A Year of Loving Kindness to Myself
Sunday Feb 26th, 2023
Brigid has a diploma of teaching from Auckland Teachers College, a BA in English from Curtin University, graduate diploma of English literature, and an MA in creative writing from the University of Western Australia. She is primarily a children's and young adult author and has also published poetry and short stories. She became a professional writer in 1985 and teaches creative writing. She has spent time living in a Buddhist community, and as a Zen student.
Brigid: Thank you everyone so much for coming, in particular, a few of my lovely friends have turned up and that is very special to me; I appreciate it. For everyone else we will be friends by the end of the hour, let us hope.
Just very briefly about this book. When I started most of my writing was for teenagers. And then I did a book that was sort of a bit ‘Buddhisty’ and a bit about writing called "Still Life with Tea Pot”, about Zen memoir and creativity. Then I began a new book. My idea was to have essays that began with the word ON, on grief, on toast, on friendship, on Friday, and then someone very beloved to me died in New Zealand. And I went back for that. And it wasn't as though I was struck with grief that I couldn't write. But the book sort of went off the boil a bit, but I showed it to my editor at Fremantle press, and she and another woman said, look, there's a book here, but what we think it needs now is the Buddhist personal growth. What do people need to hear right now. It was before COVID.
But to be honest, I did not have a year of loving kindness to myself in which in January I worked with anxiety, and in February I worked with anger, and March I worked with some other thing. I just basically used my own experiences of trying to have loving kindness for myself and put it into that format. So all of the things that I put in the chapters did happen to me, but it was sort of a bit of a device, a frame, if you like to put it like that. So that's how I came to write the book. It's done really well for me, because COVID came along, and I think more than ever people were interested in loving kindness.
As I say, in the beginning of the book, it wasn't modelled in my family home. Drinking was modelled, intellectual discussion was modelled, feeding people was modelled and getting angry and somewhat violent was modelled by my wonderful, talented alcoholic parents. So even though I came to dharma about 40 years ago, and I did what you're supposed to do, which is you know, loving kindness to all beings, it wasn't really something I was good at. And then without going into it too much, about 12 years ago, I had a really messy patch in my life. Even though I'd had the Dharma for so many years and lived at Wat Buddha Dhamma, you can still fall over a cliff. I began then to bring out the toolbox of what actually helps. Sitting on your pillow helps, listening to dharma talks, these are the things that helped me. Going for a walk helps, but loving kindness actually became, what is this? And what does it mean to me? It's actually really simple. For me, the two questions you could ask yourself on a daily basis would be, What's going on? What am I aware of? What can I see hear, taste, touch and smell? Because often, we're not even present to that. You might think what's going on, OK. There's birdsong. But what's going on is I'm a bit anxious and thinking a lot. There's no judgement, just ‘what's going on’? I'm hungry, I'm tired. I'm busy. I can hear something; I can smell something, ‘What's going on?
The next question is. . ‘Is that okay by me?’ That's the loving kindness part. I'd spent so long in my life where I kind of know what's going on but it's not really okay by me. I'm very anxious about why this person said that to me. A lot of trouble in my mind. Thinking it should be otherwise, like, I'm trying to meditate and I'm restless, my mind is a very busy mind. Oh, that's not okay by me. So, the idea that first what is going on, very basically with the five senses? And secondly, can you put your arms around that? Can you be generous and loving and kind about that?
I'm going to read you a few things that came to me when I was thinking about this talk. Loving kindness for me has been a very simple thing. It's not like you go tick. okay, loving kindness sorted now I'll move on to compassion, right and tick got that sorted, don't have to worry about that ever. No, for some of us, probably all of us, this is until you die. Because it goes on, a new thing happens, a new love affair falls down or a relative dies or a dog passes away or whatever the thing is. Things will keep arising; the Buddha told us about that, duhkha will occur. And here we are in our bodies in our lives trying to make the best of it. For me, it's sort of a dance. A silly example is on any particular day loving kindness to yourself might be sitting down with some chocolate and a silly TV show. That might be just what's going to make you feel good well do that. But on another day stuffing a whole lot of chocolate into your mouth and watching endless rubbish is not the answer. So you can't say, oh, well, chocolate and TV is a good thing and something else is a bad thing.
