Tuesday, July 19, 2011

On practicing maitri

Lately, I've been rereading a wonderful little book by Pema Chodron which was recommended by a friend. One of my favourite passages talks about the importance of maitri, the Buddhist practice of showing loving-kindness and unconditional friendship towards oneself.

As some of you know, I'm a bit of a perfectionist. Okay, some might even say I'm a control freak. It's something I've been working to change about myself for years - ever since I realized how unhappy it made me and those around me. For awhile, I thought I might finally have made some progress. Recently, however, I've come to the painful realization that nothing could be further from the truth. The way in which I express my desire to control may have undergone some superficial transformation, but the underlying inclination is still very much a part of me - as dark and destructive as ever.

Once upon a time, I bragged about being a perfectionist, explaining that it meant I could always be counted on to deliver, never did less than my best, and was no harder on others than on myself - as if that somehow made it okay to demand that others to live up to my expectations and get frustrated and angry when they didn't. After much hard soul-searching, I no longer believe that's true - though emotionally I still struggle with relinquishing control.

One of the ways perfectionism manifests in me is as compulsive thoughts. When there's something I can't control - a situation or someone else's behaviour, for instance - I can (and often do) spend days, even weeks, obsessively working on strategies to regain control. And, sadly, even when I notice what I'm doing, I'm not always able to stop. Instead, the focus of my thoughts simply shifts so that I become angry and frustrated with myself rather than the people and situations that upset me in the first place.

That's where maitri comes in. Working to minimize my perfectionist tendencies is clearly a good thing - but, in doing so, my self-talk needs to reflect the loving-kindness and unconditional friendship I aspire to show to others. According to Chodron, it isn't necessary for me to be so hard on myself to achieve the desired result. One can, she says, be more accepting and forgiving of oneself and still become a more loving and compassionate human being. In fact, being more compassionate towards others often begins with being more compassionate towards oneself.

That makes sense to me. After all, how can I expect to offer loving-kindness to others when I can't even offer it to myself - the person whose hopes and fears, joys and pain, I know and understand best of all? On the other hand, how do I ensure I'm not so accepting and forgiving of myself that I avoid taking responsibility for the pain my words and actions cause others?


  1. Sounds something like the Golden Rule. How would that be phrased?

    Do unto yourself as you would have others do unto themselves.

    Something to think on.

  2. I like that, Mike! Thanks for the thoughtful response.