I recently watched an interview of the successful entrepreneur and investor Dan Peña, where he talked about the number one characteristic of success. Surprisingly, it wasn’t natural talent, intelligence, focus, or any of the other obvious markers you’d expect high performers to embody. The number one characteristic of success was having high self-esteem.Your self-esteem, more than any other trait, directly affects every aspect of your life. From the quality of your relationships, to your performance at work, to your physical health; how you view yourself literally colors the lens with which you look at the world.If your self-esteem is indeed the single domino that impacts all areas of your life, wouldn’t it make sense to develop a higher degree of it? In order to do so, you’d need to examine the relationship you have with yourself, something most people hardly ever think about. Yet it’s odd when you stop and think about it – you’re stuck with yourself far more than a career, a spouse, or any other person in your life. Every waking moment is spent with yourself, and yet few people pause to examine this relationship.
In this article, we’re going to dive into this topic. In the process you’re going to discover a thousand year old Buddhist secret that is the key to developing a rock solid relationship with oneself, and in turn, improving virtually every area of your life.
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My girlfriend recently took a month long course in Koh Samui, Thailand learning to teach English abroad. Throughout the four weeks, the group of students she shared the course with quickly bonded into a close knit group.
I remember bumping into one of Gina’s classmates at a restaurant a few days after the course ended. By this point most of the class left the island, finding jobs throughout the country. The girl I bumped into was noticeably down, saying how bored she’d been the past few days now that everyone left. Just a few days before she was having the time of her life, enjoying the island’s pristine beaches and wild nightlife. Yet when her friends were suddenly stripped away, she seemed unhappy. She didn’t know how to enjoy her own company, even in one of the most beautiful places in the world.
I don’t blame her. From an evolutionary standpoint, we’re social creatures by nature, and we have an inborn need to connect, to belong, to love. This need is what allowed our ancestors to work in groups, to build communities, to prosper. Throughout history, social genes thrived whilst loner genes were weeded out.
To belong, is to be human. Yet I’ve heard many spiritual gurus advocating that we drop worldly attachments – even our attachments to family and friends. Personally, I think that’s BS. Unless you’re a robot, you need human connection in the same way you need food and water. It’s a deep genetic level need that isn’t going away. And that’s okay. You should create bonds, lean on loved ones, and feel a sense of belonging within a community.
Yet a healthy relationship with oneself should be the foundation these connections sit on top of – something many of us lack. The truth is, many of us dread the thought of spending time alone because we’re simply not happy with the person we’re left alone with. As a result, we look to fill this empty space with friends, family, partners, and any distraction that can fill this void in our lives. In doing so, we neglect any type of relationship with ourselves.
MAITRI – UNCONDITIONAL FRIENDSHIP TOWARDS ONESELF
The Buddhists nailed this issue with their concept of Maitri. Maitri is a Sanskrit term which can be roughly translated as an unconditional friendship towards oneself. It’s treating yourself with the same love, kindness and support that you’d offer your closest friends.
What are the qualities of a friend? A friend is someone who offers support at a moment’s notice. It’s someone who laughs with you, cries with you, and gives you brutal honesty. A friend is someone who see’s you laid bare, the good and the bad, and they accept who they see unconditionally. Maitri means being this type of person towards yourself, no matter the circumstance.
When you begin to have this type of relationship with yourself, you start taking responsibility over your own happiness, rather than relying on it from the outside world. As Krishnamurti once said:
“You have to be a light to yourself in a world that is utterly becoming dark.”
This light doesn’t come from your partner, your friends, your mom, or some achievement – but from within.
Imagine for a second if you had this loving, supportive, non-judgmental friend with you at all times. Imagine how different your day-to-day life would be? How much the worries, the fears, the dramas, and the need for acceptance would fall away if you had this type of rock-solid relationship with yourself.
Friendship is one of the most beautiful aspects of the human experience. You can be broke, in poor health, and have all sorts of awful things going on in your life, but if you have a friend with you when the chips are down, amidst it all, you’re able to smile and be okay. Being this ‘true friend’ towards yourself can truly be a game changer.
MAITRI IS UNCONDITIONAL
The unconditional aspect of maitri is what can make this such a foreign concept for most people.
Unconditional friendship is something we’re simply not accustomed to. A sad but true fact of life is that the majority of relationships you come across are on a conditional basis. Relationships typically stay intact to the degree you live up to the other party’s expectations. As much as you think even your greatest friend loves you, if you stop being the type of person they knew to love, more often than not the relationship will begin to dwindle.
This conditional nature of our relationships can cause a mountain of anxiety in our lives. We constantly worry if we’re meeting the expectations of those around us in order to maintain the sense of love and acceptance they give us. This is where things like insecurity, jealousy, lack of trust, and self-pity all spring from. It can be exhausting living your life this way.
More often than not, we even view our own lives in the same manner. We have laundry lists of expectations we hold ourselves to – the weight we need to be, the money we need to make, the type of personality we need to have, and the list goes on. If we fail to live up to any these expectations, we aren’t able to fully relax.
