Ask a Buddhist: On Self-Love

Seamus Hubbard Flynn is a 17-year-old Soto Zen Buddhist from Saint Paul, Minnesota. He attends Clouds in Water, a Zen center devoted to “awakening the heart of great wisdom and compassion." A composer and lover of nature, he was kind enough to share his perspective on self-love with me.

What does self-love mean to you?

“As a Buddhist, when I hear the term ‘self-love’ I picture ‘unconditionally accepting yourself exactly as you are.’ If you ignore your faults and delusions, it's not self-love, because you are not showing love for your whole self. Something we discussed in teen class today (paraphrasing a book by Reb Anderson) is that taking refuge in Buddha means taking refuge in yourself exactly as you are. Your idea of yourself is not your whole self, as you are the universe, you are bigger than you could possibly conceive. Even with your delusions, you are Buddha.”

NOTE: When I refer to accepting anything exactly as it is, including the self, this does NOT mean not trying to change things. Buddhism does not mean doing nothing. It simply means not making your happiness conditional based on whether you achieve your goals. You can work to change bad habits, for instance, but you shouldn't say, "Only once I kick this bad habit I will be happy." That doesn't work.

What are your views on the ego?

“Nobody is more or less important than anybody else. The ego says "I'm me" when in reality, there is no you, you are the universe. This might sound depressing, but it's liberating: If there's no you, all of the shit you agonize about doesn't matter.”

ANOTHER BIG NOTE: A lot of people think that living as one with the universe with no conception of self or ego is the "goal" of Buddhism. (That's funny, because I was just talking about not attaching to goals.) But if you lived in complete oneness with the universe all the time, how would you feed and clothe yourself, and how would you know to not step into the street when there is a bus coming? Some amount of ego is necessary for survival. 

How do the media affect people’s views of themselves?

“We live in a capitalist nation, and there's no profitability in accepting yourself exactly as you are. If people's happiness stopped being contingent on external factors, many industries would lose a lot of money. Idealized images of how people should be are presented so that you will buy products, be it shampoo or suburban homes. In reality, if you think you need something to be happy, then as soon as you have that thing, you will need something else to be happy. The model of conditional happiness promoted by advertising is not true and created to get you to buy stuff. Social media opens a whole different can of worms, because self-validation is part of it, but it also creates communities.”

What does one accomplish through self-love?

“If you accept yourself as you are, you can be happy without having to chase after things. I suppose it makes it easier to accept others as they are too, to not try to change others. If you aren't spending as much time agonizing and ruminating, you have more time to help other people and do well. Plus, it takes a big weight off your shoulders. Anyone can attest that wanting things to be different consumes a lot of energy.”

Interested in learning more? Visit Clouds in Water Zen Center’s website, check out some Dharma talks by Reb Anderson, or try picking up a book by Thich Nhat Hanh.