The path of awakening, of liberation, always includes self-observation and self-inquiry. Without them, we tend to repeat the same unskillful ways of thinking and acting over and over again. That’s what is called samsara in Buddhism.
In this essay I’m sharing my thoughts and observations on something I’ve struggled with much of my life: a compulsive need to please others in order to feel good about myself. Using what I’m learning from the Buddha’s teachings, I am developing the skill of catching myself right at the moment I begin to do this habitual behavior so I don’t act it out.
Part of me knows that unless I feel genuinely good about myself, it will finally make little difference if I feel good about myself because someone else likes what I did. This sense of self-worth is ephemeral, dependent on another, and can vanish in a moment if another rejects, ignores, of disapproves of the effort to please or make them happy. (And often, if the other person senses you are doing something merely for approval, or to look good in their eyes, they will consciously or unconsciously have aversion to that motive. They will sense the clinging and attachment involved in what is being done “for” them, but that is really, for ourselves, to make ourselves feel good or approved of.)
Catching Yourself in the Moment An Urge Arises
So here’s what I’ve been practicing. The Buddha points out many times how important it is to catch the beginning or arising of some thought or feeling and to arrest it and look into it, bringing it to a halt before it mindlessly cascades into actions. (This is what kamma, or karma, is all about.)
So first, I establish the intent and aspiration to catch my habitual pattern of wanting to please others. (And I try to love and cherish this aspiration with all my heart. Also, I want to stop suffering!) Cherishing this aspiration, when I notice the urge arising to do something for another, I stop. I get in contact with my breath and center and smile to myself.
When I am quiet and present, I then look and see what is really going on. I look to see if there is the desire to please another, to placate another, to deflect another, perhaps because we are afraid of them. I look to see if my desire to do something is selfless, open, and free, or if it comes from a lack of self worth, or nervousness about being myself, or just for stimulus and response, like a kind of drug.
See What Arises But Don’t Judge or Condemn Yourself
If through mindfulness and attention, I see these other motives, I do not reject them, or fall into self-condemnation or self-loathing. Rather, I see them just as they are—as something arising out of my present sense of self and the past conditioning that created this present sense of self. These motivations are not inherent; they are not a permanent part of my nature. They are fabrications that come as “me,” as “I”, as “mine,” that are truly not-self. They do not really say anything true about me or real about me other than I am habitually identifying with them as myself.
If I can see this not-self nature of my less-than-healthy motivations to feel good about myself, then usually a great compassion arises in me. This compassion is for myself—for my humanity, my frailty, my inexperience, for my hungry needs that I can’t take very good care of much of the time. I see that I need to stop hating and condemning myself for the things in me I don’t like, or even despise, and to start truly loving myself, right where I am, warts and all, so to speak.
This kind of love, which in a certain sense is impersonal, because it’s not dependent on anything, and just is, does not ignore what needs to be let go of or unidentified with. Rather this kind of love holds the whole human being in its arms, without question and without objection. Like a mother tenderly holding a child, this self-less love hold one in compassion, with a great wisdom that deeply understands how hard life is, how much we suffer from thoughts and feelings we identify with, and how hard it is to just be a human being.
The Importance of Metta, Loving-Kindness in Deep Self-Inquiry
This kind of love is called metta or maitre in Buddhism, and is rightfully called one of the divine abidings. To abide in selfless or unselfed love is truly divine, a taste of release from the suffering that comes from what we ignorantly or willfully cling to as “I” and “me” and “mine.” While metta, or loving-kindness meditation is a practice of its own, I have often found that the deep concentration and insight of Buddhist meditation often brings such pain and suffering to light, that I have to stop and do this loving-kindness work for myself. There’s nothing wrong with this if you have to do it!
You aren’t spoiling your meditation by stopping to do metta, nor are you spoiling your loving-kindness work if you stop to really look deeply to something that arises while doing metta. I see metta and meditation as two wings of the dharma, so to speak. You need both wings to fly, to soar. If one neglects, or resists, either wing, our progress will not be as swift, and we will tend to flutter around and wonder why we aren’t doing better.
Finally, to me, the distinction between love and wisdom, between loving-kindness and insight, is artificial, even bogus. Distinctions are of course important in order to learn a skill or understand how something works. But the deeper one goes into the dharma, the more one sees the unity of these various skills. You see how they all inter-are, as my teacher Thich Nhat Hanh likes to say. Love has inter-being with insight. Compassion has inter-being with wisdom. Equanimity has inter-being with generosity of spirit. Sympathetic joy in the happiness of others has inter-being with selflessness.
Doing for Others Skillfully and with Love and Wisdom
This sharing of mine has broadened out from the initial problem of doing things to please others, but I hope this discussion shows how these skills and this loving, mindful approach could be used for anything we do that is causing us suffering in our lives. The big thing is to pay attention, to notice what we do, and then to stop, breathe, get quiet, and look into what’s going on. As we do this, arising compassion and loving-kindness help us “un-self” ourselves from what we identify with.
Doing good for others, I want to add, is a very natural and good thing, and is an integral part of the Buddhist path. Another one of the “divine abidings” is dana, or generosity, and the ways of being generous, with wisdom, are endless. What I’ve been talking about is motivation for doing good, and how to purify it and set it free from needfulness and lack of self-worth.
On this mindful, loving path, we can never really lose or fail. Everything teaches us, even what we see as failures. And remember, the kind of unselfed love I’m pointing to never, ever, gives up on us. It just is. Through mindfulness and presence, this unselfed love can grow and grow, taking us all the way home to freedom.