!”
Developing self-awareness requires deep inner inquiry into your true nature. Self-awareness has different levels of reality, and each of them is realized layer-by-layer as we gain the ability to go deeper.
It begins by recognizing our false image that results from layer-upon-layer of conditioning. When these layers are peeled one after another, what remains is the true “impersonal” self.
Without having a clear understanding of our afflictions, we can never overcome them. It requires deep introspection and self-reflection. Practicing mindfulness meditation can be helpful.
Mindfulness is the practice of bringing your awareness to the present moment and observing the contents of your mind without creating any reaction or judgment. Only in the present moment will your awareness shine on the essence of who you truly are.
Not only that, it will set you free from the self-limiting beliefs and ideas that you’ve been carrying around for ages. This is what Eckhart Tolle means when he uses the words “the flowering of consciousness.”
For me, this was a great revelation. It helped me understand how I had created a strong identification with an idea of success based on a limited number of factors that were not in my control. I was deluding myself by thinking that money and fame are the answers to a happy and fulfilling life.
I was continually chasing objects of desire and sense pleasures only to avoid the deeply ingrained afflictions in my psyche. Self-Acceptance was the first step that laid the foundation for my purpose in life and spiritual goals. It made me realize who I am and what I have to do.
There’s a profound quote by Rumi that says, “Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.”
Who creates these barriers? The thoughts and feelings that you’ve identified with. What Rumi says here is that you have mistaken yourself to be something you’re not.
When you think, you become the thought. When you feel, you become the feeling, and when you emote, you become the emotion. And by identifying yourself with the contents of your mind, you have forgotten your true nature, which is nothing other than unconditional love.
There’s no need to seek love because IT IS YOU. The problem is that you believe that you can only heal when others love you. But that love is conditional. It is based on attachment to form and name as a separate entity.
The moment you remove the form, that love ceases to exist. Your attachment to form is based on your need to be validated for what you believe yourself to be. You’re happy until you keep receiving this validation and become anxious when you stop receiving it.
You have based your whole idea of happiness and fulfillment on acquiring the objects of sense pleasures; there’s bound to be pain and suffering because nothing ever can satisfy your cravings. What Rumi is saying is that there is something beyond the mind that you are missing.
If your love is transient, how can it be the truth? Absolute truth is unchanging and everlasting. Love is the absolute truth. You confuse attachment with love and reduce love to a mere feeling, but feelings are temporary or what the Buddhists call impermanence.
When you perform self-inquiry, you move closer to your true essence, and you experience this love. Let me give you an analogy to explain this. When you look at the sky, you see the sunshine. But you can’t see the sun when the dark clouds appear.
If you say that the sun has vanished, that would be a wrong statement. The sun does not go anywhere. It is always there. It’s the dark clouds that block the sun and give an illusion that it has disappeared.
Your love is the eternal sun, whereas the dark clouds are the afflicting contents of your mind – the negative thoughts that prevent you from experiencing eternal love.
Self-compassion is a significant challenge for most people because we’re so used to criticizing ourselves when things go wrong. Self-criticism is our standard go-to explanation when things don’t work our way. Every time my entrepreneurial ventures failed, I blamed myself.
I unconsciously kept attending to negative and self-critical thoughts until they became my living reality. When I look back, I feel that I should have been kinder to myself. I was hard on myself. A big reason for my failures was this perfectionist attitude that I always carried around proudly.
My ego was so bloated that I could not see how this tendency to do things perfectly sabotaged my success. It felt like I was being watched and judged for everything I did. When in reality, nobody cared. But this critical voice in my mind grew louder and told me that I was not good enough.
Most people are confused about their goals and what they want in life. They keep chasing success and happiness outwards when real salvation is within. I’m not saying that it’s bad to have worldly goals. We should do what we need to do to survive in this world, but we should not forget who we are.
Realizing ourselves as unconditional-eternal-love is the highest self-awareness. And therefore, self-compassion does not come without self-awareness. When you’re self-aware, you accept yourself with all of your shortcomings.
I used to think of myself as a multitalented genius who could handle multiple tasks simultaneously. The main reason why my startups failed is that I was trying to be a “one-man army.” I believed that I was special and that I could do things that others couldn’t. But all of that was my ego.
