There’s a story that’s nearly foundational in Western meditation circles about self-hatred: His Holiness the Dalai Lama was talking with a room full of Westerners (meditators on retreat, scientists and meditation teachers, depending upon the telling), and one person hazards asking His Holiness about self-hatred.
Ever since I first heard this story, I’ve been drawn to it, and I’ve found in my research that it’s actually multiple stories. I’ve heard many versions of the Dalai Lama self-hatred question and answer, and recent experiences have caused me to completely rethink my perception of it.
But first, the story:
In nearly every telling there’s a confusion at the heart of it. A person asks about self-hatred, and the Dalai Lama goes back-and-forth with his translator, because he cannot understand this concept—that’s how foreign self-hatred is to him. Daniel Goleman’s book Healing Emotions captures a fascinating account of when Sharon Salzberg asked the question of His Holiness at a Mind & Life sponsored conference in Dharamsala in 1990. Leading Western teachers, such as Sharon and Jon Kabat-Zinn, tried to make His Holiness aware of the pervasiveness of self-hatred in the West, and the Dalai Lama kept asking questions to try to better understand it. At one point in the exchange, the Dalai Lama said, “I thought I had a very good acquaintance with the mind, but now I feel quite ignorant.”
Another version of the story took place at the 1979 three-month retreat at the Insight Meditation Society (IMS). The lucky retreatants were graced with a talk and Q & A session with His Holiness at one point of their retreat. One retreatant asked the Dalai Lama about unworthiness (over the years the question became about self-hatred in many tellings I’ve heard). His Holiness told the questioner, “You're thinking, or you're feeling, I am something [of] no value…that is wrong. Absolutely wrong.”*
I could share other versions of the story, but I’ve not come across first-person accounts of those versions, so I’ll leave them out.
I was not in the room for any of the versions of this story, but like many others, I’ve shared the story a number of times at meditations I’ve led, because I’ve found it to be useful for these reasons:
- If the Dalai Lama has no awareness of self-hatred, then it is undeniably a conditioned state, and just knowing that it’s a conditioned state opens the possibility that it can be de-conditioned.
- The story also normalizes the experience of self-hatred for Westerners. Whether it’s a great teacher like Sharon or a meditator on retreat asking about it, the story reaffirms that there is not something uniquely wrong with us if feelings of self-hatred or unworthiness are present.
Yet I had an experience at IMS that prompted me to question the conclusions I’d drawn about the story. I was in the IMS staff dining room for lunch, and someone shared a version of the Dalai Lama self-hatred story, and a very experienced, non-American, Westerner, Buddhist practitioner asked: “Do people really experience self-hatred?” She made clear that she was not talking about a fierce inner-critic, but real hatred itself.
At the time, I was only a few weeks into my job at IMS, and I didn’t yet know what was culturally appropriate, but I had something to say: “I’m familiar with self-hatred.” I was questioned about what that meant, so I shared some of the words I’d used to inwardly admonish myself in the past: Loser, Failure, Fuck-up, and more. The person who’d asked the group the original question followed up: “But real hatred, to the point of wanting to commit harm to yourself?”
I was less than one month into my dream job, and I didn’t want to get myself in trouble. Do I tell these dear people about the suicidal thoughts that haunted me through childhood and college? Do I speak of the many times in middle school and high school when the idea of my eventual death and the end of this suffering was the best refuge I knew?
I didn’t go into any of that at the time, probably rightly so.
Instead, I told my new friends about my lineage of self-hatred—the powerless horror of watching my father violently punch himself in the head amidst family arguments at the dinner table** (and thinking it was my fault). I told them that for many years I feared nothing more than becoming my parents, until one day that fear went away, because I realized that I was them, and all that was available to me was to relate to the conditioning differently. I stopped short of telling them that there were times in my past when I’d punched my own head in moments of great distress.
After that day in the SDR, I began to reconsider the Dalai Lama self-hatred story. I still think it’s a wonderful teaching story, but I also see a shortcoming: it’s too damn clean. The burden and risk of acknowledging the pattern of self-hatred is assumed by Sharon or a nameless meditator. While a cultural self-hatred is normalized, someone who’d heard the story many times can still wonder whether individuals actually experience self-hatred. I’ve told the story many times, and I’ve seen first-hand how people connect with the story, but it also allows me to address self-hatred without revealing the ugliness of my personal struggles. Ironically, the story that normalizes self-hated is also keeping the experience an arm’s length away. The Dalai Lama self-hatred story is a wonderful start to the conversation, but I now see that if we want to be free of self-hatred, then it’s also necessary to get into the mess.
*Thank you to my friend Eric for discovering and transcribing the Dalai Lama’s talk at IMS. You can find that talk and transcription on Dharma Seed. You can find many more gems that Eric has uncovered and curated on his blog: open dharma.
**When I talked about this post with my dad, he thought the words “frustration” and “helplessness” better described his state of mind during the above-mentioned, dinner table moments, rather than “self-hatred.”