Photo of Taitaku Phelan Sensei

Friendliness to the Self, part 1

by Abbess Taitaku Patricia Phelan

Once, when I was a student at the San Francisco Zen Center, I asked my teacher, "How can I practice with the parts of myself that don’t want to practice?" I meant the squirmy, restless part, the part that wants to have fun, and the part that is tired or lazy and just wants to sit down and drink a beer or watch a movie and forget about everything else.

The path of Zen practice is sometimes referred to as a long iron road, and I expected him to say something like "You must strengthen your resolve and persevere", or "Develop your self discipline to get past resistance or past the part of yourself that is sabotaging your practice." I had heard him say things like this before, but instead he said, "There is no part of you that doesn’t want to practice." This response stopped me because it had never occurred to me before that there was no part of me that didn’t want to practice—I thought in order to practice, I had to struggle with the weaker parts and the parts that resisted practice and overcome them. When I heard his answer, I felt overjoyed because he was my teacher and I believed him. I didn’t understand it, but I believed that somehow it must be true. After that when I felt like I wanted to sleep in and skip early morning zazen, I reminded myself that, "There is no part of myself that doesn’t want to practice," and it became a kind of koan—a way of examining "What is practice?" If there is no part of myself that doesn’t want to practice, and I’m feeling this way, then what is practice, anyway?

To practice fully, we need to integrate all the parts of ourselves, integrate the driven, achievement-oriented part, the irritable part that gets angry or constantly judges how I am doing with the part that is more open and accepting. Integration comes about first by becoming conscious of and getting to know all the parts of ourselves—by bringing awareness to these different aspects of who we are and what we experience. It may not be easy to get a feeling for how to practice with the angry part or the rebellious part that wants to escape or that’s resisting practice. I’ve noticed that some people who have developed a regular zazen practice seem quite steady and disciplined. But sometimes self discipline can be overdeveloped so that it can slip into a way of controlling experience. People like this may feel like they need to step away from practice and do something like drink a beer in order to relax or enjoy themselves. If you find this happening, you might examine, "Can practice be fun?" "How do you bring fun to practice?" or "How do you practice when you are having fun?" Is this even possible?

Practice isn’t the same thing as being serious. The more we get to know and accept all the different aspects of ourselves, the bully and the part that is bullied, the fun-loving parts, the angry or competitive parts, the threatened and defensive parts, and so on, the more we can practice with whatever we feel as just another state of mind. I’ve found working with self acceptance has been one of the most important aspects in learning to sit still or sit without moving in zazen.

In the 1980’s when I saw the movie Elephant Man, I was reminded of this. Elephant Man is based on the story of John Merrick who lived in nineteenth century England. He had a disease in which 90% of his body was covered with fibroid tissue and tumors including a large tumor at the back of his head which was the size of a normal person’s head. The movie is based on the writings of John Merrick’s doctor, Dr. Treeves, and on the writings of Ashley Montegue called The Elephant Man, A Study in Human Dignity.

Recently, I saw a documentary about John Merrick and found that part of the movie was fictional. John Merrick supported himself by touring England presenting himself in side shows as a freak or curiosity, rather than having a cruel master who showed him, treating him very cruelly, as the movie depicted. Early on in the movie, Dr. Treeves found John Merrick and got his permission to take him to the hospital in order to study his condition.

In the movie, as the character of John Merrick develops, we are shown a metamorphosis from a creature that is barely recognizable as being human into a very kind, sensitive, gentle person. His character is especially apparent in his relation-ships. He was befriended by the nineteenth century actress, Mrs. Kendall who became a close friend, as did Dr. Treeves and his wife. At some point in the movie, he began referring to Dr. Treeves as "my dear friend." His voice, or at least the actor’s voice, had an incredible quality to it that seemed to express complete friendliness and goodwill toward this other person. In this study of human dignity, I am struck by the relationship between John Merrick’s capacity for friendliness and goodwill and his own dignity and self respect. This reminds me of a verse spoken by Buddha. It begins, "I visited all quarters with my mind." This means that, with Buddha’s clairvoyance, he visited the four quarters of the universe. "I visited all quarters with my mind. Nor found I any dearer than myself; Self is likewise to every other dear; Who loves oneself, will never harm another."

Reading this verse, I realized that Buddhist practice includes a kind of self-love which is very close to, if not the same as, self acceptance. Each time I read this last line: "Who loves oneself, will never harm another," I wonder, what kind of love is this that once you have it for yourself, you will never harm another? This verse is in a 9th century text called the Vissudhi Magga and it introduces the teaching on the Four Brahma Viharas which teach friendliness to the self as Buddhist practice. The Brahma Viharas are the practice of friendliness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity.

