There’s a global phenomenon that you can’t escape, whether you are a materialist or a spiritualist – the call for self-love. It seems like everyone is talking about self-love, be it on social media by way of images that speak of this celebrated quality, on daily news or in the subtle messaging of TV advertisements. It’s as if an entire generation has risen out of the quagmire of self-loathing, catapulting itself into the confusing realm of “self-love.”
What’s the problem with self-love? Nothing, except that it can lead us into the sticky trap of self-deception, which can hinder our journey to self-discovery.
Let’s see how this can be a problem.
The Fundamental Issue
Why do we even need to be talking about self-love so pervasively?
Because the fundamental, universal issue with us humans is a sense of lack, or of being incomplete. In Tantra, this universal sense of lack is known as anava mala. The word mala means impurity, and anava finds its root in the word anu, which means an atom or a miniscule entity. This term is applied to the process of creation – in Tantra, Shiva-Shakti or the Divine becomes the universe. The Divine represents sat-chit-ananda or eternal, unbound, unlimited consciousness. This unbound consciousness, by its own free will decides to bind itself in creation, and becomes contracted from its unfathomable expansiveness.
To become you, and me, and everything else in creation.
In becoming you and me, the Divine becomes associated with our limited stories and identities. You ask me who I am, and I tell you my story – my history, culture, occupation, the roles I play – these traits are who I think I am. But in reality, I am (as you are) the divine Shiva-Shakti!
And even when I have no idea about Shiva, Shakti or consciousness, I have a gnawing sense of being incomplete – because my stories don’t seem to be the “full story” of who I am. No matter what I do to fulfill this fundamental sense of lack, it continues to be an issue. I try to fill that gaping hole with money, fame, achievements, success, relationships, spiritual teachings… And yet, it remains unfilled, like an ulcer that just won’t heal.
Not only does the anava mala drive our entire life, but it gives rise to two other malas (yeah, I know, like one isn’t enough!) – the mayiya mala and the karma mala.
The Ancillary Issues
Mayiya mala is the sense of being separate from everyone else. It’s easy to see how this occurs. If I start to take my story of me to be me, then the story of you is you, and the story of each person is that person.
This sense of separation keeps us on the defensive – my main concern is “me” and the world becomes “not me.” When we band together in our shared stories, our concern expands to “us” versus “not us.”
The anava and mayiya malas crystallize to give us the sense of the third mala – karma. We have a deep-rooted sense of being the one restricted to limited activity in our day-to-day life and the one experiencing the good or bad results of our action. This mala, remember, comes from the fundamental mala of contraction of limitless consciousness into limitation. And thus, the karma mala gives us a sense of limited action, where our patterns of thinking and conditioning from our stories (the anava and mayiya malas) drive our actions almost spontaneously.
We react in the same way to the same stimuli because we’ve lost the freedom to choose. Thus, the Divine’s unlimited power of action becomes contracted in this loss of freedom.
What Does This Have to do with Self-Love?
As we’ve seen above, the fundamental issue is one of lack and it can’t be mitigated with anything that propogates the story of the “me.” One of the ways that this lack presents itself is the sense that we are small and insignificant. In my case for instance, it’s a sense of being a “nobody.” Notice the mayiya mala here – a “nobody” is always in comparison to someone else who’s a “somebody.”
Here’s where it gets tricky. If my fundamental sense of lack says I’m insignificant and I create mind stories to feel otherwise – for instance, remembering my successes, my positive traits and strengths, or affirming that nothing is wrong with me – I feel good, but only temporarily. This is because I’ve not looked into the fundamental nature of that sense of lack. Instead, I’m trying to pacify one story with more stories, all of which only feed and propogate the three malas.
Storytelling simply doesn’t work on the anava mala.
This kind of “affirmed” self-love takes us further into limitation instead of opening us to the vastness of our limitlessness.
And so the teaching asks us to examine this sense of lack directly. One way we can do this is to stop creating more mind stories to feel good and just sit with the discomfort of being small, or insignificant, or a “nobody.” What is revealed to us in this kind of deep looking is that the discomfort is a sign of believing a limited thought (remember, this is the nature of creation, where the limitless becomes limited).
So what happens if we don’t believe this thought and instead just welcome it?
The Dawning of Self-Love
When we allow our thougths and feelings to arise and simply be, without adding more stories to the story of “me,” a miraculous thing begins to happen. We gradually come to see that thoughts and feelings come and go, but awareness is permanent and unchanging. The three malas can be seen in action if we can observe our processes in an open, non-judgmental way. We can see that our mind’s stories constantly revolve around “me,” but when given space to arise, they start to diminish.
As we continue to cultivate this capacity to observe our malas in action, our attention turns toward the awareness in which they arise and subside.
We start to see that this awareness is who we really are – without boundaries, stories, or limited identities. And this awareness has the astounding capacity to welcome all, even the malas, with loving arms.
See for yourself.
Does awareness stop your sense of lack, or separation, or doership from arising? No. Everything is allowed freely.
Does awareness judge what is worthy of being allowed in it? No. It is only your mind that judges this to be good and that to be bad, this to be worthy and that to be unworthy.
Does awareness have any qualities of being incomplete? No. It is only your identification with your story that gives rise to the lack of self-worth.
In essence, awareness feels like love – a sweet welcoming quality that is unconditional and universal. Even when the thought is of hatred or pain, awareness welcomes it lovingly.
And that awareness is you. And you are love.
So you see, we are insignificant and significant at the same time. Your story, my story, our story is indeed insignificant – as they say, our lives are but specks in the grand scheme of the universe. And yet, we are significant because who we are is unbounded, unlimited loving awareness in which the entire universe takes birth, and eventually subsides!
The Paradox of Self-Love
The self-love we so desperately seek is natural, driven by the malas because it’s their nature to seek completion – in knowing who we really are. And yet, we are seeking it in the wrong place! It’s like we are looking for our eyeglasses having forgotten that we’re wearing them. In fact, our identity as love is even closer than that.
None of this is meant to diminish the value of self-acceptance at any level. It so happens that a certain degree of self-acceptance is indeed required to do this deep inner work. It provides the fuel for the kind of looking that this work demands.
We have to understand, first and foremost, that we are limited – not in a masochistic “I’m not good enough” kind of way, but by seeing that it arises from being identified with our stories, which is universal. The sense of lack we carry around isn’t personal. It’s the very nature of existence. When we grok this, we open to self-compassion. This then opens us to love – to whatever degree that our practice makes it available to us. And we work from there. This spark of Self-love (notice the capital S – the Self is awareness) is the fuel that drives our ability to discern between our stories and the awareness in which they arise and subside.
The beauty of this kind of self-love is that it includes everything in it – the “me” and the “not me” since both are equally arising and subsiding in its welcoming arms. Love then stops being directed conditionally and becomes our way of being. No storytelling or affirming is needed.
Only with this shift can we see that we are significant and insignificant at the same time – one of the many paradoxes of the path of Self-discovery.
Join me for this kind of exploration of our psyches and shadows in the context of the ten wisdom goddesses in my 12-week online course. Click here for more information.
Pic: A still temple lake in Kathmandu on a recent trip. Notice how self-assured and welcoming it is, shining in its own light of Self-love.