Living the good life is simple but extremely difficult.
Simple, as in all it takes — beyond food, water, and shelter— is one thing: self-compassion.
Difficult, because so much is stacked against us being nice to ourselves.
What I mean by “the good life” is what the poet Mary Oliver must’ve meant when she asked, “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
The adjectives wild and precious about sum it up. The good life is realizing the seriousness of this present moment. How it never, ever will happen again. Yet being okay with that. Not making anything too precious. Celebrating the wildness.
It’s like that old Oscar Wilde line: “Life is too serious to be taken seriously.” (Though, apparently, that’s not exactly what Wilde wrote.)
Or like what the ancient Indian mystic known as the Buddha meant by “the middle way” when he said, “There is a middle way between the extremes of indulgence and self-denial, free from sorrow and suffering.”
Let me bring all this abstract stuff down to Earth.
When I first got into meditation, I would cringe whenever a meditation teacher mentioned compassion. What is this hippie, bougie shit? I’d think. When they recommended self-compassion, my mind would go blank.
It made no sense. I was meditating to be like a Buddhist monk, you know, cool, calm, and collected.
But in hindsight, I was just trying to feel better. And it wasn’t until I practiced self-compassion that I actually started to on a regular basis.
A few years ago, I dated someone I was incredibly attracted to. She was the most beautiful person I’d ever seen. Yet, when we slept together, I had trouble — let’s say — performing.
She was understanding and gentle with me about it. But I was a wreck. I thought I was broken physically or — worse — emotionally.
It wasn’t until I talked to a therapist that I felt better.
My friends had been kind. They’d recommended this or that supplement, this or that move in bed, this or that perfect thing to say.
But the therapist made me feel normal. Like nothing was wrong with me. Sure, what happened wasn’t ideal. But it happened. It was the truth.
The therapist’s non-shaming attitude allowed me to see that, despite being upset, I was also curious. What happened was evidence that my needs weren’t being met. Not evidence that I’m broken or weak or not a “real man,” whatever that means.
So, I decided to experiment. What is it that I really want? What really turns me on? What if I slowed down? What if I went at a pace that felt comfortable to me, instead of barreling forward because that’s just what a man does?
See, what gets in the way of self-compassion are thoughts. Spiraling, ruminating, critical thoughts. Stories about how we should or shouldn’t be.
angel Kyodo williams, the Zen Buddhist priest, says these stories fill our mind as if it were “that drawer that collects everything in your house.” She goes on:
They’re moving at an incredible rate of speed. And, for the most part, we almost never get the opportunity to observe them and sort through them. You say, ‘Oh, but wait a minute, someone lived in this house before me. And some of that stuff is not mine. Actually, this is not mine. That’s my mom’s. This is not mine; that’s the inheritance of white supremacy.’ And we have no real way of being able to discern what is mine, what is yours, what we’re holding collectively, what I have inherited, what I have taken on as a measure of protection, of a way to cope at some point in my life.
I was putting pressure on myself because… that’s just what men do. Men take control, do the exact right thing at the exact right time, and perform perfectly, no matter what. Those are the messages I inherited from our patriarchal culture.
But when I slowed down and got curious — when I observed and sorted through my thoughts— I also got confident, creative, and the rest of “the 8 C’s,” as they’re known as in the form of therapy called Internal Family Systems (IFS). I got courageous, compassionate, calm, and clearer about what I actually wanted.
I saw that I wasn’t emotionally connected with the woman I was dating. I was so caught up in her physical beauty that I’d lost connection with myself.
In other words, self-compassion is acceptance. Celebrating the wildness. Embracing our humanness. Dancing in the messiness. Learning from it all.
“Life is an incredible curriculum,” said the late spiritual teacher and psychologist Ram Dass. “In which we live it [sic] richly and passionately as a way of awakening to the deepest truths of our being.”
I’m happy to report that I haven’t experienced “performance issues” since. In fact, some 20 percent of erectile dysfunction cases are caused by anxiety, stress, or some other psychological issue.
But who knows if I will again? Life is unpredictable. Why would I want it not to be?
I’m a writer, meditation teacher, and host of the Meditation for the 99% podcast. My weekly email newsletter helps you bring mindfulness to work, relationships, and politics. Subscribe here.