The society in which we live gives us mixed messages about the proper place for self-love.
It seems that, as a group, we have trouble deciding what’s morally acceptable. Being selfish is usually judged as a ‘bad’ thing, but being a compulsive people pleaser is no good either – it points to an inner weakness.
Our religious and social programming, the ‘baggage’ we all inherited from the culture we sprang from, is part of the reason we’re confused. “Always put the needs of others before your own,” we’re told, and at the same time we’re given the advice: “Look out for number one – nobody is going to do it for you.”
The whole thing smacks of hypocrisy and shame.
So in this article I want to cut through all the half-truths and confusion and share a simple, practical strategy that will ensure you don’t neglect your self-love, and still enable you to experience the joy of giving to others.
Narcissus by Caravaggio (circa 1590).
Narcissism is the pursuit of gratification from vanity or egotistic admiration of one’s own attributes. Is falling in love with your own image the same as self-love?
Instead of trying to define the different shades of meaning between words like these:
Let’s throw all of them out, for the moment, and focus on the root of the problem:
Ego – For this article I am using the word in the following sense: An artificially cultivated sense of self, which is easily inflated or deflated.
Our egos are things that we create; they don’t come standard at birth. It is the ego that gets us confused about our true identity, and our proper place in the big picture. It is the ego that makes us feel big, or feel small – both feelings are illusions.
When someone accuses you of not caring enough, it is your ego that takes offense, and becomes deflated.
When someone praises you for being altruistic and caring – it is your ego that swells with pride. Suddenly you feel like a saint.
John Lennon expressed the ego conundrum beautifully:
“Part of me suspects that I’m a loser, and the other part of me thinks I’m God Almighty.”
On their own our egos have no substance, and no permanence. They are fragile things that demand constant energy, pampering and attention. They are also very good at masking our true motivation – which is usually survival of our sense of identity, or survival of the ego.
It is also your ego that loves to occupy the moral high-ground. Your ego wants to be noticed by others too. If you’re a shy person, your ego fears being found out as a fraud. If you’re an overly-confident, arrogant person, usually it’s a dead giveaway that your ego fears becoming smaller.
How often have you noticed that people very publically do ‘nice’, good or charitable things for others just so that they can be seen doing it? What is their deepest motivation? The interests of others, or the preservation of their own ego?
Self-love, in its purest form, has nothing to do with the ego.
But what does all of this mean in practical terms? How does this help clarify the confusion about self-love?
When you understand that the ego isn’t interested in love, only in self-preservation, you come to understand that it is the root of all the negative aspects of the self. This includes selfishness, narcissism, vanity – and all the rest.
True personal power, and true love of the self comes from a place that transcends the ego.
Connect to the Authentic Source of Power, Love and Joy
Mystics, gurus, Zen masters and spiritual teachers speak of a state of mind (or “no-mind”) that you can contact through introspection, meditation and self-inquiry. One way to do it is to ask yourself one simple question:
“Who am I?”
Probably your first answer will be your name. But what does that mean? Not much. So you ask the same question again and again. Am I my body? Am I my mind? Am I just a collection of habits and preconceptions? Where is the “me” in all of this? Who am I, really?
Finally you reach a point where there are no more questions to ask. This is the point where the troublesome ego begins to break down, and your authentic self appears.
You realize that you’re not the answer to any of those questions – you are the source of the question itself, as well as the source of the answer. You’re simply the intelligent consciousness in the background.
This is your natural state – beyond your name, beyond your body and your intellectual mind, and even beyond the collection of events that make up your life story. From this vantage point the confusion about self-love disappears.
This inner place is your personal source of power, love and joy. “Self” and “Love” are no longer separate things. At the root of it, we are all part of one life – so loving yourself and loving other beings amounts to the same thing. No more confusion, and no more judgement.
How do you practically connect to this source?
- You can use meditation, especially the kind that focuses on compassion and love.
- You can find it intuitively when your mind is still – like when you’re awed by nature, or during a peak experience. It might even dawn on you during the height of sexual climax.
- You can study an animal like a cat or a dog – there’ usually no ego there to disturb the natural state of peace and positivity.
Build an indestructible energetic home base deep within your being, and realize that love doesn’t come from other people, or from outside. It comes from within you. That is the source of the true love of the self.
Fill up Your Inner Storehouse with Mojo
Once you tap into that powerhouse, it’s as if your inner stores become filled up with natural energy again – like when you were a child. You can call that energy “chi”, or “the force” or “prana”, or anything you like. For the purpose of this subheading, I’ve called it Mojo.
Freed from the inner conflict and division caused by an over-active ego, you can finally embrace this simple feeling of vitality. It doesn’t matter what you call it. The energy has a nurturing quality.
Inwardly you create a peaceful sanctuary – a place to escape the confusion of the outside world. There’s no room for ego in there. It’s a natural way to love and care for yourself – in fact it’s the only way.
It makes perfect practical sense to look after your body and mind from this perspective. Because you’re operating from the authentic source of creative energy, you will naturally feel the urge to develop and grow as a person to reach your full potential.
If you can remain connected to this kind of energy while you work, you reach a state of flow. That’s when everything just seems to fall in place, when the creative juices are flowing, and your actions are focused and effective.
Practical ways to fill your energy reserves:
- Stay connected to the source of energy – no need to explain it.
- Don’t constantly waste energy on insanity like anger, resentment and being judgmental
- Keep your body in tune with yoga, tai chi or some other form of exercise
Freely Distribute Love to Others from the Overflow
If your inner storehouse of love and energy is empty you simply can’t be of help to others. Instead of encouraging and guiding them you will only end up infecting them with negativity.
Even if you have a surplus of money, if you’re giving it to others out of a phony sense of duty, no one will get joy out of the gift.
If your storehouse is full to the point of overflowing then giving, helping and teaching others comes naturally. There’s simply no question of guilt or debt. It’s spontaneous, and it feels right. There’s no question of selfishness anymore.
So don’t get confused by self-love. It’s your natural right, and so long as it’s not tainted by the ego, it’s actually the most direct route to becoming selfless.