In Search of Non-Self Confidence

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Dear friends,

Recently an interview with Dharma teacher Joanne Friday appeared in the Mindfulness Bell, a journal published by Plum Village. She describes an event in which she lost her self-confidence and then found it in a different form. Because I am a person who almost never feels self-confident about anything, and who constantly doubts her ability to take on new challenges and “succeed,” I was really interested in the process Joanne described.

One day a letter arrived from Plum Village, inviting her to receive Lamp Transmission, which means to become a Dharma teacher. Even though she had been practicing for many years, the letter surprised her. “I had no thoughts of ever being a Dharma teacher . . . After opening the letter, I went through feeling completely unworthy, and I thought, ‘Oh, they’ve made a mistake—my name was switched with some other person.’ I really was stunned. After two minutes or so, it was as if I was struck by a bolt of lightning and I thought, ‘This has nothing to do with you.'”

She had a sudden realization of all that she had received from other people during her life: “Since my first encounter with Thay, I have felt him to be very alive in every cell of my body. And the transmissions from my parents, from everybody who’s ever loved me, everybody who’s ever cared for me, all of them are alive in every cell of my body. So to say that is not good enough is an insult to all of them. This was not about my little egocentric self; it had nothing to do with me.”

What enabled her to accept the invitation with joy and confidence, she recounts, was to get in touch with her non-self elements and realize that she could have confidence in them, and to leave her “little egocentric self” out of it. She says that this is also her guideline in sharing the Dharma with others—to “leave my little self out of it.”

In the years since I started practicing with Still Water Mindfulness Practice Center, I’ve had many opportunities to step out of my comfort zone and take on new responsibilities, such as facilitating the Sunday-night sitting in Columbia, Maryland, and helping to teach an introductory course in Mindfulness Meditation. Whenever an opportunity to do something new and challenging appears, feelings of unworthiness come up in me, along with anxiety and fear. I suppose it’s normal to feel some nervousness about doing something for the first time; that would be the first arrow. But I’m very good at launching the second, third, and fourth arrows. I start feeling that the “success” or “failure” of whatever it is rests entirely on my shoulders. I tell myself, “I am entirely responsible for this,” and naturally I start to feel very isolated and over-burdened. I tell myself, “This is probably going to fail, and it will be all my fault, and everyone will see that it’s all my fault,” and I’m deep into the distorted thinking of my habit energy. And because so much of my attention is on myself and my distress, I might miss the opportunity to connect with the other people involved in the activity. I might not be able to be truly present with them or myself.

When I find myself in this very constricted place, the practice helps me move out of it. Sitting and breathing helps me. I become aware of my fear, anxiety, and agitation and acknowledge them, as Thay suggests: “Hello, my fear, my anxiety, my agitation; I see that you’re here again. May I hold you in mindfulness, the way a mother holds her child.” I am so grateful to Thay for teaching us this way of handling our difficult emotions; it saves me from adding to my suffering by judging and criticizing myself for having these emotions in the first place.

Asking others for help also helps me. When I do this, I take a step out of my isolation and start to let go of my exaggerated feelings of responsibility for outcomes. Asking for and receiving help reminds me that I am a cell in the Sangha body, I am not alone, people wish me well, and the Sangha has my back.

Remembering that I am not a separate self also helps. The teacher and writer Andrew Weiss, who describes his feelings of unworthiness and fear, received a spiritual name in another tradition that was very meaningful to him. His name, JiYu, means “to have faith or confidence in one’s own self as a manifestation of the true nature of the universe” (Beginning Mindfulness: Learning the Way of Awareness, p. 205). I find this idea so freeing and inspiring! It tells me that I can move forward into new challenges in my life with confidence, not because of anything having to do with my small self—any personality trait, or level of education, or credential—but because I am a manifestation of the true nature of the universe. And this is true for all of us.

You are warmly invited to be with us on Thursday evening. After our sitting and walking meditation, we’ll share our experiences and insights around self-confidence and non-self confidence. When you are facing a challenge, do you have moments when you have trouble believing in yourself or in a good outcome? How does the practice help you get out of that place of anxiety and speculation? How are you able to move out of the confines of your little self and widen your field of vision? How do you get in touch with your non-self elements?

We hope that you can be with us.

To read the interview with Joanne Friday, go to Under Quick Links, click on Archived Issues. The first issue to appear is #62, Winter/Spring 2013. Click on “Unconditional Acceptance,” which is the title of the article.

Below is a reading from Thay on self-acceptance.

Bowing and smiling,

Connie Anderson

Follow Mitchell’s blog as he travels to Scotland and Plum Village here.

Thich Nhat Hanh, Awakening of the Heart: Essential Buddhist Sutras and Commentaries, p. 403:

Accepting Ourselves

Because we can get stuck in the notion of self, when we look at ourselves, we often see many things we don’t like and many behaviors we’re not satisfied with. In each of us there’s a judge and there’s the person being judged. There are many of us who disagree with ourselves, cannot accept ourselves, and feel we are so bad, we have so many shortcomings. We are judgmental toward ourselves. We have so many weaknesses, and we don’t want them. We want to transcend them, transform them, but we can’t. So we start to despise ourselves.

If we can’t accept ourselves, how can we accept others? How can we help change the world around us? We have to learn to accept ourselves first. The Buddha said that we will learn to accept ourselves by looking deeply at ourselves. We are made of elements that are not us. When we look deeply, we see the many elements that brought us into being. There are the many genetic elements we received from our parents, grandparents, and ancestors. There’s our society, our traditions, the nation we live in, the people around us, our economic situation, and our educational background. When we see all these things, we see the many non-us elements in us. So we feel less judgmental and won’t tend to criticize ourselves so much.