Have you ever thought, “I wish I could just accept myself as I am”?
I am sure that most of us have, and equally sure that, in that moment of wishing, somebody somewhere has offered some way of making our wish come true.
Religion, therapy, exercise, mindfulness – each of these promises a different way of reconciling the tensions and contradictions that we feel within ourselves. But I wonder if this very 21st century appeal – “accept yourself!” – is yet another demand which we cannot meet, another mandate whose terms shut our lives down more than they open things up.
Alan Watts, the writer on Zen Buddhism, sums this paradox up nicely, arguing that
we are really stuck with ourselves, and our attempts to reject or to accept are equally fruitless, for they fail to reach that inaccessible centre of our selfhood which is trying to do the accepting or the rejecting.
I am fascinated by those statements – like the one we started with – that have both an “I” and a “myself” in them. They point to a division within ourselves. Listen again – “I wish I could just accept myself as I am”. There is the “I” that is doing the wishing and the “myself” that is the object of that wish. It sounds like the “I” is the active part and the “myself” the barely conscious, passive part – but as Watts points out, it is the “myself” that is the hard kernel that cannot be reached, however hard “I” try.
I think that when we enter the counselling room, we are tempted to speak from the point of view of that “I”. It’s the part we think we know and understand, the conscious and familiar part that seems to have agency and that is empowered and strong, or at least has the potential to be. But, as Watts goes onto say
the selfishness of the self thrives on the notion that it can command itself, that it is the lord and master of its own processes, of its own motives and desires.
But my hunch is that the harder we try to be lord and master of our desires, the more we realise we cannot. In trying to accept ourselves, in trying to reconcile ourselves to ourselves, we run up against contradiction. If we think of the “I” as our own internal spokesperson, we can see how this realisation will be utterly humiliating.
Watts’s claim (from a Zen Buddhist point of view, though I think it can apply to other ways of thinking) is that it is in this humiliation, this crumbling of the ego, that we “find life by losing it”. Put simply, when we let go of mastery and give up the conviction that we are in control of our motives and desires, that is when we grasp something more fundamental.
But, I hear you protest, doesn’t such a conclusion ring hollow? And I must admit, you make a good point. Letting go, giving up, surrendering is the very thing we cannot do, because we eventually realise it is impossible. And, says Watts,
it is just when I discover that I cannot surrender myself that I am surrendered; just when I find that I cannot accept myself that I am accepted.
That paradox, that contradiction at the heart of our being that cannot be resolved, can have two outcomes. We can bang our heads against various forms of brick wall, convinced that this time we’ll find the secret to self-actualisation, condemned once again to disappointment. Or we can realise that within us there is a puzzle that cannot be solved, a division that cannot be repaired.
Which sounds a little depressing, until you realise that if this inconsistency, this internal contradiction, is at the heart of my very being, it must be at the heart of everything and everybody else in the world!
If there is no being without contradiction, there can be no higher authority than ourselves. Neither my parents nor my boss, God, Buddha – crikey, not even my therapist! – is any less divided than I am.
With all its liberating potential, that’s a scary thought – but it might be one that’s worth accepting.