Maitri breaks you out of this trap. It means not allowing the outside world or even yourself to withold the spirit of friendship that you deserve.
MAITRI = COMPASSION
A major aspect of Maitri is showing compassion towards yourself. The term compassion can be one of those fuzzy, nebulous terms, so let’s define it. The root word for compassion is compati, which is Latin. Com – means “together”. Pati – means “suffer”. Therefore compassion literally means “to suffer together”.
It’s seeing the suffering of someone else, as if it were your own. It’s understanding the interconnectedness of us all, and realizing that to a certain degree, suffering isn’t an individual, but a humanity-wide issue. My suffering isn’t too different from yours, and your suffering isn’t too different from mine. You can look at a figure like Mother Teresa, who embodied this trait. She literally felt the suffering in the streets of Calcutta India as if it were her own, and dedicated her life to removing this as a result.
So maitri means having this type of compassion towards yourself. It means understanding that at the end of the day, you’re only human. And being human means making mistakes, having flaws, having things about your life you aren’t proud of, having regrets from your past, and fears for your future. All of this is something every single person on the planet goes through. Maitri means not beating yourself up over your inevitable humanity.
WHAT MAITRI IS NOT
The famous Tibetan Buddhist, Pema Chödrön points out a common misconception about Maitri in this video:
“We look all over the place to make ourselves feel good. Affirmations are all about that. You sort of proclaim… ‘I am smart. I am good looking. I am worthy of being loved.’ You sort of scream it. And all the time something in you is saying ‘Yeah, sure…’”
Maitri goes beyond self-improvement, and is deeply connected with radical self-acceptance. It’s realizing you no longer need a reason to feel good about your life. Things are okay not because you are or aren’t good-looking, smart, successful, or anything. It’s coming to the understanding that you’re neither good, nor bad – but simply you.
This can be a massive paradigm shift for most of us. At an early age, we are conditioned to need a reason to feel good about ourselves… A reason to be okay with who we see in the mirror.
There’s a verse from the Tao Te Ching I commonly look to in regards to this topic:
True perfection seems imperfect,
yet it is perfectly itself.
True fullness seems empty,
yet it is fully present.
True straightness seems crooked.
True wisdom seems foolish.
True art seems artless.
The Master allows things to happen.
She shapes events as they come.
She steps out of the way
and lets the Tao speak for itself.
As the the 45th verse of the Tao Te Ching states, true perfection seems imperfect, yet it is perfectly itself. Allow yourself to be perfectly yourself, and you’ll see the spirit of Maitri find itself in your life.
MAITRI IS LEARNING TO ENJOY YOUR COMPANY
Whenever you watch children at play, it’s amazing seeing their ability to self-entertain. Everything around them is so interesting, so entertaining, so imaginative. When handed a simple box – one minute they’re an astronaut in space, another minute they’re a pirate in sea, next they’re a racing car driver. The amazing thing is that they can have this level of enjoyment with or without other kids playing with them.
Somewhere along the lines of growing up, we lose this ability. As we age, we become increasingly reliant on the external world to find enjoyment. We start depending on friends, partners, work, television, the internet, and a host of other external stimulants. By the time you’re a full grown adult, you completely lose touch with your ability to enjoy your own company.
Maitri is re-learning the joys of solitude. If you’re by yourself on a Friday night, are you able to have a good time on your own? How about taking yourself out to a restaurant, and being okay not needing a friend to accompany you? How about something as simple as sitting on a park bench, enjoying the moment without needing to browse on your phone? Try experimenting with these things.
For some, this can be extremely difficult at first. Years of dependence on externalities for one’s enjoyment can be akin to an addict and his drug. Your mind won’t like removing the sources of pleasure it’s relied on for so long. Therefore, developing this level of independence can almost feel like rehab. Yet if you can take the time to break free of your attachments, it’s worth the time and effort you invest. Anthony DeMello once said:
At first this will seem unbearable. But it is only because you are unaccustomed to aloneness. If you manage to stay there for awhile, the desert will suddenly blossom in love. You heart will burst into song. And it will be springtime forever, the drug will be out; you’re free. Then you will understand what freedom is, what love is, what happiness, what reality is, what truth is. You will see, you will know beyond concepts and conditioning, addictions, and attachments.
Albert Einstein also said:
“Solitude is painful when one is young, but delightful when one is more mature.”
Appreciate great music. Savor the delicious foods you eat. Enjoy the arts. Do work you love, and get lost in it. Go out into nature, and enjoy the outdoors. Feel the sun on your skin. Breathe. Smile. And just be. These are the true treasures of life, and with the spirit of Maitri in your life, you don’t need others to enjoy it.
Ultimately Maitri is learning to develop greater freedom in your life. It’s about taking back the keys of happiness once held by the outside world. By practicing acceptance, compassion, and enjoyed solitude, you’ll find the spirit of Maitri enrich your life.
Cover Photo by lacabezaenlasnubes