Self-Love and Self-Directed Kindness

The Gift of Presence: Being an Empowering Friend to Ourselves

When we give ourselves the gift of presence, we are with ourselves in all of our moments—our joyful and sorrowful moments, our moments of success and failure, the moments when we love ourselves, and the moments when we feel full of shame. We recognize and accept ourselves in all of our human emotions and experiences.

The Power of Recognition

Recognition is important to us and helps us feel safe and valued.

When people recognize and accept us, even in our most painful moments, they communicate, “I see you and honor you as a human being.”

On the other hand, when people refuse to acknowledge certain moments of our lives (perhaps our really difficult moments), they are not allowing us the full expression of our humanity. Since we cannot help but be human, to be denied our humanity is a painful and often debilitating experience.

The same is true when we deny ourselves certain moments of our human existence. In doing so, we do not allow ourselves to be fully human and, whether we realize it or not, this is very painful.

Image result for pre raphaelite pictures

The painting above is “Windflowers” by John William Waterhouse

The Painful Friend Scenario

Imagine that you are with a friend. You have been looking forward to having a meaningful conversation with that person because you have been having a difficult time, and you need a friend to understand how you are feeling. But rather than being engaged with and responsive to you, your friend is constantly checking her phone, looking at everyone else but you, and she consistently remarks how she wishes she was somewhere else.

You would feel neglected and rejected, and it would likely cause you a great deal of suffering. The painful friend has failed to give you the gift of presence.

When We are the Painful Friend to Ourselves

Many of us often act like the painful friend to ourselves without realizing it. We often fail to give ourselves the gift of presence, especially when we are suffering from painful emotions.

Consider how often we try to ignore or press down our negative emotions; or shame ourselves for having them; or how often we wish we could be different or be somewhere other than the place we are now.

When we do this, we treat ourselves as an object, not a person. We treat ourselves as though our purpose in life is merely to behave as we wish so we can accomplish some other goal—such as gaining pleasure or achieving success. We fail to realize that our purpose in life is actually to be a human being which entails experiencing a full range of human emotions and needs.

Perhaps it is difficult for us to understand how to acknowledge, respect, and accept ourselves when we have especially intense feelings like depression or anger or shame. We might worry that by acknowledging and accepting our feelings, we resign ourselves to feeling that way forever.

This is not true.[1]

It is possible both to give ourselves the gift of presence by accepting our difficult feelings while also realizing that eventually it will be good for us to move past or let go of these feelings. When we do this, we are being an empowering friend to ourselves.

The Empowering Friend

When an empowering friend realizes her friend is depressed or angry, the friend accepts this about her friend. She might even say something like, “I can understand why you feel that way.” This doesn’t mean that the friend resigns herself to the other person always feeling that way. It doesn’t mean that she never tries to help her friend move past these feelings.

Rather, the empowering friend realizes that often the first step to moving past difficult feelings is the recognition and acceptance that the feelings are indeed occurring.

It’s the same with ourselves.

When we recognize and accept our feelings, we begin to understand why they occur. When we understand this, it is often the first step in helping ourselves move past the difficult feelings.

Those Buddhists Get It

The Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh echoes this idea in his book True Love: A Practice for Awakening the Heart when he writes, “When you are really there, you have the ability to recognize the presence of the other. To be there is the first step, and recognizing the presence of the other is the second step. To love is to recognize; to be loved is to be recognized by the other. If you love someone and you continue to ignore his or her presence, this is not true love.”[2]

He adds, “The most precious gift you can give to the one you love is your presence.”[3] Of course, Hanh writes about presence as a gift we give to others, but we can also recognize our own presence and in doing so, we give ourselves the gift of presence. This is an act of self-love.

Mindfulness and the Gift of Presence

One of the first times I began to think about the gift of presence seriously was when I was teaching Asian philosophy at a local university. In my class we were discussing a passage in the Sayings of Buddha where the Buddha is talking about the practice of mindfulness, which is actually the practice of presence with one’s self. The Buddha stressed the importance of mindfulness as a way of relieving the suffering in one’s life and in the world.[4] The Buddha says,

And how does a monk live watching feelings as feelings? Here, when a monk feels a happy feeling, he knows he is feeling a happy feeling; when he feels an unhappy feeling, he knows he is feeling an unhappy feeling; when he feels a neither happy or unhappy feeling, he knows he is feeling a neither happy nor unhappy feeling.[5]

I decided to try out out this this practice of mindfulness and presence for a day.

I Try Out Presence

When I was walking to the bus, I noticed and knew I was walking to the bus. When I was eating my lunch, I noticed and knew I was eating lunch. When I was feeling anxious, I noticed and knew I was feeling anxious. When I was having problems falling asleep, I noticed and knew I was having problems falling to sleep. When I felt especially ashamed over a mistake, I noticed and knew I was feeling ashamed. When I felt sad, I noticed and knew that I was feeling sad. I accepted and was with myself in all of these moments.

This practice had an immediately calming effect on me. My life felt slower, more gentle, centered, and peaceful. A weight lifted off my shoulders because I finally gave myself the attention I had been seeking. I was a friend to myself, and I relaxed. As I relaxed, the moment became more vivid because I was finally in it rather than distracting myself from it.

If you want to start giving yourself the gift of presence, practice mindfulness as the Buddha describes it. You don’t have to notice yourself every minute of the day. Rather, you can check in with yourself at various times and notice what you are doing and how you are feeling, accepting whatever arises in the moment.[6]

Giving ourselves the gift of presence invites us to check in with ourselves regularly and to notice what we are doing. It invites us to dwell peacefully with our difficult feelings and be an empowering friend to our self.

What a beautiful gift.

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[1] In her book There is Nothing Wrong with You (which I highly recommend), Zen Buddhist practitioner Cheri Huber illustrates the difference between resignation and acceptance. She suggests that resignation is something we do with our head down, while acceptance is something we do with our head up. Of course, the “head down” or “head up” spoken of here can be metaphorical rather than literal. She is suggesting that resignation leads to feelings of defeat, whereas acceptance can lead to expectancy and hope that our difficult feelings will eventually pass.

[2] True Love: A Practice for Awakening the Heart, Thich Nhat Hanh. Shambhala Publications, Inc. Boston, MA: 1997, pg. 13-14

[3] True Love: A Practice for Awakening the Heart, Thich Nhat Hanh. Shambhala Publications, Inc. Boston, MA: 1997, pg. 6

[4] The Buddha’s primary focus in life was the relief of human suffering. He wasn’t primarily interested in metaphysical questions such as the nature of the soul or whether there is a god or an afterlife. Instead, he focused on the causes and the cures of human suffering.

Because of this, while Buddhism can be practiced as a religion, many people practice Buddhism as a life philosophy and find that it helps them relieve their suffering and understand their own values more clearly—whether they are religious or not. So, for example, the Catholic monk, Thomas Merton, practiced Buddhist philosophy later in his life and said it helped him become a better Christian.

There are also non-religious folk who draw on Buddhist philosophy for practical guidance in living. When I reference Buddhist writings in this post (and also in later posts in my blog), I am primarily interested in the practical philosophical insights of Buddhism that are applicable to all human beings, whatever their religious orientation is.

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