Dharma Ocean explains Maitri: Making friends with ourselves in Buddhism
This is adapted from a podcast of a talk given by Dr. Reggie Ray, Director of Dharma Ocean Foundation, at the Blazing Mountain Retreat Center in Crestone, Colorado.
Maitri is a Sanskrit word which means “friend,” as well as acting in a friendly way. In English, it’s often translated as “loving-kindness.” Maitri is the essential missing piece in most spiritual discussions of love. Maitri means that we, in order to love anything, in order to love other people, even our own children, in order to love the world, must first develop an attitude of loving-kindness toward ourselves. When that’s missing, whatever else we’re doing isn’t real.
In our culture, the biggest manifestation of the absence of Maitri is perfectionism. We have a certain idea of how we should be, and hold ourselves to a certain standard—unfortunately, that’s aggression. And that kind of aggression, which may be unconscious, infects every interaction we have with others. We hold certain standards for ourselves; they could be intellectual or physical, they could be emotional, they could be social, they could be spiritual. But they have to go. In order to develop genuine, loving-kindness towards ourselves, we have to acknowledge perfectionistic standards as problematic, aggressive, and a form of self hatred. When we are perfectionistic, we are hating ourselves. It’s trying to pin ourselves down in a rigid, conceptual template. It cuts off life.
In Judeo-Christian traditions there’s a kind of fundamental harshness and judgmentalism toward the self that’s projected out onto other people. We’re judgmental of other people—we’re willing to help them, but there’s a fundamental aggression toward them—the same aggression we have toward ourselves. Love turns into aggression even though it’s masquerading as love. But it isn’t love because there’s no fundamental kindness. This is also a danger in Buddhism too, in the Asian traditions. Obviously it’s not just a Western problem.
So what is loving-kindness? Loving-kindness is allowing. It’s that simple. Allowing, making room for our own experience, no matter what it is. The foundation of loving-kindness is to realize that we ourselves are not a fixed entity. We are not a thing. We can’t be objectified. We can’t be named. We can’t be labeled, mostly by ourselves, because the minute we think we have any kind of fixed idea about ourselves, everything that doesn’t fit into it is rejected—that’s how the ego works. And most of what happens doesn’t fit into our concept of ourselves. So the strategy of aggression is saying “no” to most of what goes on with us, and judging and trying to control it.
We can realize that we actually do not know exactly who we are, and that we will never know who we are. We will never be able to hold what we are in our thinking mind, or label it, or put a stop to it. When we understand that who we fundamentally are is a profound and unsolvable mystery, which is the teaching of non-self, then we have no basis for rejecting anything. The only way we can reject parts of ourselves is if we’re trying to push some kind of limited personal identity on the universe.
The foundation of Maitri is the experience of non-self, but “non-self” doesn’t mean that there’s nothing there—that we’re not a unique individual. It means there is no “thing” you can get your hands on. And there is no basis for self judgment. There’s no basis for rejecting what arises in your experience. This is the view of the primordially mysterious self which, in Tibetan, is known as “Samantabhadra” in Tibetan Buddhism—the primordially mysterious self.
The practice of Maitri is to make room for and allow what comes up. It’s a lifelong journey. In the beginning, what comes up are unpleasant things, like if we inadvertently speak sharply to someone that we care about and we immediately want to launch into hating ourselves for it. You have to set that aside and make room for the fact that you just hurt somebody’s feelings and that’s the end of the story. And then you can apologize or do whatever you want to, but the one thing that you’re not allowed to do is hate yourself.
In Buddhism, Maitri also involves making room for our meltdowns. In other words, we fall apart or become dysregulated, and then somehow we work with this and things reconsolidate. There’s an integrative process that occurs in your body and you come out in a different place.
This fundamental dysregulation goes on with most humans, but generally, people don’t take advantage of it. They don’t realize what an opportunity it is because they don’t have the tools. There’s no problem being dysregulated—the problem is if you don’t work with it, if you don’t take advantage of it.
We have to make room for us to be kind of okay, and sometimes really great, and sometimes incredibly dysregulated without judgment, and we have to be honest with ourselves about what’s happening with us, and not only what’s happening, but how we feel about it, which can be even more painful. We have to be kind toward ourselves. There has to be an attitude of true acceptance of who we are.
When it comes to truly loving other people, if those issues are unresolved, we’re not going to be able to love other people because we have all of these conversations going on inside of ourselves. When we meet somebody who reminds us of any of the people or situations that have harmed us, we don’t like them. When we meet somebody who reminds us of the situations that fed us, we like them. The true love of the human heart and the Soma, or body, is impartial. It’s infinite, and lives within us, but it’s covered over with habitual, unconscious responses towards others that affect how we relate to them.
We’re always “loving” people, but what we’re really doing is we’re acting out our pain and pleasure, our hope and our fear, in the arena of alleged altruism. If we’re talking about truly loving, we’re talking about it because that’s our nature. If we’re talking about truly loving other people and loving the world in a way that is impartial, open, and infinite, then we’re going to have to begin to make a relationship with the parts of ourselves that we hate, and also the parts of ourselves that intoxicate us, because it’s both. Many people think it is only about working with the dark, negative sides of ourselves. That’s a very important part of it, but there are also parts of ourselves that are very powerful. A lot of people have built a lot of careers on their charisma, on their deft writing, their speech, their ability to handle other people. Those kinds of parts can get in the way of love too, those powerful, successful aspects of ourselves. Those parts need our love too.
So when we slip up in our daily life, we need to befriend and make room for and allow our meltdowns and all that goes with that. We begin to sense that there are some parts of ourselves that are in terrible pain. The analogy I use is that there are parts that are locked up in the dungeons and the torture chambers of our own state of being.
This is why somatic meditation practices are essential. We cannot use mental techniques to try to be kind to ourselves. I used to just tell people they just have to be kind to themselves, but I couldn’t really give them a practice. Now, in this lineage, we have a series of practices for developing Maitri—this kindness to ourselves.
One of the things we do in this lineage of Somatic Meditation is to develop an immediate visceral somatic experience of the fundamental immaculate spaciousness that is the foundation of the body. When we do this work, we emphasize the sitting practice of meditation. We’re developing a relationship with this empty, open foundation, the groundless ground. And that’s very important. So a basic sitting practice for the practice of Maitri and loving other people is essential.
Love is an aspect of your deepest being and it’s way underneath the ego. When we discover and apply the open, spacious feeling and the love that arises from it, we can begin to hold our relative pain in that space, and we can heal it that way. We start with the unconditional rather than trying to work our way back through our neurosis, to some kind of experience of unconditional love, which would take forever frankly. We start with the unconditional openness and the love that arises from it, the unconditional love, and then we bring it forward. And from that point of view, as our deepest self, then we can meet our meltdowns, our traumas, and we can heal them.
In our body as the microcosm, we can touch that primordial depth. When we connect with it, then that gives us a way to bring that primordial love, because that’s what it is, up into our body and into our heart. The practice gives us a way to experience what was already there, but it was too subtle to really get our strong somatic feel.
About Dharma Ocean Foundation
Dharma Ocean Foundation is a global educational foundation in the lineage of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, focusing on somatic meditation as the way to help students – of any secular or religious discipline, who are genuinely pursuing their spiritual awakening. Dharma Ocean provides online courses, study resources, guided meditation practice, and residential retreats at Blazing Mountain Retreat Center in Crestone, Colorado.
Story by Jessica Brown