I have been thinking about the difference between self love and self indulgence for the past few weeks. I think self love is a vital ingredient to experience true joy, compassion and love for others. I truly believe that we can love others only as deeply as we can love ourselves. In Mark 12:31, Jesus says the second most important Commandment is ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ I like to look at the Commandments as spiritual laws just as there are laws of physics, rather than as rules to follow. Understood in this way, this Commandment comes to mean that the way you love yourself is the way you love your neighbour.
The problem then is what does self-love mean? Is there a limit to self love, after which it becomes narcissism or self indulgence? Or is self indulgence completely different from self love? I think one of the difficulties here is that it is a very subjective thing to define. But I am going to give it a try. I think self love is a deep and genuine appreciation for ourselves, apart from what we do, what we look like or our accomplishments. There is no aspect of worldliness in it or striving and it isn’t earned. If we have a deep love and appreciation for ourselves and are willing to cultivate that, it is from this wellspring that love, compassion and generosity towards others springs.
Jesus also said that loving your children, our family and those close to us is easy, what is difficult is to love ones enemies. I would say that many of us have trouble even loving our own families well, let alone our enemies but I think that the person who can genuinely love their enemies must have a deep self love also.
I don’t believe self love can lead to self indulgence. I think self indulgence is an entirely different thing. Self love is a deep acceptance and appreciation of ourselves. It makes us stronger, healthier, more peaceful and more joyful. Self indulgence does none of these things. Self indulgence is the feeding of wants that often spring up due to a lack of self love. Over eating, over sleeping, watching TV, playing video games, using drugs or alcohol and over consuming all feed wants in us in an unhealthy way. They satisfy a craving for a brief time but we never really feel full. We are trying to feed the hole we feel in ourselves that comes from not loving ourselves, not even knowing ourselves. These kinds of things never lead us to true wellbeing or joy. They will never lead us to true compassion or generosity. They simply dull a gnawing ache in our souls created by a lack of self love. One could even say that self indulgence is the opposite of self love.
Self love is also often confused with narcissism. But this too, I believe is very different from true self love. Narcissism is the fascination with our superficial selves, the selves we want the world to see; our accomplishments, our education, our money, our good deeds, our possessions. Indeed, in the legend, Narcissus falls in love with his own image when he looks into a pool of water. He did not fall in love with his divine essence or even his personality, he fell in love with his outward image.
Perhaps it is clearer if we think of self love as self compassion. I don’t think they are exactly the same thing but they are tightly related. Self compassion, in any case, is a good place to start. It asks us to be softer with ourselves, kinder and less judgemental.
What can be done to cultivate self love and self compassion? Books have been written about this topic and I believe that reading some of them can help us in this endeavor. However, I will give you what I think is a good starting point. First, you must make time for yourself. Even if it’s only ten or twenty minutes a day, begin to make time for yourself and spend it either in meditation or doing something that truly uplifts you. Walking, writing, drawing, painting; any of these things will begin to heal your heart. As you begin to make time for yourself, you may notice a little voice in your head telling you that you are selfish, that you should be getting things done, that you are lazy. This is what my little voice sometimes tells me and it is all lies. Don’t take it seriously, just ignore that voice. This past January I spent three to four hours a day meditating for five days. Wow! Did that voice ever come up strong. I didn’t do this on my own, I went to a meditation centre where we listened to readings, drank tea and practiced sitting and walking meditations. It was a wonderful experience and as I did it, many things were left undone. Feelings of guilt came up strong but I stayed committed to my week of meditation.
I invite you to look at your own life. What do you do to look after yourself, your inner self; that part of you that has nothing to do with your outward image? What do you do that is self indulgent? Very gently, begin to increase those things that feed your soul. Make sure you are doing something everyday. Start small and then begin to increase the time you give to yourself. If you miss a day (or a week or a month, as I have) don’t make this an excuse to beat yourself up. Just get started again, make it a habit. A habit of self love, doesn’t that sound wonderful? Know that the greater your love and compassion for yourself, the more love and compassion you can extend to others.