I don’t know about you but as I look in the mirror and see a reflection staring back that says 60 rather than 30, I feel the need to seriously practice the art of self-compassion. My own reflection makes me realise how easily our emotions can be triggered by outward appearances and unconsciously make judgements related to those appearances. I mean, if someone were to say to me, “You now have a choice. You can look like a natural 60, 70 and 80 year old or you can look like you are a healthy 40/50 year old for the rest of your life and then die at a ripe old age looking young.” It’s a no brainer. I easily know which option I would go for. What about you?
If you have the money, it’s seems possible in this day and age to defy ageing. Look at someone like Jennifer Lopez who seems to have made a pact with the devil. There are all sorts of injectables, fillers and other products that can slow down the appearance of ageing. What happens though if we decide to go down this path? Will it make us happier and more confident? Will we get hooked? Perhaps for a while we feel excited as we look at the reflection and see less wrinkles and sagging skin. Our society rewards a youthful appearance and yet ….
Buddhism teaches me that all physical existence is transient. Everything is constantly changing. From the moment we are born, we are dying. Even though I meditate on this and attend Buddhist teachings where this is taught to me, time and time again, I still get caught by appearances. When I see a photo of a beautiful soul whose eyes are full of kindness but whose skin is all wrinkled and worn by the weather, a sense of admiration and love wells up inside me. Each engraved wrinkle on their face is like a river on a map of life. Every wrinkle symbolises not just an ageing body but the many moments they have lived and the choices they have made along the way. I can look at that face and feel admiration and compassion but would I choose to have that face given the anti-ageing resources I have at my disposal? The million dollar question is, do I myself have the strength to fully embrace the Japanese aesthetic principle called wabi sabi?
Wabi sabi sees beauty in imperfection – whether it’s a piece of pottery or the body of a human being. Wabi sabi reminds me of the way I viewed my grandmother when I was growing up. I knew she was old but I didn’t really see it as a bad thing. It didn’t bother me like my own ageing face sometimes does. I accepted that this was who she was. I saw the love she had for me in her eyes and the love I felt from her warm embraces. Whenever I arrived at her doorstep, her wrinkled face would light up and to me the look on that kind wrinkled face was an acceptance of where she was on her life’s journey. So, if my grandmother had been able to look like a healthy 40-year-old her whole life, would it have made any difference to me? Probably not but the point I’m trying to make here is that what we see in others is their kind heart, we see the tenderness in the look on the face, we feel the love that goes beyond the physical appearance. As well as my grandmother’s amazing smile, I remember the kindness she had for strangers and the generosity she showed with her actions and small gifts. So although I may use the beauty products at my disposal in the 21st century, in the depths of my being, I truly want my face and my eyes to radiate out a loving-kindness and compassion for others I meet on my journey. For this to happen, there needs to be self-compassion first. So, why is that? Well, I look at it like this: Our wonderful sun can only generate heat to us because it is hot itself.
Dr Kristin Neff, an expert in Self-Compassion, says the following: having compassion for oneself is really no different than having compassion for others. Think about what the experience of compassion feels like. First, to have compassion for others you must notice that they are suffering. If you ignore that homeless person on the street, you can’t feel compassion for how difficult his or her experience is. Second, compassion involves feeling moved by others’ suffering so that your heart responds to their pain (the word compassion literally means to “suffer with”). When this occurs, you feel warmth, caring, and the desire to help the suffering person in some way. Having compassion also means that you offer understanding and kindness to others when they fail or make mistakes, rather than judging them harshly. Finally, when you feel compassion for another (rather than mere pity), it means that you realize that suffering, failure, and imperfection is part of the shared human experience. “There but for fortune go I.” Self-compassion involves acting the same way towards yourself when you are having a difficult time, fail, or notice something you don’t like about yourself. Instead of just ignoring your pain with a “stiff upper lip” mentality, you stop to tell yourself “this is really difficult right now,” how can I comfort and care for myself in this moment?
Instead of mercilessly judging and criticizing yourself for various inadequacies or shortcomings, self-compassion means you are kind and understanding when confronted with personal failings – after all, who ever said you were supposed to be perfect?
These wise words are a gentle reminder to me with this ever-changing body that I see staring back in the mirror. I try to remember, for myself and for others to practise seeing the world through Wabi sabi eyes; imperfect and beautiful.