I'll read you a few of these lovely things that that came my way. This was from a book called ‘When I loved myself enough.
When I loved myself enough, I quit exhausting myself by trying so hard.
When I loved myself enough, I stopped fearing empty time, and quit making plans. Now I do whatever feels right and I am in step with my own rhythms, delicious.
When I love myself enough, I quit trying to be a saviour for others. When I love myself enough, I began listening to the wisdom of my body that speaks so clearly, through its fatigue, sensitivities, aversions and hungers.
I find that very inspiring. Another thing about loving kindness is, and I'm talking to the converted here, I know that you guys all know this. To be happy about our lives, to be grateful, to see the good rather than the problems, that is a loving kindness manoeuvre, because some of us are quick to grasp, to see the Duhkha, to see the suffering to be quite unkind to ourselves, oh I shouldn't be like this and that shouldn't have happened, and I wish it wasn't like this.
Well, you can tilt your brain in a better direction, a happier direction, a kinder direction. Begin every day by chanting a list of your blessings. You'll find that even on the horrible, most challenging of days, there will be blessings. This happened to me when there were these ‘bogans’ sitting on a step drinking and smoking. They gave me the most beautiful greeting and it really lifted my spirits- like we were all one. They weren't bogan, and I wasn't hurrying to the shops, we were just like people having a happy moment together. So the way Thich Nhat Hanh puts it is, “to accept ourselves as we actually are". And we can encourage that, may I meet this moment fully, may I meet this moment as a friend.
And for some, another thing it's quite interesting to do things in your head. Sometimes also it’s quite good to do things on paper - I know that sounds cheesy, but often if you go, okay, I'm going to draw a mind map and I'm going to just play with coloured pens and my own journey, what's working in my life, what's not working in my life? What's on my to do list? What's on my I want to list because we've all got a to do list. But then are you doing anything on your want to list? So that you can just make it a colourful exploration. One of the ways that I've worked with that is like you can put it into body, head and heart. So you can say to yourself, well, how am I doing loving kindness to my body? Am I keeping up my sitting practice? Am I eating properly? Am I going for walks? Am I dancing? Am I doing yoga, tai chi, cycling, gardening, swimming? Whatever it is for you, that brings you into your body? Would it be really good if I dash down and have a massage? Would it be good if I said to someone, the right someone obviously, could we have a hug? You know, should we rub each other's feet. So that's body view. How are you looking after your body? Sometimes it's just like, lie down and say some happy things to yourself.
Then the next area would be head. Is my thinking peaceful or agitated? Is that helpful or unhelpful? I'm about to go on a retreat with Shaila Catherine whose most recent book is called the "Five Distractions" and comes from a Buddhist sutra. She says there's five different ways we can look at our own thinking. It's certainly interesting to me because it's (not that anyone copied anyone) but it's almost exactly the same as cognitive behavioural therapy. If you're depressed or anxious - when you actually take a look, what are my thoughts? And are they helpful? If you're interested, just go to the "Five Distractions" by Shaila Catherine.
You can read the sutras because it's important to do that if you go, okay, is this thinking helpful to me. No. Is it kind to me? No. Is it going to get me anywhere, no not in the least little bit. One of the very graphic things that the Buddha apparently said is that if you come up with the answer that it's not doing you any good, the metaphor he uses, imagine a dead sheep around your neck. But why would you do that, you're not going to carry the corpse of a dead animal around your neck? So why would you carry around unhelpful, anxiety based, worst case scenario, cruel to yourself type thinking? So, we've got body, so we've got head. Then there's heart, and this one's a little bit more esoteric in a way. I think, for me, it's like, Oh, yeah, heart. You know, like, care of the soul. I don't know what that means to you. But you could explore that. But for me, I thought, what feels right to me at the present? Not what I think could be good, but what feels right, what organically might feel right.
