Many years ago, I was listening to a talk on lovingkindness by a Buddhist teacher when someone in the audience shared their experience: no matter how much they meditated and brought mindfulness to their day, they were still their same old shitty self. Although I initially laughed at the comment, it simultaneously resonated deeply with me. At the time, I too had been striving hard in my practice, with high hopes that after enough hours of meditation and retreats, I would somehow land myself in a blissed-out state of perfection. I truly felt that if I dedicated myself fully to the practice, I’d no longer have to deal with the messiness of my imperfections and would finally be able to love and accept myself.
How many of us have felt just like that audience member? We go to all of these workshops, read a bunch of spiritual books, meet gurus and teachers, sign up for retreats, and do hours and hours of meditation only to meet the same difficult feelings, thoughts, and habits we started out with. This feeling of failure can be very discouraging and can easily become a breeding ground for self-hatred, which is definitely not the direction our practice is supposed to go in.
For me, during that time, it felt like I was completely covered in mud, and no matter how hard I tried to get clean, I still ended up all muddy. I wondered: How can I love myself when I keep meeting the parts of myself that I hate? How can I be loving toward myself if I’m continuously covered in mud?
The answer to this predicament came to me one day on an afternoon jog. As I was out running, I saw a statue of Budai, the Laughing Buddha, covered in mud. Although he was very dirty, he still had a big loving smile and was bursting with joy. Seeing this offered me a new possibility. What if we all were able to stop desperately trying to clean ourselves off and instead learned how to love ourselves anyway just as we are—warts and all? Could we cultivate an unconditional friendliness—embracing rather than fighting our so-called “shitty” selves—and learn how to be joyfully covered in mud just like the Laughing Buddha?
I believe we can and that this is the essence of our practice. And the good news is we don’t have to wait for completion or perfection before we finally begin loving ourselves. We can actually start right now.
If we want to love our imperfect selves, it’s helpful to see ourselves through the lens of the three I’s: Impermanent, Imperfect, and Impersonal.
The “mud” of our lives, our mistakes, flaws, and imperfections, constantly come and go and are always changing. No matter how much we try to clean ourselves off, eventually more mud arrives. Yet, if we understand impermanence—the truth that everything changes and ends—then we can see our imperfections not as permanent traits that need to be hated or removed but rather as an ever-flowing stream of life energy to be embraced and worked with. Instead of disliking ourselves for being covered in mud, we can actually love ourselves anyway and create a warm, friendly atmosphere in our own being that’s spacious enough to allow all of the “mud” to come and go.
I remember for many years in my practice not being able to stand certain feelings, thoughts, and habits I experienced daily. I used to joke that there were two versions of myself: “Mark,” with all his imperfect ways of being, and “Monk” who wanted to live a perfect, Buddhist-inspired life. This splitting of myself into two opposing versions made my life a living hell and left no room for self-love. There were times when I wanted to go out and have some casual drinks with my friends, but I had taken vows that included not taking any intoxicants. Yet, there I was by the end of the night, completely wasted. Or other times when I would say something inappropriate or allow myself to burst out in a fit of rage, even though I had made a commitment to wise speech. I would struggle and fight the urges of “Mark” and would always end up losing against them. No matter how hard I tried, I would eventually cave in and wind up hating myself, thinking, “You’ve been meditating all these years and you’re still screwing this up?”
Trust me when I tell you I tried anything and everything to make these imperfections disappear. But to no avail! It wasn’t until I allowed all of it to be there—allowing both “Mark” and “Monk” to live together harmoniously—that I was finally able to find some ease. I realized that what I was running away from was not actually who I was, but rather was nothing more than temporary changing conditions—thought patterns and unpleasant body sensations. I didn’t have to hate them, nor did I have to indulge or get lost in them, and I surely wasn’t “bad” or unworthy of love for having normal human urges and feelings. Understanding impermanence, combined with the act of radical acceptance, helped me cultivate an unconditional friendliness in my heart and mind, allowing me to begin the journey of loving my imperfect self.
Because all things are impermanent, we will naturally be imperfect—the second “I.” Completion and perfection are not possible because things come together and they fall apart. This is simply the nature of this life, and even if we somehow managed to attain some level of perfection, it would be dependent upon an infinite amount of changing conditions, causing it to be uncertain and unstable.
What does this mean for us? Our bodies, emotions, thoughts, habits, and behaviors will always be imperfect. We will never have them permanently be the way we want. The good news is this isn’t a problem, it’s just how things are.
Understanding the second “I” requires meeting our imperfections as expected guests on the path of being human, not as unexpected and unwelcome intruders. Loving ourselves involves accepting this truth that we are imperfect, and once we realize this, we can shift away from perfection and instead move toward perfecting our love toward our imperfect selves. Rather than endlessly trying to be “better” and hating ourselves along the way, we can work with the current ingredients of our lives, and moment by moment meet each imperfection with a wise heart and a warm, loving attention.
The third “I”—the impersonal nature of our imperfections—begins to reveal itself as we repeatedly observe impermanence in our own bodies and minds. Since everything is in a constant state of flux, it’s not possible for there to be some solid, unchanging entity we can call “me.” Our fleeting imperfections don’t have to turn into a permanent identity. They are not our fault, nor are they who we truly are. Sure, we are responsible for how we relate to them, but ultimately they are nothing more than impersonal changing conditions, arising and falling away. This understanding allows us to drop the heavy burden of our imperfections being who we are.
It’s a lot easier to love ourselves when we can relate to our flaws with lightheartedness and a sense of humor. Our flaws are not personal failures, they are impermanent, imperfect, and impersonal expressions of life. When viewed through the lens of the three “I’s,” our imperfect selves become much lighter and freer, allowing more room for love and appreciation. We may still get covered in mud from time to time, but we can do so joyfully, with hearts filled with love.
May you all be free from self-hatred.
May you all be held in compassion.
May you all love yourselves completely.
May you all be joyfully covered in mud.
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