In my 20’s I lived in a community household of about 30 meditation practitioners. Regular sitting meditation happened after the evening meal. It was not mandatory but encouraged. Because it was our home, a certain casual laziness readily arose. One evening as I was lingering at the dinner table, well aware that the evening sit was beginning, a Buddhist nun who was also living in the community sat down next to me.
She smiled at me and said,”Why don’t you be kind to yourself and just go sit.”
I thought about it for a moment. I was making this practice that I deeply appreciated another thing to do, hence another thing to avoid. I did go to meditation that night and it was indeed a kind and simple thing to do for myself.
There is a word in the Buddhist tradition for that kindness: maitri(pronounce my-tree). Lovingkindness toward oneself. I propose that it is the sweet spot of good mental health. It is the psychological land of center, acceptance deeper and truer than self aggression or self indulgence. It is the space of honesty and vulnerability. It is the stance that allows us to see our lives as workable, in opposition to hopeless, meaningless.
Not Maitri: self aggression and self indulgence
The home turf of maitri is great if you can find it, but often times it is not where we live. We may be more familiar with self aggression. The continuous assessment of ourselves as lacking, damaged, not good enough, smart enough, compassionate enough. You get the idea. It is the mentality of the whip. Force ourselves through harsh judgement to someday hopefully be better. Generally it does not work in my experience, but that does not stop us from employing the same technique over and over.
And when we are utterly disgusted with our supposed lack and inadequacy we often flip to self indulgence. What’s the point? Who cares? I can’t do it. Why bother? It’s hopeless so why even try. We collapse into a heap, often engaging in the very behavior we intended to overcome in the first place.
Think about these examples:
Refraining from: sugar, caffeine, alcohol and drugs, shopping, gambling and other compulsive activities.
Self improvement projects
All possible “shoulds”
And when we are so thoroughly disgusted with our indulgence, where do you suppose we go next? Yep, self aggression. See-sawing back and forth, never finding that elusive balance.
How do we discover and reveal this sense of maitri? I think it is one of the qualities that people discover in psychotherapy, perhaps for the first time sharing the wise mind that sees the cycle of the longing, the striving and the hopelessness. It can present as a dawning awareness, as if settling into a warm bath of one’s inherent goodness. I am not a monster or a troll, I am a decent human being with the imperfections of a human.
What is it like to be in the space of maitri? To move from a sense of maitri?
Two examples come to mind. The first is my Saturday morning yoga class. My mind considers lingering at home, much as I did at the dinner table all of those years ago. But I move to attend what I have willingly committed to, my thoughts are a minor annoyance rather than a major factor. It feels good to show up. I take time to enter the space, stretch and do a few postures. The class flies by as I allow the teacher to take the reigns and guide. I am in intimate communication with my body, noticing sensations that have been below the radar all week. By the end of class I feel nourished and wholesome. I feel healthily disciplined and indulgent.
The second example is extraordinarily simple. I supervise graduate psychology students two days a week. As I park my car then walk toward the building, I almost always slow down and sometimes fully stop right there in the parking lot. At the time I arrive the sun is usually beaming. I take a moment in the light and warmth. No plan or have to or should. No chiding myself for wasting time. Just being, for a moment. A moment of balance arises. In this case the discipline is the stopping.