We Can Change How We See Ourselves and Others

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Radical Acceptance" by Tara Brach. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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How can we learn to see ourselves and others differently? What is the Buddhism idea of metta? Is it possible to feel lovingkindness towards those we despise?

It can be difficult to see our own positive qualities, but by reminding ourselves of things that we admire about ourselves, we can reawaken love and compassion. We should also try to feel compassionate towards others rather than putting labels on them. Seeing the essential goodness in people naturally awakens what Buddhists call metta, translated as “lovingkindness.”

Keep reading to learn more about compassion and metta towards ourselves and others.

How We See Ourselves

When we’re lost in trances of unworthiness, guilt, or shame, there are several powerful practices we can use to change how we see ourselves and start to escape those feelings. 

Those around us often see positive qualities that we’re too lost in our own trances to see. For example, someone who likes to ask questions might think that he’s annoying, but his friends might love him for his wonder and enthusiasm. Seeing ourselves through someone else’s eyes can help to remind us of our best qualities, and the things that others admire about us. Practicing role reversal with a loved one is a great way to do this.

We can also try to escape our trances by thinking about ourselves differently. By reminding ourselves of things that we admire about ourselves, we can reawaken love and compassion. For example, an animal lover might think about the time she took in a stray dog, and how much joy she was able to bring to that creature’s life. Touchstones such as pictures or souvenirs can also be helpful reminders. 

Finally, it can help to remember the love of a higher power. This power could be God, Buddha, or something nonspecific like the universe. Tara Brach, author of Radical Acceptance, illustrates this idea with a short anecdote.

Tara Brach’s Story About Forgiveness

A woman got addicted to heroin and wound up in the hospital, dying of AIDS. She was in despair because all she could think about was how she had destroyed her life and the lives of everyone around her, including her daughter. 

A priest came to visit the woman on her deathbed, and he saw that she had a picture of her daughter on the dresser. He asked what would happen if the daughter made a mistake: Would the woman try to help her? Would she still love her? The dying woman answered that of course she would. 

The priest’s parting words for the woman were that God had a picture of her on His dresser. That’s what forgiveness is: Not excusing the behavior, but loving the person regardless of it. 

How We See Others

Other people have Buddha nature at the core of their beings, just like we do. If we concentrate on seeing past everything extraneous like people’s appearance, actions, and our own labels for them, we start to see that we’re all essentially the same: beings made of love and awareness. There are various techniques that can help us see this basic goodness in others. 

One practice is to imagine other people as children. No matter how frustrated parents may get with their children, many of them will feel simple, powerful love during quiet times—times when the child isn’t asking for yet another cookie or bothering the parent during an important meeting. As with children, we don’t necessarily dislike people just because we’re frustrated with their behavior. 

Another method is to imagine that you’re meeting someone for the first time. Let go of your history with that person and your habitual labels for him or her. Simply encounter people as they are in that moment, not as you imagine them based on past interactions.

Finally, imagine that you’re seeing someone for the last time. What do you admire about that person? What would you want to remember if you knew you’d never see him or her again?

The Buddhism Idea of Metta

Seeing the essential goodness in people naturally awakens what Buddhists call metta, translated as “lovingkindness.” Simply put, it’s a wish for someone’s health and happiness. 

Like with compassion, there are practices to awaken this feeling of lovingkindness and expand it in ever-bigger circles. Traditionally we begin with ourselves—we reflect on our own goodness and offer wishes that we may be peaceful, happy, and filled with metta

After that, we expand our circle of lovingkindness to include the people closest to us. It’s often easiest to begin with a single person, the one whose goodness is easiest for us to see. This could be a child, a parent, a grandparent, or a friend—there’s no “correct” person to choose. 

Once we have someone in mind, we meditate on what we love about that person and offer him or her the same wish for happiness that we offered ourselves. Once that’s done. we can widen our circles of metta to include other people that we’re close to, then people we don’t know as well, then those we don’t know at all.

Universal Lovingkindness

The most challenging part of this exercise is to experience lovingkindness for those who stir feelings of dislike or anger in us. Offering those people wishes of peace and happiness is likely to feel forced and hollow at first. 

However, if we welcome those negative feelings about other people and let them pass, we can continue offering well-wishes. In doing so, we’ll find (to our own surprise) that those wishes start feeling more sincere. By offering care even when we don’t mean it, genuine caring feelings will start to awaken. 

This practice of universal lovingkindness is based on the understanding that every person’s deepest wish is simply to be loved. According to the Buddha, lovingkindness is the single most important spiritual practice. Wishing for universal peace and happiness helps us to reconnect with the essential goodness that exists in all people.

We Can Change How We See Ourselves and Others

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Hannah Aster

Hannah graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and double minors in Professional Writing and Creative Writing. She grew up reading books like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and has always carried a passion for fiction. However, Hannah transitioned to non-fiction writing when she started her travel website in 2018 and now enjoys sharing travel guides and trying to inspire others to see the world.

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