Dear Abbey Dharma,

I often wonder about loving oneself and awareness. I am terrified of getting into a relationship, so I avoid pain by avoiding relationships. But I end up creating more pain for myself that way, and I often find myself in bad situations. How can I achieve a level of self-esteem where I am open to new relationships?

Afraid to Commit

Dear Afraid to Commit,

I think your insight that commitment to relationship entails making oneself vulnerable to the pain of loss is true, but feeling alone in the world, without loving connections to kin or friends or partners, is also painful. We make the choice, whenever we make someone dear to us, of risking the pain of loss. I think it is our awareness that meaningful personal connections sustain us and our awareness that our connections are contingent on circumstances beyond our power to control that make us cherish them so much. Strong personal relationships are the pathway to experiencing the impartial care and concern for all beings that the Buddha mandates in the Metta Sutta: “Just as a mother would give her life to protect her only child, so should we with a boundless heart cherish all living beings.” We intuit that everyone who is invested in a loving relationship cherishes that relationship as much as we do ours, and we empathically respond with goodwill.

The fact that you included self-esteem concerns in your question reminds me of an exchange I heard many years ago between the Dalai Lama and an American psychotherapist. The therapist had mentioned what she felt was endemic low self-esteem in her clients. His Holiness, genuinely surprised, exclaimed, “But that’s a mistake. Every individual is precious!” His response, however touching it is, does not obviate the fact that many people do, for whatever reason, feel unworthy. I hope you will find a spiritual teacher or a psychotherapist or a dharma friend with whom you can talk openly about your feelings. Being able to resolve some of those feelings might change your sense of being terrified at the prospect of relationship to being thrilled about it.