Our life challenge is to love the sleeve into which the arm of our eternal spirit has been thrust. This “mortal coil” in which we find ourselves—this life with all its triumphs and woes—is no more than a garment the spirit has donned in order to see itself in a new way. A charming experiment—to be this human in this time and this place.
We forget about the experiment. We certainly forget, for the most part, that it is in any way charming. We feel frustrated that we are not enough—not lovable enough, not clever enough, not handsome or beautiful enough, not funny enough, not slim enough, not rich enough.
And we can get very angry about the ways in which we are not enough or not as fortunate as others. A wise teacher once remarked that we are never truly angry at anyone but ourselves. We are angry at some deficit in which we find ourselves and mad because we couldn’t find some way to have avoided it. We are angry because we have come face to face with our own lacking when all we ever wanted was to excel and master every challenge and win every opportunity that came our way.
The source of our anger at others is that we cannot love ourselves. “If your compassion does not include yourself,” says the Buddha, “it is incomplete.”
It seems there is no one harder to feel compassion for than ourselves. But, compassion for ourselves can be as accessible and limitless as a mother’s love for her child. It is obvious to a mother that her child is only learning; she expects the child to fall many times before he stands on his own and walks with confidence.
But, the child has limited understanding of what is happening and how to interpret it, the child becomes upset easily and cries with disappointment, the child is very obsessed with himself and his comfort. The child is vulnerable and dependent upon the love and approval of others. The child is not a master at anything. And this only makes the parent love the child more—to love the child when he cannot love himself.
When my younger son Seth was about three, he would sit and intently watch his seven-year-old brother Ryan play Nintendo. When it became his turn, Seth would take the control in his hands and try to mimic what he saw his older brother doing. But his fingers were not skilled enough or long enough or quick enough in the nuances of play, and he could not make the Mario Brothers characters do what he wanted. After a few minutes, he would throw the control and himself on the floor in despair and sob.
No one could explain to him that he was only learning and that with time he would succeed. In the interim there would be a lot of awkwardness and trial and error and failure. He didn’t want to hear that; he couldn’t hear it. He was three.
Samuel Beckett said: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.” If you can perceive the wisdom of these words as it may apply to a young person or a child, then you can apply that same wisdom to yourself.
To locate self-compassion, think of your spirit (the arm) as the parent and your ego (the sleeve) as the child. You are just learning. You are on your way to mastery, and there will be failures along the way. It doesn’t matter how long this takes. The more trials you endure, the more pitfalls you explore, the greater the mastery will be.
Pema Chodron talks about a practice she calls “compassionate abiding.” This is a good practice for working your way back to this understanding that your life is just a temporary sleeve and a charming experiment. As you breathe in, widen your heart to make room for all the sadness and regret, the anger or disappointment. Remember that your spirit and its capacity to love is vast and limitless, while your suffering is finite and small in comparison. Create space around the suffering to hold it and provide it comfort the way a mother comforts her child.
After a while, the tightness will relax, the suffering subside, and the “raveled sleeve of care” will be knitted up.