This realization that I was ordinary or average was unsettling at that time. It hurt my ego. It was painful because I had created a false image that was desperate to prove itself to the world. That’s when I started practicing self-compassion.
Instead of fighting my ego, I surrendered. It’s not easy to confront yourself, but it’s the only way to realize the truth. And believe me when I tell you this – the moment I surrendered, something amazing happened. I reignited my creative spark. I didn’t care about perfection anymore. I allowed myself to make mistakes and do crappy work.
I stopped caring about what people would think about my writing. I didn’t have to impress my audience or seek validation from them. It was a feeling of great freedom.
Self-compassion means that you stop judging and treat yourself kindly. I often see that most of us are kind to others when they’re going through a rough patch, but we tend to be harsh and unforgiving when it comes to ourselves.
If you’re genuinely empathic, you will show the same compassion to yourself as you do for others.
Do you treat yourself with compassion? Most of us don’t. And do you know why? Because there is a subtle voice in your head that’s continually reminding you of past shame, contempt, unworthiness, and belittlement. It’s called the inner critic.
When we create strong identification with our inner critic, it becomes impossible to remain grounded in the present moment. This voice keeps reminding us that everything is our fault. We are undeserving. The more we listen to this inner critic, the more we start believing it.
Your afflicting thoughts and feelings become your reality. You can’t get rid of the inner critic by trying to suppress your thoughts forcefully. Suppression, avoidance, or any kind of aversion leads to trouble later on.
Instead of trying to stop or fight with your afflictions, allow them to manifest in your conscious awareness with grace and compassion. Don’t offer resistance. By that, I mean don’t create a feeling of aversion to these troubling feelings and emotions.
When you practice compassion repeatedly, you observe that there is a pattern to these afflicting thoughts. Your mind is spinning up different stories, but they are all producing the same outcome. The feeling that “I am not enough,” “I am unworthy,” and so forth.
When you learn self-compassion, this negativity loses its power to influence you. You experience a renewed sense of self-worth that is not dependent on external compassion but one that naturally generates from within.
The compassion that you receive from the outside has a temporary soothing effect. It doesn’t last because of past mind conditioning. Your psychological tendencies and predispositions overtake and hijack your rational mind.
This idea that you are not enough or unworthy of love can keep you anxious your entire life. I have seen underachievers. I have also seen overachievers. They both run mindlessly after materialistic pleasures hoping that someday they will fill that void or empty feeling constantly they carry in their hearts.
One example is compulsive shopping. Now I’m not against consuming. You should have what you need. But your actions should come from the place of the highest awareness. If you keep hoarding stuff in the hope that it will make you happy or make you enough, think about it!
Every piece that you own has a psychological cost in addition to the material cost. You may not be aware of it at this moment, but it’s there in your subconscious. That’s because when you purchased it, you created an identification – an emotional attachment to the item with the expectation that it will make you happy or enough or more. And you go after more when that expectation is not met, which is mostly the case.
Even when you realize that you don’t need it anymore, you can’t part with it. I’m not saying you shouldn’t have any identifications. That’s like saying you shouldn’t have an ego. No. What I’m saying is that loosen your emotional grip on it so that when you realize you no longer need it, you’re able to part with it.
And that, my friend, is one of the significant teachings of the Buddha. So next time you buy a luxury item, question yourself, “how is it going to enrich my life? Am I still trying to prove myself to others, or is this going to help me in my journey of self-discovery?”
The most significant barrier to love and compassion is not the adversities that we meet in life but the judgmental mind that prevents us from seeing the simple truth of the present moment. But the good news is that you can change this default programming by consistently practicing self-compassion in real-life situations.
Think of it as developing a skill. There will be times you’ll fail, but that’s ok. Even the greatest of the greats have had trouble showing themselves love and compassion. There’s a great quote by Nelson Mandela that says, “As I walked out the door towards the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.”
What makes self-compassion challenging is that the conditioned mind turns us into a prisoner by forcing us to fall back into old habitual patterns. And it can be extremely frustrating. This conditioning is so deeply ingrained within our psyche that it feels like one of those traps that we will never be able to escape.
We leave no opportunity to criticize ourselves. If you carefully observe, you’ll notice how strongly you sometimes react to situations that are not in your favor or don’t go according to your expectations.
