About 30 years ago, when I was first introduced to the Buddhist teachings at Naropa University in Boulder, CO, the monastics and teachers there assured me that there was a path out of the suffering I was experiencing, and that this path was inside ME.
I just needed to learn how to take a good look inside, they said, which, after some diligence, would illuminate a light – one that I could then use to follow the map of the dharma that the Buddha laid out for us. In other words, they let me know that I could do it – I could light my own way.
My teachers also promised that if I could continue to nurture and expand this light, I could then offer that same luminosity out to others – just like a lamp.
This year, especially, I’ve been starting to understand – much more experientially – the truth of what my kind and wise teachers were trying to tell me: that what we’re seeking is undeniably not outside of us, but right here, in our own hearts.
In fact, there’s a famous line from the Mahaparinibbana Sutta that I’ve been reciting a lot lately, where the Buddha tells us: “Be a lamp unto yourself, be a refuge to yourself. Take yourself to no external refuge.”
And, maybe because I’ve been so focused on this particular teaching, just recently, during a longer meditation session, on a night when I was feeling a bit lonely, or maybe wanting a bit of hand-holding, I had what felt like a profoundly new experience, where I suddenly heard the words, “I am family, to myself.”
In that moment, I really sensed this – in my body, mind, and heart–that I, myself, was my dearest and closest relative, and that I loved myself fiercely.
There is only one being on this earth, I realized, who knows every aspect of me, completely, and still loves, respects, and accepts me–unconditionally, just as I am–with all of my messy history, and all those trying parts of my personality, as well as all the many difficult things that I’m dealing with right now.
I also deeply trusted that – unlike a fickle friend, who might decide to leave me–I would never be parted from this loving and supportive family member, for as long as I lived.
To feel so safe and held, in my own skin, was a powerful comfort, and relief. It really did feel like I’d finally discovered my true home and refuge; a place of authentic safety, and trust.
And, of course, having said all that, I’m also aware that I still tend to do things to myself that are harmful … like, allowing myself to give away too much of my time, or eating things that aren’t good for me, or not taking care of myself in so many different ways.
But, I also know that the point isn’t to be PERFECT; this is a PRACTICE, and I am much more confident now that I can be that kind family member–to myself–no matter what, and can forgive myself more quickly for my shortcomings, as well as my conditioning. More and more, I have faith that I can continue to love myself, exactly as I am.
As the late great teacher Ram Dass once so wisely told us: “You are loved just for being who you are, just for existing. You don’t have to do anything to earn it. Your shortcomings, your lack of self-esteem, physical perfection, or social and economic success—none of that matters. No one can take this love away from you, and it will always be here.”
In the teachings on the Five Remembrances, the Buddha asks us to recite five absolute truths daily, as a sharp reminder, including this one: “All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change. There is no way to escape being separated from them.” Essentially, what this means is that the only person we can ever fully, completely rely upon to be here for us in this life is ourselves.
Given this, it just makes sense to me that the entirety of the teachings is inviting us – through our practice – to learn how to become that kind, calm, compassionate light and refuge for ourselves, which in turn will allow us to be that kind, calm, compassionate light and presence for others – just as my teachers promised.
If you’re interested, you can listen to a talk on this topic here on YouTube.