So even back then you were drawn toward painful experiences.

I guess so. But what I really remember from the 1950s is everyone always smiling. It wasn't until I studied Freud in college that I had any inkling there was anything below the surface.

Freud observed that we're awfully hard on ourselves, that we judge ourselves and others all the time. Do you think this sort of judging is inherent in human nature, or is it something learned?

Several years ago the Dalai Lama was in a conference with Western Buddhist teachers. At one point, meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg brought up the subject of self-hatred. She said it was a major issue that had to be addressed by anybody teaching Buddhism in the West. The Dalai Lama didn't know what she was talking about. So he went around the room and asked the other Western teachers about it, and every one of them agreed with her. Self-hatred was something that the Dalai Lama literally didn't understand.

The first noble truth of the Buddha is that people experience dukka, a feeling of dissatisfaction or suffering, a feeling that something is wrong. We feel this dissatisfaction because we're not in tune with our true nature, our basic goodness. And we aren't going to be fundamentally, spiritually content until we get in tune. Dzigar Kongtrul, my teacher for the past five years, says that only in the West is this dissatisfaction articulated as "Something is wrong with me." It seems that thinking of oneself as flawed is more a Western phenomenon than a universal one. And if you're teaching Western students, it has to be addressed, because until that self-hatred is at least partially healed, people can't experience absolute truth.

Why not?

Because they will misinterpret the groundlessness of absolute truth. People will think there is something wrong with them.

This self-criticism seems difficult to avoid. You don't just wake up one day and say to yourself, "I'm going to stop being self-critical." If you drop a jar at the grocery store, and it breaks, you automatically think, Oh, what a clumsy fool I am.

I think it's much deeper than thinking you're clumsy. I have my own theory about this, actually, based on personal experience. I was in a close relationship once with somebody who I felt disliked me very much, and I couldn't get out of it. What's more, this person was inaccessible and wouldn't talk to me about the problem. That combination of feeling disliked and having no chance to discuss it made me feel there was something terribly wrong with me, that I was a bad person.

I tried all the meditation techniques that I had been teaching people, but nothing would relieve the pain I was feeling. It was similar to the pain I'd felt when my husband had left me. So I went up to the meditation hall where I was practicing at the time, and I just sat there. I did not do any particular meditation. I just sat there in the middle of this pain, bolt upright, all night long.

And I had an insight. The first thing was that I felt physically like a little child, so small that if I'd sat in a chair my feet wouldn't have touched the floor. And then there was a recognition that I needed to relax into the pain. Until then, I had avoided going to this place where I felt bad or unacceptable or unloved. No language could express how awful that place felt. But I just started breathing into it. I realized that this was a pivotal moment. Somehow, even with the divorce, I had never quite hit the bottom. And that evening, I did. I was seconds away from experiencing the death feeling.

The death feeling?

The deepest level of the dissatisfaction we all feel, and that Westerners misinterpret as something that's wrong with them. But as I relaxed into that feeling, it passed through me. And I didn't die. It passed right through. That was a big moment for me. I realized that resistance to the idea that I was unlovable only made the pain worse.

 

So you use your own life as the ground for your spiritual practice.

There isn't anything except your own life that can be used as ground for spiritual practice. Spiritual practice is your life, twenty-four hours a day. There's no time off. We do formal practice-meditation-because it brings us closer to those states of mind we experience in our lives during times of crisis. For instance, when I sat there that whole night, I was not running from what was happening to my body and mind. There wasn't any distraction from it, not even to brush my teeth or pee. It was just a moment-by-moment experience of the present.

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