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I’m what you might call a late-bloomer in the self-love department.
It has always been easier for me to forgive and love others than to extend the same kindness to myself.
So, when I first discovered the practice called Maitri Space Awareness, it was a game changer.
Maitri Space Awareness practice was developed by Chögyam Trungpa to help Westerners learn to work with the fundamental energies of mind—in other words, how to handle the storms of our emotions. The practice involves mindfulness meditation, followed by a variety of simple postures done in colored rooms, and “aimless wandering”—a loose variation of walking meditation—to investigate these energies.
My first experience of Maitri Space Awareness was part of a three-month retreat in the mountains of northern Colorado as a grad student studying psychology at Naropa University.
We started the retreat sitting in meditation 10 hours a day—broken up into 30-to-50-minute sessions with walking meditation in between—for two full weeks.
The longest I’d ever meditated before was 10 minutes.
Pins and needles assaulted my legs, my shoulders fused with my neck to create a rigid, imaginary whiplash brace, my mind conspired to replay the endless loop of scenes of a childhood heartbreak I’d never fully acknowledged. I fantasized about back-slapping my neighboring meditator for daring to cough or move or breathe during the silence. Then I spent hours redecorating my apartment or creating menus for imaginary dinner parties I’d never give. I composed letters to ex-boyfriends expressing what I had been unable to say in the moment. I had derelict, delicious sex eight times a day. I felt like a rudderless dinghy in a South Sea typhoon, drowning in the waves of each emotion. Then there was the sheer boredom of looking at my mind, day after day. And the cold insistent voice assuring me that I was a useless failure.
After meditating for two weeks, we started the five colored rooms, each with a different posture—lying on the back, arms outstretched, lying prone, looking to the left, Child’s Pose with chin on palms—each pose was meant to evoke the energies associated with that particular Buddha family, or element.
For example, the Ratna Buddha family is yellow and associated with the earth element. It evokes a sense of richness, like the earth bearing fruit during harvest season. In its constricted or neurotic manifestation, Ratna becomes poverty-stricken and grasping—it doesn’t recognize the fruits. It is the neurotic quality of someone binging on retail therapy to overcome feelings of worthlessness.
Each Maitri family has its own style and pattern of both wisdom and neurosis.
Somehow—I don’t know exactly how it works—but the posture and the color conspire to evoke the energy of the element associated with each family.
Once the energies of earth, water, fire, wind, or space wake up in the practitioner, it’s as if we see things through a colored lens. Our focus hones in on the particular energy of the family, and specifically, our personal expression of that energy.
>> Water can manifest as calm reflection or icy sharpness.
>> Earth can shower riches or become barren and dry.
>> Fire manifests as passionate warmth or lusty destruction.
>> Wind can be harnessed for productivity or destroy whatever is in its path.
>> Space can be gracious and accommodating or we can get lost in it.
The blue room—associated with the water element—was my arch-nemesis.
The Vajra family energy evokes mirror-like wisdom, or the ability to see things clearly. As a writer, I’ve always been an observer, so I’m at home—and at peace—with this family’s energy. When this energy is constricted, anger, impatience, and an inability to connect are the hallmarks. So, I end up feeling alone in an arctic winter, unable to reach out and contact people for the warmth I crave. When I suffer from this neurotic pattern, you’ll probably find me hidden away under my duvet sipping a steaming cup of chamomile with my nose in a book of fiction.
When we are able to first identify and then tolerate the intense feelings that cause our suffering, suddenly there is the possibility to transcend the whole process. We do this by applying loving-kindness and space.
It’s a bit like watching a storm roll in across the valley—we see it coming, it arrives and there’s a lot of action: thunder and lightning and rain. Then it moves on and leaves the area cleansed. We can view our emotions the same way. Appreciate the power and beauty and give it all the space it needs to work itself out.
The problem is that most of the time, we don’t see the storm coming. We don’t know enough about our own particular style of neurosis to anticipate our internal weather patterns—in other words, we don’t know how to read the signs. Maitri Space Awareness helps us become good meteorologists of our own internal weather.
Because I stayed with my experience at that first Maitri program, I slowly learned how to manage the emotional storms that arise as part of the human experience.
The practice is essentially three-fold:
We learn to tolerate the physical sensations of our experience without acting out or repressing.
This is how we apply Maitri—by accepting ourselves and our experience unconditionally. We are okay just as we are, flaws and all.
The work is in becoming aware of our blind spots so that we can see how we might create the very situations we try to avoid.
Maitri is the foundation of compassion. Without it, our experience of being human lacks the warmth of connection. It is an experience of acceptance.
Studies show that self-acceptance is key to finding happiness. We can’t intellectualize unconditional acceptance or friendship with oneself. There has to be an actual experience.
The one quality all happy people share is the ability to extend loving kindness to themselves. It’s like a perversion of the great opening line of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina: “All happy people are alike; each unhappy person is unhappy in his or her own way.”
Happy people love themselves. Unhappy people have a version of self-aggression that is unique to each person.
Yet we don’t spend much effort training people in this skill. How many people go around every day beating themselves up for feeling inferior, or imperfect, or unworthy? I did for years, and on certain days, I am still learning.
When we learn how to hold space and extend loving kindness, we start to occupy our world in a more peaceful way. We learn how we respond to the different energies, so we can be more skillful in our actions and responses when we are triggered.
I have a tendency to be a bit of a hermit—I need my alone time. This is a trait of Buddha family energy—associated with space. It feeds my creative juices to spend time in solitude. While I love my friends and family, I get overwhelmed with too much “people time” and notice at a certain point I need a break to retreat and gather my energy. In the past, before I consciously identified this pattern, I would find ways to force the space I needed—like provoking a fight—rather than ask for it directly. I hurt a lot of people this way.
Now, I recognize when I’m feeling overwhelmed and I can simply say to my friend or companion: nothing personal, but I need some alone time now. There’s no anguish of trying to manufacture an excuse to get space, and the relationship doesn’t get damaged as a result. It’s a cleaner and more direct way of working with the energy.
“Since all things are naked, clear, and free from obscurations, there is nothing to attain or realise. The everyday practice is simply to develop a complete acceptance and openness to all situations and emotions. And to all people – experiencing everything totally without reservations and blockages, so that one never withdraws or centralises onto oneself.” ~ Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche
Once we see that emotions are simply energy manifesting according to circumstances and perspective, there is the possibility to take things less personally.
Self-love becomes a real possibility.
So, we take the poison out of the kleshas—the conflicting emotions. Then we start to see that confusion is necessary for wisdom to dawn. We can give ourselves a break for being angry or jealous or greedy—it’s just the underbelly of our particular style. We realize we don’t have to get uptight about it.
Our greatest obstacle is also our greatest gift. Whatever causes us deep pain also holds the seed of wisdom. It is through acknowledging our pain that we learn to connect authentically with the world.
By accepting our weakness along with our strength, we learn to love ourselves and practice Maitri all the time.