One of my relatives made the words “I hate myself” her Facebook status today. She’s 20. I totally get it.
Probably the main reason I got into Zen was because I hated myself so much for plenty of good reasons. I thought maybe Zen would fix that.
It didn’t. I still hate myself.
What has changed is that, these days, when I start hating myself I also ask, “Who hates who?”
If I say I hate myself, what do I mean? Who is “I” and what is “myself”?
The phrase “I hate myself” does mean something. It describes a feeling. But is that the feeling of “I” hating “myself”?
This might seem like I’m playing around with words, but it’s important.
It’s important because if “I hate myself” is an accurate phrase, then maybe the best thing to do is to change myself or, failing that, destroy myself. So, both self-improvement and suicide seem like sensible ways to deal with “I hate myself.”
I’ve never committed suicide, though I came close a few times. I have, however, attempted to improve myself. But it never worked. So I can see why suicide seems like a reasonable solution to so many people. If you can’t fix something, you might as well throw it away.
You can, of course, improve certain things. I’ve managed to improve my ability to speak Japanese, my guitar playing, my public speaking skills, and so on.
But improving my self has been impossible. I’ve given up trying because it’s a waste of time and effort. I’ve tried to emphasize those aspects of my supposed “self” that I like, but I’m too self-critical for that to ever work very well. Accepting myself has been useful to a limited extent, but I end up having to accept aspects of me that are clearly awful, so I still hate them.
Anyway, how can I improve my self? Aren’t “I” and “self” two names for the same thing? How can an “I” so flawed and inadequate that I hate it do anything constructive to its “self”?
And yet, even though the phrase “I hate myself” makes no sense, it does describe a real feeling that lots of us struggle with. So what can we do with it?
I think the first thing we can do is to recognize that the phrase “I hate myself” makes no sense and that any solution based on that phrase can’t work. Suicide and self-improvement are both poor responses because they are based on the phrase used to describe the feeling rather than on the actual feeling.
In my own case, what I did was try to understand the feeling I described as “I hate myself.” I wanted to see that feeling as it exists before I use the words “I hate myself” to describe it. The best way I’ve found to do this was to sit very quietly and experience the feeling directly.
I don’t judge the feeling. I don’t say it’s a bad feeling and try to get rid of it. If I got rid of it, I’d miss the opportunity to study it. So I let it be there.
I also don’t try to figure the feeling out. I don’t try to come up with reasons for the feeling or reasons I shouldn’t have the feeling. I don’t try to trace the history of the feeling. I don’t scroll through my memories looking for incidents that created the feeling. I don’t trust that method.
If I come up with reasons for — or against — my feeling, aren’t those reasons soaked in that feeling? If I try to trace the history of the feeling, isn’t the personal history I recall based on the feeling? If I try to recall incidents that produced the feeling, aren’t my memories of those incidents colored by the feeling?
I don’t trust that method because it’s based on a flawed premise. It’s based on the idea that one can somehow separate “I” from “self,” and that this subject called “I” can observe an object called “self.”
So I have to go deeper than that. And the only way to go deeper is to let the feeling be there without analyzing it or trying to make it go away.
When I’ve done that, I’ve seen that “I hate myself” is a passing feeling. If I do nothing with that feeling, it just comes up, stays for a while, and goes away.
This was a surprise because I thought the feeling “I hate myself” was constant. It isn’t. It’s only constant because I continuously make efforts to reinforce it.
If I describe what I am as, “I’m five foot seven with brown hair and brown eyes, I like pizza, and I hate myself” then I feel like shit.
But the reason I feel like shit isn’t actually because I hate myself — even though it seems that way. I feel like shit because I am putting a lot of energy into maintaining “I hate myself” as a part of my sense of self.
My height, my hair and eye color, my love of pizza and other such things don’t require a whole lot of maintenance. Those aspects and others like them remain whether I work on them or not.
But “I hate myself” takes energy and effort and constant repetition and reinforcement to sustain. After a while all that effort is exhausting. I feel tired and worn out because so much of my energy has gone into maintaining “I hate myself.”
But if I can let go of “I hate myself,” it’s like putting down a massive weight I’ve been dragging along behind me for no good reason.
Letting go of things like “I hate myself” is easier said than done. “I hate myself” doesn’t exist in isolation. Replacing it with a different feeling doesn’t help. “I hate myself” and “I love myself” are two aspects of the same thing. Dragging either one of them behind you all the time takes equal effort and is equally exhausting.
Through a long process of trial-and-error I’ve seen that there is a way to step aside, there is a place where you don’t have to take either one of these options, you don’t have to replace self-hate with self-love. Which was a relief to learn because I was never able to do it. For me, zazen has been a very effective way to learn how to step aside from impossible options.
I’m still working on this. I’ll probably be working on it for the rest of my life. But I’ve found that it’s better than any other solution to the problem of “I hate myself” than I’ve ever come across.
THERE IS NO GOD AND HE IS ALWAYS WITH YOU is now available as an audiobook from Audible.com as are Hardcore Zen and Sit Down and Shut Up!
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