From March 2014 until December 2015, I was on intensive meditation retreat in Myanmar. Since returning, the main question people have asked me is, “what did you get out of all that time meditating?” One of the more common responses I give is, “I learned how to love myself.”
This post will detail my process of developing self-love using the four-stage model of “competence” or skill development. It sort of speaks for itself, but here’s a very brief summary:
Stage one is where we’re in self-hatred, but don’t even know it. Stage two is where we know we’re in self-hatred, but are powerless to stop it. Stage three is where with conscious effort we can actually stop it and experience self-love. Stage four is where the self-hatred no longer happens, and without making any special effort, we experience steady self-love.
It’s my hope that in sharing my story, I can demystify some of this process and help you dive into deeper layers of your own self-love!
1) Unconscious Self-hatred
2) Conscious Self-hatred
3) Receiving Love from Others
4) What is Self-love?
5) Conscious Self-love
6) Going Beneath the Surface
7) Unconscious Self-love
8) Self-Love Is not a Destination
9) What You Can Learn from my Story
Stage One — Unconscious Self-hatred
I was going to bed around 10pm and waking up around 3am, meditating intensively all day long—it had been about seven months of this when an older monk passed me an audiobook entitled, “Knowing Your Shadow.”
His offering confused me. I thought the point of meditation retreat wasn’t to work through my issues in a psychological way, but to build my awareness and wisdom strong enough that my psychological issues wouldn’t affect me anymore.
In turn, I put the audiobook to the side and continued with my relentless awareness practice for a few months. Slowly, slowly, with the encouragement of my teacher, Sayadaw U Tejaniya, I began to relax my intensity a little.
Eventually, I became curious in broadening my practice, and I remembered the old monk’s words, “it’s a long path, and we all have blind spots that prevent us from going deeper. This audiobook will show you things that are probably holding you back.”
Okay, I thought, I’ll give it a try.
Stage Two — Conscious Self-hatred
The audiobook gave me many interesting pieces, but it was the part on shame and the inner critic that rocked my world.
While doing one of the exercises, I recalled a forgotten painful childhood memory, and for about 20 seconds, I shook uncontrollably from head-to-toe, wishing I could crawl out of my own skin, or maybe just disappear for a little bit.
This was just the beginning.
For the next couple weeks, a lifetime of shame memories flowed through my system—some of them repeating several times; the charge a little less each occasion until, finally, the memories would come up with no tension and then disappear from my system like smoke in the wind.
Much more than memories, I learned how my shame worked in the present.
Some people’s inner critic is very obvious, overpowering their self-talk with thoughts like, “I’m such an idiot, how could I do such a thing.” My self-talk was actually pretty tame.
However, I noticed my shame spoke energetically, pulsing little currents of tension and discomfort through my body, almost always with the unspoken messaging, “you can do better.”
The pulses came when I was drowsy and couldn’t meditate clearly. When I got lost in thought for longer-than-usual periods. When I was a couple minutes late for a meeting or a meal. When my appearance was messy. When I said something a little sharply or brazenly. When I didn’t give someone my full attention.
These energetic shame-surges happened numerous times every day—sometimes they were very subtle and hardly noticeable, and other times they prompted a full body shiver, similar to the trauma response in animals.
It dawned on me that this wasn’t anything new. These had been happening my whole life, but I had been blind to it, as the old monk intuited, just thinking it was a normal way for a person to motivate themselves.
Receiving Love from Others
After a few weeks of this, I went to U Tejaniya and shared that I was having all these shame memories and thoughts.
Having gotten to know me and my practice over the previous year, he looked at me somewhat amused, and said, “So? Just be aware. You have a good level of insight. Shame is just sensation, feeling and thought. It’s just another object to be aware of. Let it pass through.”
Of course, I knew that, but I was struggling and maybe just wanted a little more compassion, so I countered, “but it’s really difficult! It seems harder than other things. I often feel like I’m a bad person, I’m not a good meditator, and I’m never going to get it.”
“Ohhhhhhhhh,” he said, “okay, just do you best. Keep checking your attitude. Just continue. That’s all there is to do. Relax.”
That was all he said, but behind the words, I found what I needed. It wasn’t a warm, grandmotherly kindness. Instead, I felt from him the thing I often felt in his presence: extreme acceptance.
No matter what I revealed to him, I never felt an ounce of judgement. He always just encouraged me to relax and carry on. He always believed in me.
When we’re not doing the best at loving ourselves, it’s very powerful to have other people show us what love looks like. But note well that the depth to which they can love us depends on the depth to which we make ourselves vulnerable.
Do you have anyone you’ve ever been vulnerable with that’s showed you love? A parent? A sibling, family member or close friend? A mentor, teacher or therapist? Anyone else?
What are your reflections on that love?
What is Self-love?
To this point, I’ve been stuck in self-hatred. Before moving on, I’d like to more precisely define self-love.
