I was at Austin Zen Center recently, attending a ceremony for my teacher, who was installed as the Center’s first abbot. As part of the ceremony, my teacher made five statements to summarize his teaching. The one that stuck with me most was this: whatever you find in yourself, acknowledge it, accept it, and forgive. This statement aligns very closely with the three aspects of self-compassion: awareness, a sense of common humanity, and kindness. It also sounds like a recipe for making amends with oneself, and I wanted to share it with you.
When a teaching is neatly summarized this way, it can initially seem like embodying it and living it should be equally simple and straightforward. However, these three aspects of self-compassion can be deeply challenging. Let’s take a closer look at each one.
Most humans are conscious of certain aspects of themselves, and not conscious of others. For example, you may be conscious of the perfectionistic part of yourself that pushes you to do things in a certain way, but not fully conscious of other parts of yourself that are not aligned with perfectionism.
If you believe that you’re supposed to always do things the “right” way, then you will find it difficult to acknowledge the parts of you that are more rebellious and don’t want to always follow the rules. When something arises that conflicts with your set of beliefs about who you are, it can be very threatening to your sense of self. As a result, you may try to hide this part of you ~ even from yourself.
But when we hide these “shadow” aspects of ourselves and instead try to live up to a certain image we have of who we're supposed to be, the shadow aspects tend to assert themselves anyway. Often, this shows up as behaviors that can seem self-sabotaging.
You can’t force yourself to acknowledge some part of you if you’re not ready to see it. However, you can begin to open yourself to the idea that you are complex, and that there are probably aspects of you that you don’t know very well. From that place, you are more likely to be receptive to acknowledging parts of you that you might have a habit of denying.
Once you begin to become aware of something in yourself and you acknowledge it, how do you accept it? Again, this isn’t something you can will yourself to do. It involves a process of coming into relationship with a part of you that a) you likely don’t have a lot of conscious experience with, and b) you may not like very much.
This can be really hard. It can feel similar to spending time with a difficult relative, except that you don’t get to fly home; you live with them 24/7. If you are perfectionist, it may be difficult to accept parts of you that are “messy” ~ maybe a part that feels like a rebellious teenager who doesn’t want to do things the “right” way.
True acceptance is a process. At first, you may not be able to understand the point of having a “rebellious teenager” part of you. If that’s how you feel, it’s important to start with acknowledging those feelings themselves. You can experiment with acknowledging that while you don’t know how to relate to this aspect of yourself and you don't even see its value, you are willing to find out more and to engage with the process with an open heart and mind. This can be a powerful practice.
“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”
~ Rainer Maria Rilke
The practice of self-forgiveness can be confusing and challenging. Often this is because we think we don't deserve forgiveness. We get confused about how to forgive ourselves without letting ourselves off the hook when we think we could be better served by holding ourselves accountable.
To clarify, forgiving yourself isn’t the same thing as letting yourself off the hook. It’s more about recognizing that it is possible to come into a compassionate relationship with parts of yourself that are shadowy and challenging. It includes accountability.
If your rebellious-teenager part got triggered, and you said something unkind, or created a challenging situation for yourself or someone else, then you can meet that experience with both forgiveness and a willingness to be accountable. In the same way that actual teenagers act out when they are trying to communicate, that part of you is also likely trying to be heard. You can see it as your responsibility to parent this part of you as wisely and compassionately as possible. That includes both being receptive and setting appropriate limits.
A big part of the work of self-forgiveness entails loosening the grip of the narrative you’ve been telling yourself about who you are. If you feel stuck in a rigid self-narrative, see if you can let in the possibility that things may not be what they seem; that you probably don’t have the full story. We all have unconscious beliefs and biases that influence our perceptions. And, most of us have internal teenagers who don’t like being told what to do.
Before the abbot installation ceremony I mentioned above, a visiting teacher ~ Hoitsu Suzuki (son of Zen Center’s founding teacher Shunryu Suzuki) ~ gave a talk. He referred to a question that he had practiced with since he had become an abbot himself, in Japan: “Where did you come from?” This struck me as a potent question to keep in mind as you engage with self-forgiveness.
There are many ways that a person could practice with the “Where did you come from?” question. For one, it reminds you to look more closely at your assumptions; to examine and consider where your beliefs and conditioned responses come from, and to recognize that they are not necessarily fixed. They can, and do, change.
When your stories about who you are don't have such a tight grip, a more open-minded and open-hearted sense of yourself can emerge. From that place, you can more easily forgive yourself for the less-than-optimal choices you may have made, as well as for what you were not able to understand at the time.
Self-compassion and self-forgiveness are expressed by refraining from punishing yourself for what you didn’t know and couldn’t see, and by understanding that you are constantly learning. And you have the opportunity to act on what you know now, even if you didn’t know it then. You can begin to make amends and be compassionately accountable to yourself now.