For example, when you miss your flight, get late for a meeting, forget your spouse’s anniversary, and by the way, don’t do that, especially if you’re a guy, because no amount of self-compassion is going to save you from the wrath of what’s coming – if you know what I mean.
Just a little heads up for the menfolk out there!
What I’m saying is that these may be bad situations, but they’re not so bad that you create unwarranted criticism towards yourself. I mean, I have seen people physically assault themselves for minor mistakes.
You may say that a particular event triggered you, but the reality is that events are not in your control. Your overemotional reaction to a specific event may be associated with some repressed emotion.
It may be repressed feelings from long-term physical or psychological abuse, a long-forgotten childhood trauma, not receiving enough emotional and psychological support in childhood, and more.
Eventually, you will have to take responsibility for your unconsciousness that creates unpleasant emotions in you.
If you have a temper, accept it. Don’t justify it egoistically or judge yourself for having it. Create a resolve to change this conditioning by showering yourself with utmost love and compassion. But all that will happen when you’re ready the take responsibility. You know, as they say, the buck stops here.
We are not our conditioned minds, and we have the power to change. The more you practice self-compassion, the better you get at it. Failure is not a problem, but judging yourself or failing is. With time, you will gradually cultivate your capacity for self-compassion, even in the most challenging circumstances.
You know this is the best time (Apr 2021) to practice self-compassion as we are going through a deadly pandemic that has taken so many lives and uprooted the entire socioeconomic framework. Many people are struggling to make ends meet, and there’s so much uncertainty about the future.
Don’t allow Yourself to be swayed away by your inner critic. Practice mindfulness. Practice meditation. Spend quality time with your loved ones. And treat yourself with kindness and respect.
Developing Compassion For Others
The last step is to develop compassion for others, even towards those who are not your well-wishers. Now I know this isn’t easy. But if you keep practicing, you will eventually develop this quality. In Buddhism, this concept is called loving-kindness or metta.
I’m planning to come up with some loving-kindness-guided meditations that will help you. Developing compassion for others becomes easy once you learn to be compassionate to yourself.
But here’s the thing! Please understand, compassion doesn’t mean that you allow people to hurt you physically or psychologically. If you find yourself in the way of harm, you must do everything you can to protect yourself. And while doing that, don’t create feelings of hatred towards the other person.
Once upon a time, a snake had a sudden awakening and decided to follow the path of love and compassion to attain liberation. He sought help from a realized monk who lived in a nearby monastery.
The monk, out of kindness, taught him the techniques and lessons on compassion. After a couple of years of learning compassion, the snake was hit hard by the realization that he did so much wrong in life.
He repented and sobbed inconsolably about the fact that he had bitten so many people and taken innocent lives for no reason. He wowed that he would never bite another human being as long as he lived.
Just then, a group of drunk village people was passing by. They noticed the snake and started beating it mercilessly. The snake was gravely injured to the point of death, but he didn’t fight back. After those people left, that same monk, his master, passing by, noticed the injured snake.
He asked what had happened. And the snake told him everything. The snake asked him, “Is this what I get for being compassionate? I was better off bitting people. At least they never dared to come close.”
The monk smiled and replied, “You didn’t learn the lessons properly. I asked you not to bite people out of compassion, but I never asked you to stop hissing and scaring them away when they trouble you.”
Sometimes people try to hurt us in different ways by playing covert psychological games. But we must have a mindful presence to understand the situation and respond accordingly. Don’t sacrifice yourself for the well-being of others. Don’t be a people-pleaser or a “yes” person.
That’s why I place so much emphasis on self-awareness before compassion. If you don’t know yourself, you’ll never be able to develop compassionate feelings for others. A majority of people spend their entire lives complaining about others. They love playing the “victim.” They continuously create resentment and feelings of revenge or getting even with others.
The moment you start changing these unconscious patterns, it’s likely that your judgmental mind will show up. You’ll feel guilty about having negative thoughts, and that’s just another trap of the ego. The ego doesn’t want you out. So self-love and self-care should always be your priority, and it’s not selfish.
We are the divine sentient beings having this human experience. And not realizing our true nature, we look for a savior outside. You don’t need a guru or a savior. The most powerful transformational tools are already within you.
What’s needed is a shift in the focus from external to internal. You have to power to create the life of your dreams. You have a potent instrument known as the mind; befriend it and make the most out of it.