I'm like that with ringing people. Especially if it's a tricky phone call you think ‘does this feel right now’? Doesn't feel right. It's not quite the time, or trying to make a decision does this feel right? Now I haven't got full information, I'm just confused. I think rather than trying to figure it out with the head, it's more of a heart thing. It's more about ah, okay. What's that about for me, and, just resting with that, and also trusting the intuition.
One thing in the heart area, (or I might have put in the wrong category) is encouraging phrases. The writer Kristin Neff has got some wonderful phrases, and I've been using them. When I lie down in the afternoon, I call it loving kindness meditation - I don't know what you'd call it! Again, you can go online to Kristin Neff self-compassion meditation. There you go, ‘May I be safe. May I be peaceful. May I be kind to myself. May I accept myself as I am’. Then there's another round,’ may I be safe, May I be peaceful, May I be kind to myself, May I accept my life as it is. Those phrases might not mean anything to you, but they really worked for me. And it might be a very simple phrase - ‘trust the moment’ but to me that goes into the heart, the heart place.
Helen: What do you say to those who say all this loving kindness to yourself is a bit self-indulgent. You know, what are you doing?
Brigid: Well, no one's actually ever said that to me. But now that you have, I would say bunkum! (Is that swearing?) It makes no logical sense to me. In fact, I'm going to read a little piece out of the book at some stage, but it really answers that because I really believe - and the Buddha said this too - that you can't give from an empty cup. You can't spread something around the universe if you don't have it for you. For those of us who've tried to do that and look after everyone else and rush around being helpful and kind, it's very sticky. It doesn't usually go well. You can get burn out and you can feel bitter, and you can feel martyred. You can just really annoy people actually, if you’re always thinking ‘I'll give out to the universe’ - but if in your own heart you're not comfortable with being you and just at some level at ease in your own life and in your own spirit and in your own soul or being. I firmly believe that. You won't have much to spread and let's face it, the world needs our loving kindness now more than ever, like all the Buddhist teachers are saying, in this time of climate change and so many troubles in the world, to me, this is my practice. What could I give? What can I offer and maybe all I can offer is being kind to my neighbour and looking after my grandchildren and being a good friend, or maybe I can take to the streets and protest and sign things and give money to nuns. You know, there are many, many small things we can do. We'll probably never feel enough. I totally believe that to sit quietly with a peaceful heart is a great and beneficial offering to the universe, I believe that.
Helen: My second question is a little bit similar. Do you think Westerners have a particular problem with generating loving kindness? My observation is that it comes more easily to the Asian cultures.
Brigid: This could well be true. We've all probably heard the story of the Dalai Lama when in a conference he says ‘what are you talking about - low self-esteem and self-hatred? I don't understand the question’. So I think as a generalization, this is like, made up out of my own brain. I believe that Westerners and I'm talking about us, we're so privileged that we have the luxury of being neurotic. We have everything that opens and shuts - we have food, we have clothes, we have too much stuff, we have information coming at us all the time. That's not necessarily a particularly good place to be when you have everything, when you believe that satisfying your desires will bring you happiness, and yet it doesn't. So a lot of people are like – ‘I’ll drink more, I’ll watch more TV or buy more’ - going in completely the wrong direction looking for happiness. I'm not Indian, or Vietnamese or Balinese; but I do know that when I've been for example, in Bali, in India, many people who do not have very much materially seem to have a lighter step.
Helen: You said you spent many years at Wat Buddha Dhamma Centre doing the practice. But if I understood you right you said you needed more, you needed to really, really get into something helpful.