Often, when people talk about love, it’s just the acceptance part. Seeing the light and the darkness, and embracing it all. For example, as a meditator, I might have seen my curiosity and perseverance alongside my brazenness and distractedness, and just accepted the whole thing.
While that acceptance is indeed the foundation of love, every parent knows that there’s a place for both tender and tough love. To put it in terms of my life philosophy, “you are perfect just as you are; and you could use a little improvement.”
What U Tejaniya gave me was both those poles. In the above example, he accepted my difficulty with the shame—meaning, he had no negative judgements. At the same time, he encouraged me to press onward. Other days, when I wasn’t so tender, he outright challenged me.
Loving others has the same mechanics as loving yourself. It’s not just warm fuzzies and complacent acceptance.
True self-love is radically allowing yourself to be as you are RIGHT NOW, while simultaneously encouraging yourself to move towards your highest aspirations.
If it’s confusing how to do both of those at the same time, read on!
Stage Three – Conscious Self-Love
About a month after my shame chat with U Tejaniya, I went off for five months of solitary meditation in a remote Burmese village:
During the first couple months in that village, I noticed a very clear inner shift. For starters, I had a much sharper awareness of non-shame. When I was totally at peace with myself, I knew it, and it felt great!
Furthermore, when those shame-surges did arise, I could reliably notice them and ALLOW them to pass right through, easily coming back to my peaceful place.
This is the core characteristic of stage three—shame resilience.
No matter the memories, failures or inner judgements, we now have the resources to stand our ground—it might take a little conscious effort, sort of like a security guard watching the front door; however, we can actually do it, we can reliably stay resilient and not get sucked in to the negative self-talk or energetic contractions.
Here’s a spoiler—if you want shame resilience, there’s nothing better than mindfulness.
Going Beneath the Surface
One important note about these four stages is that they aren’t linear. For example, even after my previous dive into stage three, the five months without my teacher or any mentors got me to lose sight of the relaxation stuff, and I once again began pushing myself way too hard. Initially, I didn’t even realize it was happening—aka, I dropped back to stage one, “unconscious self-hatred.”
The initial thrust of self-love is working on the surface, becoming conscious of and resilient to how shame actually shows up for us in real time, like the self-talk, energetic feelings and overt actions/re-actions—in this case, my pushing myself too hard.
However, what prevents us from going all the way to stage four, total self-love without even needing resilience, is the shame beneath the surface—the underlying cause of my pushing myself too hard.
Our minds are sort of like fancy computers. We have basic programming that dictates how we act, think and feel.
One of the most powerful layers of our programming is our desires. I don’t mean surface-desires like, “right now, I want an ice cream cone.” I mean beneath-the-surface desires like, “I want a life of pleasure.”
Here’s some other examples of beneath-the-surface desires:
My desire during this solitary period was to get enlightened. When I ran my small business, I desired to make a bunch of money. When I moved in to the Upaya Zen Center, I desired to fit in. While I was studying yoga in India, I desired to “figure out” yoga. While I was apprenticing on the farm, I desired to go easy on myself. Nowadays, as a counselor, I desire to be a good support for people.
Having healthy desires is an essential part of self-love. Remember, it’s not just about complacent acceptance. For our deepest well-being, we must also get in tune with that tough-love part of ourselves that aspires to get past obstacles and radically live our truth.
Now here’s the key—there’s a subtle but important difference between a craving-desire and a wisdom-desire:
When these beneath-the-surface desires are cravings, they come with a sense of agitation, and we can’t feel deeply at ease until we’ve fulfilled them. Their basic messaging is: I’m not “okay” or worthy of love until I’ve attained my goal.
Inversely, when our beneath-the-surface desires are wisdom, they come with a sense of peacefulness, and we’re totally okay with one failure after another, because we know we’re living our truth.
For example, my desire to write comes from a wisdom place. When I finish writing something, even if it’s not as beautifully articulated as I had planned, or not as thorough as someone else’s writings, I have no self-judgement. I feel at peace with what I’ve done and am motivated to keep going forward. I can do this because on a deep level, I know I’m doing my best—I’m living my truth.
Anyhow, back to the story.
While meditating intensively in that small village, I wanted to get enlightened—a worthy desire. However, I carried myself with a background agitation that was most definitely in craving territory—aka self-hatred territory.
Initially, I didn’t realize it because beneath-the-surface self-hatred isn’t as obvious as surface self-hatred. There weren’t all the little shame surges coming up across the day. Rather, it showed up more in how I carried myself. How I frequently pushed myself too far beyond my edge. How my whole way of being was a little uptight and rigid.
What are some of your beneath-the-surface desires? Do you think they’re more craving-desires or wisdom-desires? You’ll know the difference by seeing the depth of your agitation or peacefulness after a failure.
Stage Four — Unconscious Self-Love
After those five months, I returned to my home monastery. I was convinced I was on the brink of enlightenment. In turn, blind to my craving-desire, I stepped on the gas pedal even harder, becoming more intense than ever.
