Near Enemy #5: Love yourself

What are ‘near enemies to the truth’?  Borrowing this phrase from Buddhism, I use it to refer to slightly distorted versions of spiritual teachings—statements that are close to a profound and subtle truth, but are distorted just enough to make a big difference over time. When we’re talking about deep and fundamental truths, getting it a little bit wrong doesn’t matter in the short run, but it does in the long run, just like a tiny adjustment to the rudder of your boat makes little difference at first, but after 1000 miles, it lands you on a different continent.

Now, some people object to the use of the word ‘wrong’ in the previous sentence, subscribing as they do to the idea that the only necessary criterion for truth is it feels true to me. This view is as dangerous in spirituality as it is in politics, because it usually means I want it to be true, so I'm going to believe it, regardless of the facts. If you don't see how dangerous this is, or if you doubt whether there really are facts or universal truths, please read the second half of the first blog post in this series.  

Understanding the Near Enemies to the Truth, and why they are near enemies and not the truth itself, is hugely important for any spiritual seeker who wants to get past the beginner stages and into the deep (and deeply fulfilling) spiritual work. Having said that, it’s important to note that if a Near Enemy is near enough, it can be a Temporary Ally for a beginner. But as the stakes get higher in spiritual practice, there is no such thing as ‘close enough’ anymore, and your comforting affirmations must be sacrificed on the altar of truth, or else your spiritual progress stalls. With that brief orientation, let’s look at this week’s Near Enemy. 

Near Enemy #5: love yourself

Surely, one might think, there is no more unproblematic injunction in the self-help industry, and in popular spiritual culture, than ‘love yourself’. Well, think again. When people try to heed this seemingly salutary command, it can lead them into a whole mess of trouble. I’ll first describe some of those issues, then I’ll share the truth to which ‘love yourself’ is a near enemy, insofar as I’ve been able to discern and experience it.

First off, what does it actually mean to love yourself? Usually, in order to perform (or attempt to perform) this action, one must be internally divided: there must be one part of you doing the loving, and one or more parts of you being loved. There is of course nothing illegitimate in this—for example, it may feel downright wonderful to love your ‘inner child’ (read: unresolved childhood samskāras) after judging her for so long. But however good it feels, and however much psychic relief it provides, it’s only a short-term solution. Because what it also does is reinforce internal division,* and the only truly sustainable model of internal harmony is that of the undivided self. According to Tantrik Yoga anyway.

The ‘love yourself’ paradigm reinforces internal division in two ways. First, by subtly supporting the view that there is a part of you that needs love because it’s not okay as it is (one secretly hopes that the inner child will be loved to death, which demonstrates a lingering rejection of those aspects of oneself). Second, by being irresolubly normative: you should love yourself, so you will have to maintain this inner division to comply with that mandate.

But this is the least of our worries. Socially, we can hardly ignore the fact that the ‘love yourself’ injunction has bolstered an increasingly narcissistic trend in our society. This is in part because, just as we believe others need to behave a certain way to merit our love, most of us subconsciously believe that we need to demonstrate that we are special in order to merit this love we are supposed to have for ourselves. Now, you may think, “I’m not one of those people! I love myself unconditionally” — in which case ask yourself why you are so invested in being special and in demonstrating that specialness. Perhaps you reply that it’s to win others’ approval, not your own. But would you really crave their approval if you actually experienced unconditional love for your own being, your own existence?

I once had a student who claimed to love herself and yet was terribly unhappy being on her own (both in the sense of ‘single’ and ‘physically alone’). Later I realized that this kind of ‘self-love’ really meant that she was committed to the story of her own specialness and lovability, which then created a very painful cognitive dissonance: “I’m so special and lovable, I know I am, so why doesn’t anyone love me?” (Where ‘love me’ means ‘want me as a life partner’—a particularly insidious distortion of the word ‘love’.)

All too often we ‘love’ ourselves on the basis of a story of our own uniqueness. This is the Facebook version of love, that in which the word simply means ‘like a lot’ and/or ‘strongly approve of’. The great significance our culture places on individual difference is spiritually problematic, since a) on the spiritual path, we’re seeking to realize that which unites us to all other beings, and b) difference is that which divides us from others, reinforcing the self-image-machine we call ego. Moreover, this emphasis on difference leads us away from the truth of how things are, because in truth what unites us is far greater than what divides us (we all have the same biology, the same basic feelings and needs, etc.), so the emphasis on difference focuses attention on the superficial more than the fundamental and inflates the former at the expense of the latter.