Brigid: Yeah, yeah, that's really true, like at different times in your life, different teachers, different practices, different life events. So as I mentioned, having had a fairly challenging period in my life, I had to really recalibrate, like what might be missing here. And without asking for the pity vote, I was a mass of self-hatred underneath all that. I'm a good Buddhist and I lived at Wat Buddha Dhamma and in the Zen group, and, you know that can look very shiny on the surface, but the actual little person inside was fairly broken. So loving kindness, then had to come to the aid. It's like I was one of those people like Sharon Salzberg. Some of you may well have heard this story. She said that when she was doing the loving kindness practice, I think on a retreat, and it was just dry, she was doing it saying the phrase, dry and dry and dry. She also had had a very traumatic childhood with a lot of really difficult things in it. Then she had to go somewhere else, she had to leave the retreat. She was hurrying to pack and she smashed a cup by mistake and she heard herself saying "you're a klutz, you're a klutz but I love you. Something had gone in that she wasn't able to just go you're a klutz, and you're an idiot, and you shouldn't have been hurrying. And then there was some little part of it and I love you. And I've always found that quite encouraging.
When I lived at Wat Buddha Dhamma we were all given a Dharma name. My dharma name was Metta. And I thought this was very wonderful, because, you know, metta, and then he (Phra Khantipalo) said to me - because you are very angry! So that was interesting. He was offering me - could this be your practice? (that took me to my 50s to really look at). What is loving kindness to me, and how would that operate? I mean, I just thought today, it's very simple, this is just a totally simple example. Today, I was a little nervous about this, even though I wanted to do it when you go, well, they're all going to turn up and I hope I can remember my own name and a few things that the Buddha said. I thought, well, what would you like afterwards? I thought, well, I'm going to put the books and magazines I feel like reading on my bed, I'm going to make sure I've got a nice lunch, and then a few things that I feel like doing. That's very simple. But how often do we rush on to the next thing we're supposed to do? I have to be doing so and so and like a friend and I have a practice called "to do lists". On any day, when you've got a list, you can usually knock a couple of things off it when you ‘ but actually, I'm really tired’. Why don't you do that one another day? It's so simple, really. Otherwise, it can just be sort of on automatic pilot; not really knowing what is loving kindness. What does this really mean to me in my life?
Helen: Cilla has a comment (sort of contradicts me in a way). She says, I don't really believe that Westerners are any more anxious, etc, than others around the world.
Brigid: I don't think you actually said anxious though, because anxiety is very different to self-hatred or low self-esteem. I think, who can say they are actually different things. Dharma teachers were asking the Dalai Lama, ‘what do we do for all the students who come to us basically saying, I don't like myself, I'm not going well in my practice- their main narrative is "me, no good". This is the thing that a Dharma teacher has to look at. The Buddha told us the three things - unsatisfactoriness, impermanence and no self, but then you have student after student after student who have a very strong narrative of self. It's a very unhappy one, they don't like who they are, and they don't like what's happening and they don't feel good, something in there needs untangling. I think what we were talking about rather than anxiety.
Helen: Brigid it seems to me that what you're doing is a lot of positive self-talk, you know, you're really boosting yourself. Like you are - what they say these days - your own personal trainer.
Brigid: It's true. However, funnily enough, when I lived at the Wat there was a little girl who was nine years old, wandering around the bush, she was the daughter of John and Sheila Hale, and she's now like, fully grown up, probably 40. She is a counsellor, and she's in Tasmania, and she sometimes puts things on Facebook from her counselling. This was something that she put on this week. "I find going for a walk or a cold swim or dancing to a song can energize me. But sometimes I just have to be kind and let myself be with what is". I'm not really like, oh, you have to be happy all the time and you have to say cheerful stuff, and then you'll be cheerful and this is a quick fix to your suffering. But sometimes the kindest thing you can do is just be sad, just be grief stricken, just be angry, just be confused and let that be. Would that be okay, would that be okay with you that right now this is how it is for you.