"Brahma Vihara" means Measureless Meditations or Boundless or Unlimited States. They are considered the ideal way of conduct toward living beings. This practice is taught in Theravadin Buddhism and it was also taught and practiced in all the other religions in India at the time Buddhism was developing. The first, friendliness or loving kindness is maitri in Sanskrit and metta in Pali as in Metta Sutta. It means wishing well for others or the wish to provide others with what is useful. Sometimes metta is translated as "love," but it doesn’t include the aspects of craving, desire or passion that are sometimes associated with love. The second, compassion, means wishing to relieve the suffering of others. Sympathetic joy means feeling happiness at the good fortune of others. Sympathetic joy is characterized by freedom from despondency, and it is considered an antidote to depression. So, feeling joyful at the good fortune of others is a way to work with depression, or maybe to help prevent depression. The Fourth Unlimited State is equanimity or even mindedness toward all. Sometimes people confuse equanimity with its near enemy, indifference or detachment, but equanimity does not mean withdrawing from others; it is having equal regard for all beings. One of the purposes of practicing the Four Unlimited States is the breakdown in barriers between self and others.

The traditional example used to illustrate this breakdown in barriers is, if there were a person out in the forest with three other people, one person who is a very good friend, one person for whom he has no strong feelings either positive or negative, and another person toward whom he feels hostility; and if a band of robbers came upon them and demanded that they be given one person; and when asked what they needed a person for, they were told to make a blood sacrifice to the spirits of the forest, and if our original fellow were to think, let them take this person or let them take that person, then he has not accomplished the breakdown of barriers between self and other. Or, on the other hand, if he were to think, let them take me and spare the other three, then again he still would not have accomplished the breakdown in barriers because he is regarding the welfare of the other three only and not his own welfare. Only when one has equal regard toward each of the four, including oneself, has the distinction between self and other been removed.

The practice of the Four Unlimited States begins with the cultivation of friendliness or loving kindness. Friendliness is developed first toward the easiest person, ideally a teacher. If you don’t have a teacher, then a good friend but not someone you are sexually attracted to or someone who is dead. After perfecting lovingkindness toward a teacher or good friend, next, direct lovingkindness toward someone for whom you have no strong feelings, a neutral person. This could be someone you don’t know but have seen occasionally such a grocery clerk or someone who collects a bridge toll—someone you have no immediate reaction to. After you have perfected friendliness and goodwill to your teacher or good friend and a neutral person, then direct friendliness toward a person for whom you feel hostility or have difficultly with. In this way, you progress in the cultivation of lovingkindness by beginning with an easy person, a more difficult person and so on. But actually, the instructions say that friendliness should first of all be developed towards oneself again and again and again.

The traditional way loving kindness or friendliness is cultivated is by repeating these phrases: "May I be happy. May I be free from suffering. May I be free from anxiety, free from affliction. May I be well. May I dwell in peace." The practice is to radiate friendliness to yourself, pervade yourself with loving kindness. This is done so that you will have first-hand experience of loving kindness so you will then be able to take yourself as an example. Then proceed with the phrases: "As I want to be happy, as I am adverse to suffering, as I want to be well, as I want to dwell in peace, may my teacher or good friend be happy, be free from suffering, be well, may my teacher dwell in peace." After you cultivate lovingkindness for the three types of people, then radiate loving kindness to all beings: "As I want to be happy and free from suffering, may all beings be happy and free from suffering." The ideal is to feel friendliness for all beings at all times. But, again, the instructions emphasize first of all perfecting lovingkindness toward oneself. After perfecting friendliness for all beings, then systematically proceed in the same way with the cultivation of compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity.

Before I knew about this group of practices, I stumbled onto my own version of friendliness toward the self. At the time, I had been sitting zazen daily for seven years, including three years of practice at Tassajara, and I was living at the San Francisco Zen Center where my boyfriend also lived. After awhile I noticed that he had a growing interest in a friend of mine who also lived at Zen Center. And before long, I was feeling threatened and jealous and a strong fear of being rejected. At that time I thought one of the goals of Zen was detachment; and I reasoned that if I was feeling jealous then I must be attached; and if I was attached, then I must be a failure at Zen practice. Not only was I feeling the pain of jealousy from the relationship, I also felt guilty and embarrassed for feeling jealous in the first place. My response was then to reject myself out of disgust for my own jealous feelings.

I was really miserable, and we broke up and I was still miserable, everyday for months. During this time, one day in zazen I spontaneously began doing a visualization practice in which I visualized each part of my body starting with my toes and moving upward to my head. I would visualize my toes, then I would visualize my feet, then my ankles, my lower legs, my knees, taking each part separately up to my head. As I visualized my toes, I directed these phrases to my toes: "I love you, I care about you, I completely accept you." I repeated these phrases, directing them to each part of my body. One thing I found was how many parts I didn’t like or thought were imperfect or inadequate. One of the benefits of doing this exercise was I become conscious of my attitudes toward my body, and it gave me a way to consciously work with accepting all the parts of myself, just as I was.

Buddha’s verse says: "Who loves oneself will never harm another." It doesn’t say, "Whoever is enlightened, or whoever is a pure or a perfected being and loves oneself, will never harm another." It just says, "Whoever loves oneself will never harm another." I don’t know if this is true or not, but in Buddhism, the challenge is to find out for yourself.

Part 2

© Copyright Taitaku Patricia Phelan, 2003

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