This need to ‘feel special’ is even more insidious than we realize. It has contributed to socio-cultural divisiveness because it focuses on individual needs more than the needs of the group or society; it has poisoned our interpersonal relationships with the mostly-fabricated need for ‘validation’; and it has undermined our capacity for empathy, since empathy is a kind of human connection that is almost impossible without the implicit assumption that the other’s feelings and needs are—at least for that moment of connection—as valid and worthy of attention as one’s own. Lastly, the need to feel special even undermines one’s self-love, because every time others don’t acknowledge one’s specialness, it fosters insecurity and even self-hatred. Do you know anyone who simultaneously thinks they’re so special and yet is also plagued by insecurity? Of course you do. It’s the epidemic of our time. And it’s not getting better.

In our time, some argue that in relationship, it’s healthy to prioritize one’s own needs over those of the other, while others argue that love means caring about the other person more than yourself. Both are wrong, since relationship only flourishes when it is regarded as a ‘third entity’ and both parties ask “What does the relationship need?” in addition to asking “What do I need?” and “What do you need?”

So the cultural mythos around the specialness of the individual self causes divisiveness on small and large scales.

Let’s think for a moment about the large scale. ‘Love yourself’ is often interpreted to mean ‘love your identity’, which for young people often means having to construct an identity to love. This identity is often constructed on the basis of markers of difference—sexual, racial/ethnic, political, etc. The tragedy is that this can create more suffering. The young middle-class African-American of today who experiences relatively little racism in her community (yes, there are such communities, though far too few) is taught at university to identify with one of the most-oppressed social groups in recent human history. This identification, based on her body’s genetic inheritance, introduces her to a world of pain. Nor is such identification considered optional in postmodern academia. Now there is an argument to be made for the ultimate benefit of this pain—that acknowledging her blackness and acknowledging what the black community has suffered in America may inspire her to be part of the solution, to work to secure the rights of that community, which after 150 years are still not secure. I can certainly sympathize with this view. But is it right for her professors and fellow (more senior) students to implicitly choose it for her? After all, the cultural concept of race turns out to have little to no scientific basis, so it’s not wrong to call it a choice on her part whether or not to identify with her blackness over and above any other aspect of her being (such as her artistic temperament or her talent for math or her love of 16th century English poetry).** The very abstract noun ‘blackness’ seeks to reify a cultural construct. But, on the other hand, it is a cultural construct which is reified by most of our society and its institutions, and that has very real consequences. If our hypothetical student leaves her New England liberal arts college and visits parts of the deep South, she will doubtless feel the pain of being seen as black woman first and a human second (if at all). And as I have argued elsewhere, that pain will not resolve without being faced squarely, and facing it necessarily entails accepting the fact that most people view her in terms of the historically constructed category previously called ‘Negro’ and currently called ‘African-American’. (And of course, her identity as a woman is also culturally and historically constructed; the fact that most people confuse sex and gender indicates how poorly understood its constructedness is.) Of course, a shared experience of oppression and marginalization can create a strong bond among those who identify as African-American (or female, or . . .). Our hypothetical young woman may feel solidarity with others who have suffered the effects of racism, and there’s certainly no reason she shouldn’t. But all too often, trying to love one’s identity entails seeing it in opposition to that of others. But if, justifiably angered by the countless crimes of the white men of history who have sought to preserve and extend their unearned privilege, she sees a white man in front of her as a representative of those crimes instead of an individual human of unknown values, is she not committing the same sin which so pains her and still lives in her body?

Since we’ve gotten onto this topic, I must acknowledge that of course it is problematic for one inhabiting a white male body to write about the experience of a black female, even a wholly hypothetical one. But the point I’m trying to make is not at all related to a specific identity; I used a specific example only to avoid too many abstractions. The point relates to the consequences of viewing self-love as love of one’s identity (whatever that is) and thereby running the risk of failing to see the constructedness of identity and of thereby failing to see the optionality of taking on the pain of the entire social group with which one identifies.

I also need to make clear that calling identity a socio-cultural construct does NOT constitute a belittlement of the enormous pain that women, black folks, and other social groups have experienced due to systemic oppression and marginalization. It rather seeks to acknowledge that their oppression is due to the inability of culture to see that its categories are constructed. When humans believe that their ideas about (say) women relate to the actual femaleness of the latter rather than to culturally-constructed notions about femaleness, then oppression is certain to result.