My son saw something fantastic written on a van recently, probably a hippie van that said, “no feeling is final”. Isn't that good? No feeling is final. So could you just go, this is okay. It's not ideal, I wish I wasn't in this. These feelings are not the ones I would have called on and yet here they are, and they won't last forever, and they're not really the story of me . Everything passes, they'll be gone, tomorrow you'll be having some other thing.
Helen: When I started practicing, and doing loving kindness, I'm thinking her particularly of another teacher at the Wat, Ayya Khema who used to teach a lot on loving kindness. I used to think, you know, if you've got your loving kindness going, you could zap this person and zap that person and the other person with loving kindness. It doesn't really work like that does it? Or does it?
Brigid: No, not really. And the most difficult people sometimes for me, I just widen the circle as much as I can because the Buddha talked about causes and conditions like what has led that person to there? And that can sometimes for me just doesn't mean I adore them and feel radiant bliss towards them. But there can be some more understanding. I think I'll just read this a little bit from the book that I was going to read you that is good. A writer should never say this, but this is the part of the book that I really liked the best. That's at the end of the 12 months of loving kindness.
"Starting from a place of self-acceptance, moving outwards into a world that badly needs love and good energy. Extending the hand of truth, integrity and kindness to others, is a deep form of self-compassion. Although we do not always see our place in the great mystery. We are not separate. We are our mother's recipes, our neighbours’ sorrow. Our friends, memories, our dog’s friskiness. We are the last cigarette we ever smoked. The first heart we ever broke. The fireworks, the folly, the shoe abandoned at the beach. All of this connected in ways we will never fully understand. But here we are in this beautiful broken world, with our tender aching hearts are part of something vast and magnificent. To trust life as it is and savor one's part in it and what could be lovelier or kinder than that. It has been quite a year the things that I have lived, I share with you, let us give the Buddha the last word, which always seems a wise thing to do. You can search the tenfold universe and not find a single person more worthy of loving kindness than yourself."
Luna: When the survival of those of us who are so privileged is threatened eg. these natural disasters, like bushfire and the floods in New Zealand, compassion and generosity often seem to arise spontaneously; we seem to value each other more.
Brigid: I totally agree. Another person who lived at Wat Buddha Dhamma did the three month retreat at IMS. She has a lot of wisdom. It's really nice to have a friend who like most people, if you said I just want to send you the sushi or listen to this Dharma talk. It's good to have special dharma sisters, very valuable. Very valuable.
Ven Juewei: I want to say firstly, thank you very much to Brigid for this wonderful reminder of being kind to ourselves. I live in a community of a lot of nuns, and at the moment, we are grieving the loss of our Venerable Master Hsing Yun, at the age of 97. He has just left us, but I must say that he has taught us so much about loving kindness. I'm very grateful to him for giving us this community. I urge everyone to consider really joining some community. Sakyadhita Australia is a community. But communities are what will also help us and re-enforce. Sometimes when we are down and we aren't able to find the power, the strength to pick ourselves up that's when the community helps. To have also a teacher whether alive or departed, his writings and teachings to be our shining examples, So wonderful. I want to thank you Brigid for leaving behind your wise words. I think that's also such a gift.
Helen: Ven Chokyi would you like to say something about loving kindness, which is a sort of a therevadin practice.
Ven Chokyi: Oh, believe me, it's also Vajrayana practice big time. Don't exclude us.
Absolutely, thank you so much, Brigid, I was so intrigued to hear about “My Year of Loving Kindness to Myself” and was wonderful when you actually said. Well, it wasn't all like that, that, you know, going through anxiety and so forth, because I think that is actually an act of loving kindness. Like you said in your last reading about acceptance and self-acceptance, exactly what the Buddha said that if we can't nurture our own positive qualities, if we can't feel that towards ourselves, and that's the sad thing I find in our culture. I'm not sure if it's east west anymore, but the global culture, shall we say, I've heard many people say I can have loving kindness towards others, but myself, that's difficult. And as you're saying, hang on a minute, if you can't have it towards yourself, you can't genuinely have it towards others. So you get what they're saying. But I think that’s when people talk about compassion fatigue, it's not compassionate, it's empathy. And when you mentioned about widening that circle of our capability, starting with ourselves, that's very much like one of the books from the Dalai Lama, which you may be well aware of, widening the circle of love, and the capacity to grow in that. As I guess we all know, because it is in our nature, we can't help but help, that's how we're built. So yeah, it's not a question. It's a little bit of a rave. Thank you. I was very reassured that you didn't feel like that you had loving kindness towards yourself every day. Because every day, every part of the day is a new moment and stuff happens.