One day, during another interview with U Tejaniya, I reported excitedly about how continuous my awareness was, and also spoke of the austerities I was taking on, as well some minor frustrations I was having.
He just nodded emotionlessly, and then listened to the other meditator report on how poorly his practice was going, but how he was very relaxed about it, and how he just continued to press on. Upon hearing him, U Tejaniya became enthusiastic, and said, “your attitude is very good,” then turned to look at me and said, “but him, he’s way too serious.”
The lightning bolt struck and almost instantly, I completely let go—not just of the craving, but even of the healthy side of the desire. I dropped lower and lower and lower, spiraling all the way into a deep apathy.
Throughout my life, I’d often bounced between poles of apathy and intensity. I had a strong disliking to the apathetic states, which fueled a strong craving for the intense states. Whenever I got tired of the intensity, I would slip back into apathy.
That lightning bolt made the whole cycle so clear—and, I risked doing something I had never done before: give myself total permission to be apathetic.
I totally stopped caring about the state of my meditation practice: I started sleeping more, eating more, reading more, talking more, doing more chair-meditation rather than so much cross-legged meditation, taking naps, drinking more tea, hanging out with the resident cat, and even dancing and listening to music (big no-no’s for monks!).
After a couple weeks, I noticed a natural movement out of my apathy—I was motivated again to meditate, but not in that same intense kind of way; it was a more peaceful, steady desire. A significant portion of my beneath-the-surface self-hatred totally dropped away.
This is really what stage four is all about: not just resilience to what’s on the surface, but re-wiring our beneath-the-surface programming.
After a couple more months, I found a real naturalness in stage four, where I could simultaneously self-accept and self-improve. This is when I decided to disrobe and leave Myanmar.
Self-Love Is not a Destination
Even though I had a powerful insight into stage four, and now feel a steady backdrop of self-love, it’s not like it put me there permanently.
I still experience regular shame surges; however, my mindfulness practice keeps me reliably resilient (stage three).
Also, the very fact that shame surges still happen means there’s beneath-the-surface programming that I haven’t even discovered yet (stage one).
I see the journey of self-love as being like an archeological dig, where we uncover layer after layer after layer. Each layer we work through makes stage four increasingly familiar and natural.
And so my archeological project continues!
What you can learn from my story
1) Develop an awareness of where/when you’re in self-hatred/self-criticism
This could be looking at your self-talk, the sensations/feelings paired with shame, or uncovering your beneath-the-surface cravings.
Take in some powerful information and do the exercises: Robert Augustus Master’s “Knowing Your Shadow,” Brene Brown’s “Power of Vulnerability,” and Kristin Neff’s “Self-compassion,” are three works I explored that really helped.
Also, building up a solid mindfulness practice and spending some time on intensive retreat will give you the necessary present moment awareness skills to see your self-hatred in real time. It will be especially helpful if you find a teacher who emphasizes attitude and a gentler approach to meditation (i.e. most the vipassana teachers at Spirit Rock or the Insight Meditation Society, or Advaita vedanta / non-duality teachers like Adyashanti.)
Lastly, you could attend workshops, or have counseling/coaching sessions where you hone your self-hatred detection skills (having passed through this gate, this is one of my professional specialties).
Entering into stage two, when you start to see your self-hatred very clearly, can be really tough. For a time, you will probably feel powerless and at the mercy of your inner whims. It’s helpful here to have support from other people, like spiritual community, good friends, family or a counselor/therapist—or anyone who can even marginally show you love.
In all likelihood, you’ll collapse a number of times, look for distractions, numb out or pretend like you’re bigger than you are.
Just be gentle with yourself! Love yourself even in reactivity! Be patient!
3) Notice what it’s like when you love yourself
The way into stabilizing conscious self-love is noticing when it does happen. Notice how that feels. Notice how it isn’t actually that hard to get there.
Maybe it just happens randomly, like while cooking an egg for breakfast or while listening attentively to someone dear to you. It’s as simple as noticing that peaceful, affirmative inner space.
If you pair this with some degree of mindfulness, you’ll know when you’re in self-love and have the wherewithal to prevent self-hatred from taking back over.
Simple, but powerful.
4) Lean into your trouble spots
I leaned into my apathy and realized I didn’t have to keep avoiding it. Most of us have some internal place where we don’t want to go, or where we’d rather avoid. Really give yourself permission to experience those parts.
You might be afraid of what will happen if you really experience these shadows—but what if by leaning into them and maybe getting swallowed for a moment (like I did in stage two), you could eventually totally break free? As the saying goes, the only way to get to the light is through the darkness.
The main point of this post was to share my story to help demystify the process of self-love. So even though there’s a lot of info to digest, see if you can simplify it and just channel some inspiration.
As for moving forward, figure out roughly what stage you’re in, and one action step you could take that would give you a little traction on self-love.
I invite you to share your action step in the comments!