Last Sunday at sangha we were talking about losing motivation for practice. At one point Michael said, "I kind of hate to say this, because it sounds like I'm saying we don't have enough self-centeredness, and we have plenty of that. But the problem is that we don't have enough loving-kindness for ourselves."
Pronoia wrote this, a week or so ago:
I first encountered this doing research for my dissertation. A common treatment protocol for addiction is breaking down the ego so the person in question realizes they can't do this on their own, they aren't different from everyone else, and they need help. It works, in general, on men. However, women are usually addicted out of other places and problems, and humiliating them and challenging them around their egos only made them more prone to substance abuse because it was a coping mechanism for massive esteem problems. I haven't done research recently, but I don't know that it's been changed.
(Which, by the by, makes me really want to read her dissertation)
The Tibetans, I've heard several people say who were in a position to know, seem simply not to have our self-esteem problems. And so the dharma they have handed down is aimed at people who don't often doubt their worthiness. In Tong Len ("taking and sending") practice, one begins by practicing compassion with oneself, and then moves on to practicing compassion for others. I think they started with oneself because they reckoned it would be so easy -- everyone, after all, they reasoned, cares for himself and has compassion for himself.
For us -- and maybe especially for women -- it's not an easy part of the practice at all. But it still belongs at the beginning. Because if you can't practice it with yourself, you can't practice it properly with anyone else.
Everyone needs to have their ego broken down. But there are a lot of people -- not just women; I'm certainly one of them -- whose egos are entrenched, at least part of the time, in self-contempt. For whom self-cherishing can take the form of considering ourselves uniquely culpable and incorrigible. Telling us we shouldn't have such a high opinion of ourselves, and that we can't do it on our own, doesn't threaten the investment of our ego. It fortifies it.
The test of any practice's effectiveness is quite simple, I think. It's working if (in the long run) it takes me to new place. Any practice, no matter how good or how bad it feels, that leaves me undisturbed in my habitual patterns of thinking and feeling -- or, worse, reinforces them -- is either not a good practice for me, at present, or is a practice I'm doing wrong. Effective practice is usually accompanied by some sense of opening, of spaciousness. This is by no means always comfortable. It can be terrifying. But I can think of no practice that ought to be regularly accompanied by a sense of closing down and constriction. I would not lightly tell anyone to stop a meditation practice, but if someone told me that was their usual experience of it, that would be my advice. Stop. Time to go to a teacher and figure out what's wrong. Maybe find a new way of doing it; maybe find another practice.