Brigid: Beautiful. This is true -and it's an ongoing thing.
Helen: Brigid I really like the way you bring in wisdom from so many different places in your book. You've obviously been inspired by many different traditions. I remember Phra Khantipalo, the teacher at Wat Buddha Dhamma saying, quite definitely, just stick to one path, don't go trying this path and that path, just stick to the path. I wondered if you've got any thoughts on that.
Brigid: It's really a good one. I can remember him saying that, and it's commonly said, don't dig 10 holes a foot deep, a 10 foot hole, take one and go with that. I mean, to my credit, I think I have more or less done that; like I had seven or eight years as a theravadin living at Wat Buddha Dhamma, then a bit more when I came here and supported the Buddha society, so that was my practice. Then it was time for something fresh and new for all sorts of reasons and I became a Zen student, and I was fully that, I wasn't dibbling and dabbling around like a Zen student one minute, and then something else the next minute, that was at least 10 years of solid Zen practice. Now as a person who's nearly 70, we take the teachers we can get here in Perth. There's not that many places that I could go, so when the society brings a teacher, I've done a lot of retreats. We have this, most of you know this, Jhana Grove (Retreat Centre WA) is the most amazing place because you've got your own room and a toilet. Now, how often does that happen? In a beautiful bushland place an hour and a half from Perth. So if there's a retreat there, it's such a luxurious blessing to go there. And so I practice with various teachers there. But just sometimes you just know this is right for me now.
Helen: This is a bit off topic. But before this book, you've written I believe, eight books for young people and they were very successful. I wondered if there's Dharma messages in those books for young people.
Brigid: Not specifically, they always had happy endings and about decent people, but they had the things that teenagers are interested in like body image and boy meets girl and difficult parents and all those things. So it wasn't specifically channelling the dharma. I found that it meant I didn't have to do a nine to five job and I kept at it. And it tied in with teaching creative writing.
Helen: Would you recommend other people take that as a project, to try a year of loving kindness and write some of what experiences they've had along the way? Would you recommend that?
Brigid: Well, Steven Levine, he had it first, he ran a course. A year of loving kindness to yourself, and it was like a proper, let's do it together as a group. This is going to sound a bit weird, but if you were told you only had three months to live, what would you do? People will come up with different answers for that. I mean, I personally would start eating cheesecake for breakfast, I'd stop being so sensible. But yes, because it's a really good come on, right? We don't know how long we've got. We should be living like ‘if you were going to die tomorrow what would you do today’? Who would you call? Who would you apologize to? Who would you give a lovely Buddha statue to? So I believe we should live like this. And if it feels like an artificial device, like I'm going to practice loving kindness for a year to me then definitely not but it's not a bad brief.
Kathy: Thank you. It's not actually a question. It's a comment. I have read all of Brigid's books and she's selling herself a little bit short. Her fiction for young adults had dharma in the way she wrote the characters, the evolution of their character, the way they dealt with situations, particularly Guitar Highway Rose, my favourite that has a lot and a piece on death. And I just wanted to say that her Dharma will be shining for many decades.
Brigid: That is so good to know, Yeah. I wasn't being falsely modest, I just might have forgotten that, so I thank you, that is good to know.
Helen: Thank you, Brigid, we really appreciate your time. It's really been very worthwhile to hear your thoughts and there's a lot of depth there. A very big thank you for sharing your time and your wisdom and what you've learned through doing that year of loving kindness.