Compassion for Past Selves • 28 September 2009

Try it.

First and easiest: there are the justifications to be made for the old selves: “she did the best she could with what she had at the time.”

Sometimes the easy story is true. I use it when it’s impossible to give myself a break by any other method. It works like this: looking at dumb things I’ve believed (I cringe at old beliefs and ways of knowing, not so much old choices or actions), I note that I was just ignorant, or young, or in danger. Given what I knew and the resources at hand, I was doing my lamentable best.

But the thing is, if I really did screw up somewhere, it probably wasn’t because circumstances made me do it. It was more likely because I was willfully shallow, greedy, delusional, angry, irresponsible, whatever. Probably, I dug in my heels because it felt good and on a deep level I like(d?) it when the sort of projection-driven, sort of mindless, sort of instant gratification seeking part of me was running the show.

Maybe that’s just me.

Anyway. Giving the annoying past selves a break frees me up from living as if they are me.

It also denatures the outer hates a little bit. Try it: see what happens to issues with “certain kinds of people”: political conservatives, people with poor grammar, weirdo fundamentalists, dumb people, smart people, people with conventional ideas about gender and family, people with super unconventional ideas about the same, people who need a shower, crusaders of various sorts, lazy asses, shrews, overachievers, weaklings, jocks, the thin, the fat, people who are not self-aware at all, people who can’t sit still, Henry Kissinger, deadbeats, manipulators, narcissists, whatever.

Some of these characters actually do suck, in their way—bad behavior of others sometimes exists independent of my issues. We're in this thing together, and it may as well be acknowledged as soon as I can do so without getting the vrittis in a bundle.

Meanwhile there is addictive, awesome energy—a motivational drive—in taking personal offense at the existence of others because they recall past selves we wish we never were. But is it worth it? What’s the price of insanity?

I try to catch myself before I get all personally offended about shit.

For me, just like with lovingkindness practice, what works is to be systematic and dispassionate. It might sound strange to be so mechanical about disturbing emotions, but maybe it works because it simply overrides, immature emotional patterns. It bypasses the intense energy of the whole hate system. So, specifically, when somebody really sets me off, I cycle back through my own history and settle on a self that most resembles that person. Maybe that’s not the problem, but if it is, then I really try to re-inhabit that self, accept her on some level, and then recognize that she’s dead.

One annoying thing is that the pattern of attacking past selves is also subject to compassion. (Insert cartoon here. Compassion to Logical Analysis: “Whatever you can do, I can do meta.”)

In a way, getting worked up over who I have been is a way of taking responsibility. Personal history is a thick vector of data, and doing compassion on it is kind of potent because I know more about those selves than I do about Henry Kissinger and beatnicks. It gets me to deal with complexity.

Also, discomfort with past selves probably arises out of a deeper wish to grow up… it’s actually fascinating that the impulse to grow sometimes generates so much anger and lashing out. Why stifle that? There’s so much energy and creativity there… may as well use it in a way future selves won’t have to regret.