In our internet meeting the communication with the other side of the world was playfully unreliable, sometimes distinct and sometimes stretched and wavering as if it were being carried on rubber-bands around the far side of the moon. Nevertheless, the question was clear, in part because it is one that is asked so often: how can we learn to love ourselves?
If we turn the question inside out we could ask, how can we learn to stop tearing ourselves to pieces with self-criticism?
The path of spirituality is one of paradox; even the image of ‘a path’ is paradoxical, because although we journey immensely far, from the depths of ignorance to–with the blessings of Divine Grace–illumination, that same illumination reveals that we were never separate from the goal in the first place. And although we are not apart from the Only Being, along the course of that journey from limitation to perfection, we must confront the problem of our individual faults. No one is perfect, and the more we awaken our understanding, the more dissatisfied we become with ourselves. If, in addition, we have accumulated strong impressions of inadequacy and failure, especially from experiences during infancy and childhood, the problem becomes worse. Compounded with this, such a person usually has an unhelpful image of the Divine: either cold, distant, and uninterested in our affairs, or supremely critical and judgmental, and therefore best avoided.
With all these factors at work, it is very easy for the mureed to become discouraged. If the spiritual exercises we have been given don’t seem to do very much and we neglect them, then guilt pushes us even further away from being ‘good’ or ‘spiritual’ and we fall into a downward spiral.
‘Loving oneself’ is one way out of this swamp, but to avoid self-deception it must be love in the best sense of the word–compassionate, forgiving, all-encompassing and detached: love, in other words, such as God has for His children. It is rather a challenge to love oneself in this way, so a better strategy is to learn to love God.
As we have often heard from Hazrat Inayat Khan, this means awakening our ideal, bringing it to life the way an artist brings an image to life on the canvas. Assemble all that is positive for you, and give the credit to God. Is there beauty in the world? Certainly, and who was the creator of that beauty? Is there love and harmony? Yes, of course, and who is the source of it? Is there truth? Yes, and who is the witness of that truth?
By steadfastly drawing together all that is positive, we make an anchor for our ideal, and when that firm place is established, we can deal with the negative aspects of our life. Am I lonely? But You are everywhere, so I will take comfort in Your presence. Have I suffered unkindness? But You are the source of all kindness, and I will feel Your healing touch in my heart.
And from this it is a very short step to dealing with the tormenting shortcomings of our ‘self,’ with the errors and omissions that plague our conscience. Have I been selfish? My little shadow vanishes in the sun of Your generosity; I can never be as giving as You, but thinking of You, I will do better. Have I done wrong? You know better than I, and You will help me to right the wrong. Have I forgotten You? But You, I know, have never forgotten me; heal my forgetfulness by Your patience and Your love.
When this Divine Ideal becomes a present reality in our life, self-criticism loses its malignant quality, and simply becomes self-observation. And do we learn to love ourselves in the process? Perhaps–but we love our Maker more.