My senior year of college, I hit a wall. I was weeks away from graduating. I was involved: community garden, activism, student body government. I was smart: high GPA, well-traveled and well-versed, scholarly and musical, a successful academic career on the horizon.
And underneath that—I was deeply depressed. And overlaying that—I was deeply ashamed of being depressed. What did I have to feel bad about? My children weren’t getting cancer from the seepage of oil in my ecosystem, like I’d witnessed in the Ecuadorian Amazon. My home hadn’t just been demolished and the promised governmental aid not delivered on, like I’d seen in New Orleans. I wasn’t being “oppressed” by any force I could name or see. There was work to do in the world and I didn’t have time to feel bad. What was my problem?
When I finally couldn’t keep pretending nothing was wrong, I spoke up, canceled commitments and got help. I couldn’t ignore this gaping emptiness inside me. Some instinct that was stronger than my shame and fear brought me to the edges of that hole and asked me to peer inside. When I looked, this is what I saw: that all my good doing, all my accomplishing, all my efforting to fix what was “out there” was, in large part, being steered by this vast empty place inside me where, in an aching whisper, I wondered: Have I worked hard enough yet to be loved?
I think this ache to be loved is part of our human struggle. If you’re of a spiritual bent, you might say it is the consequence of being made of the Infinite stuff of Spirit, but being contained in the Finite material of bodies. We go to exorbitant measures to satisfy it. Partnerships are fused, addictions are fueled, and wars are fought over it—over the deep anxiety that we aren’t already enough, don’t already have enough, aren’t already completed in Love that, the yogis and mystics would say, is who and what we already are.
This has been my yoga. What started as a desire to just feel some relief in my body, became an inner pilgrimage towards Unity that continues to this day. Pulled by a force that is both transcendent and imminent, yoga brings me into the chasm of my own lack and longing.
What I experience time and again is that, despite my fear to the contrary, the chasm isn’t bottomless. There is a end to it, and at the bottom is a upsurging spring. That spring is Love, the Love that flows through and joins all things, the Love that has never left me, the Love that completes me in who I already am. This Love, I have come to believe and trust, and have to be reminded many times over, is the wisest part of my heart. “You are loved! I love you! So love yourself already!” she urges, “And then get on with loving the world…”
Though of course there is virtue in the tradition of treating others the way we want to be treated and loving others as we would love ourselves—consider this: what would the world look like if we loved ourselves the way we want to be loved? If we dare to love ourselves—that is, if we are drinking from our own deep inner well, rather than chasing after this and that thing outside of ourselves to make ourselves whole—then we actually free ourselves from the slavery of needing outside conditions to be a certain way to feel ok inside. We free ourselves to be a continued outpouring of that same Love that we drink from. In the words of folk musician (and personal hero) Dar Williams, “Oh how I love everybody else when I finally get to talk so much about myself!” As in—we can serve others best when we are whole in ourselves.
This is the Love that yoga inspires in me. This is my prayer, my yoga, and my activism—to love myself the way I want and need. And then to get on with letting Love overflow back into the world.
And how do we do that? No really, I’m asking you! Nowadays, I try to be nice to my body and kind to my compulsions towards overwork and perfectionism (like right now, as I read and edit this post. Not gonna overthink it!). I try to take baths and naps and shut off work at a reasonable hour. I try to congratulate myself on good effort, and not be to hard on myself when I mess up. I try to be compassionate to the parts of myself that are hard to like.
What do you do? Or what might you do, what might it look like to love yourself in ways you seek others to love you? Please inspire us with new ideas by sharing in the comments below!
Let the Love flow on.