To sum up the problem of identity from this ‘spiritual’ perspective: insofar as a woman believes “I suffer because of being a woman; I suffer because of what I am” instead of “I suffer because some others view me as a woman first and human second (or not at all) and they have deeply-entrenched cultural-constructed prejudices about women.” (Obviously, in this sentence (and not necessarily others), for ‘woman’ you can also read ‘PoC’ or ‘trans person’ or…) The problem of intersectionality is of course real because some people, such as a gay black woman, are all too often seen as a human fourth, if at all. The 'solution' is of course to see everyone as a human first and foremost, and in nondual Yoga philosophy, that means seeing them as an intrinsically perfect expression of God first and foremost. (Where 'perfect' is shorthand for 'does not need to be different from how she is' / 'does not need to conform to my mental image of how people should be'.)

Everything I’ve said here is consonant with yoga philosophy, since the latter, depending on the school of thought, says “You are not your body, you are pure spirit, which is neither white nor black nor male nor female” (Classical Yoga) or “You are Consciousness, and Consciousness is everything, so you are your body, but not any more than you are anything else in the field of your experience” (Tantrik Yoga). Either way, according to yoga, even though your pain might be linked to your body and how others perceive that body, your pain is not a uniquely female kind of pain or a uniquely black kind of pain. It is a human kind of pain. When you feel it, you are having a human experience, one which you share with all other humans--for it is precisely the pain of having others confuse your selfhood with your body. I might almost say it is the pain which results from people not perceiving the fundamental truths taught by the yoga tradition.

That tradition encourages us to simultaneously say “You are not your body” and hold compassionate space for the pain that body (and mind) have suffered.  I want to be crystal clear here: I am NOT AT ALL seeking to invalidate the choice of those who affiliate themselves with a particular social group and champion its rights as a member thereof. Such a choice is not at all irreconcilable with Yoga philosophy, since you do not have to actually believe that you are the bodymind in order to honor it, care for it, and fight for its rights in society. 

So what is the spiritual truth to which ‘love yourself’ is a near enemy? It’s ever so hard to put into words, and it’s ever so worth trying. It has nothing in particular to do with loving your samskāras (‘inner child’), or believing that you’re special, or valorizing your cultural identity. It’s something much softer and subtler than that, and ultimately much more potent.

It entails no longer rejecting or resisting any part of yourself, any emotion or impulse or feeling or memory, so much so that these various experiences and aspects cease to be seen as ‘parts’, cease to be segregated from the central self. Everything in the internal landscape of experience is fully allowed—welcomed even. Allowed to be as it is, and allowed to move through the body-mind field, as a result of which the central self becomes amplified by the merging of all these previously exiled and rejected parts, until the central self has become the whole self and one has become thoroughly undivided. All the stories around pain, sadness, happiness, and discomfort fall away in light of the desire to become intimate with one’s energy (śakti) in its countless different forms. Blaming others and oneself falls away, the impulse to construct a self-image on the basis of charged experiences falls away, and the breath moves more deeply and freely as the futility of resistance to experience is fully realized and everything is allowed to be and allowed to move through.

Then a profound gratitude for one’s existence begins slowly to dawn. A reverence for the very fact of being itself. Then one discovers that ‘love’ is not after all a transitive verb; that it’s not about loving yourself, but about discovering that on the deepest ‘level’ of being, you are love. And the love that you are manifests as total acceptance of all the features of your internal landscape and thus eventually (given enough time) results in integration and wholeness. And despite the manifold fears of the bodymind that would limit that love to a conditional manifestation, consciousness itself has an innate desire—and capacity—for unconditioned / unlimited love, a love that ultimately encompasses everything and excludes nothing. That's why real self-love overflows into profound love for all beings (which is not the same thing as approval of their behavior!).

In fact, that's how we measure whether it is real self-love: does this cherishing of the miracle of your own precious existence spill over into gradually increasing reverence for all beings? 

If not, maybe it's still just a mental construct of self-love: a near enemy to the truth.

May all humans experience the joy of cherishing their own existence! May each of us realize that our worth is proven by our very existence, and no further proof is necessary. May we see that what we share far outweighs what we don't. May we see each other as humans first and foremost, and may we allow the natural flow of love and compassion that arises as a result. 

~ ~ ~


* Such as the internal division that Freud described (id-ego-superego); see also Plato’s much earlier theory of the tripartite self, which influenced Freud. 

** Reed professor Lucía Martínez Valdivia: "I’m female, mixed race, American and Peruvian, gay, atheist, and relatively young. I study poetry that is basically the opposite of me: male, white, British, straight, God-fearing, five hundred years old. And I love it."