I like to keep things simple, so I would like to offer you a simple philosophy with three principles:
The best thing you can do for yourself and for everyone else is to take care of yourself, physically, emotionally and spiritually. This is not a selfish act. If we all took care of ourselves, we would all be okay. When you are physically, emotionally and spiritually healthy, you are more likely to make conscious choices that will benefit everyone, not just yourself. If you “follow your bliss”, as Joseph Campbell said, you are more apt to be happy. Your happiness makes others feel good and gives them hope – an example to follow to find their own bliss. Not to mention making you more productive, positive and healthy.
Think about how you feel when you are around happy people and how you feel when you are around sad or angry people. I am not saying you should deny feelings of sadness and anger. That would only make the feelings stronger. Be aware of sad and angry feelings AND find something that makes you happy and that nourishes you physically, emotionally and spiritually and do it as often as you can. This will help you to maintain your balance when sadness and anger come into your life, which they will. You will be able to come back to your center more quickly and easily. If you don't know what makes you happy, sit quietly, ask the question and listen for the response. Notice how you feel when you are engaged in certain activities. Let your feelings be your guide.
In order to be able to take care of yourself you must have compassion for yourself and you must love yourself. If you have neither love nor compassion for yourself, find ways to cultivate it.
How to cultivate compassion for yourself and others
One way to cultivate compassion for yourself is a practice called metta or loving-kindness. You can practice by sitting comfortably, bringing your attention to your breath, and saying to yourself (or out loud) “May I be well and happy” or “I am well and happy.” You can practice with the thought first and then try to feel the feelings of wellness and happiness, even if you don't see a reason for them. If you don't feel happy, just notice how you feel. Even though this practice points you in the direction of happiness, you may not be there now. It is important to acknowledge where you are in the moment. Acknowledging and accepting where you are in the moment will allow you to move forward with more ease.
Sometimes just feeling happy for no reason will allow you to open up and accept goodness for yourself. You can also practice saying “I love you” to yourself in a mirror. It might feel awkward at first but keep trying. An added benefit is that when you have compassion for yourself, you can be more compassionate toward others. You can't give what you don't have.
Another simple practice that can help you to feel good and offer yourself kindness is smiling. Try sitting for 5 minutes with your eyes closed and smile. Or try smiling at someone you don't know and notice their response. Think about how you feel when someone smiles at you. Notice how a person's appearance totally changes when they smile.
Cultivate a sense of humor. Yes, life can be serious, and tragic things can happen. But sometimes we make it worse than it actually is by telling ourselves how bad it is and how much worse it is going to get. We worry that people won't like us if we act a certain way or that we will look silly or stupid if we are having too much fun. Or, that we don't deserve to have fun. Maybe we think we need to work hard and be serious in order to get what we want. I have never met (or heard) a Buddhist monk or nun who didn't have a profound sense of humor. In fact, a sense of humor seems to be required for the job. Why is that? I don't know for sure, but I think it might be because when you are really present, you realize there is nothing wrong and it's easier to lighten up. And you notice how much better you feel when you laugh. You also realize that, although suffering is a part of life, you don't need to dwell on it. You don't have to struggle to get what you want. In fact, struggling sometimes gets in the way because it can create resistance, which brings us to the next principle.
Don't resist what is. Resistance creates stress. When you try to push something away, you create tension. Think about physically trying to push something heavy. Your body tenses, your muscles strain, you might hold your breath. This is the same thing that happens energetically when you say no to something. When you say no to what is happening in the moment, you are pushing against everything else that is coming toward you. Because all of life is constantly flowing to you, when you resist what is happening in the moment, you are resisting all of life. This is not a figure of speech; it is literally happening. So when you resist, you are also blocking something you might want. The same is true for trying to pull something toward you. Or of trying to hold on to something that you have. It is the difference between holding something lightly in the palm of your open hand and grasping it with a closed fist as if you are holding on for dear life. It's the difference between power and force. When you try to “force” something, you are closing yourself off – just like that fist.
So how do you let go of resistance? Start by noticing resistance in your body. Notice if you are tensing any part of your body and see if you can relax it. Notice how it feels when it is tense versus relaxed. Notice if certain thoughts make your body tense. See if you can release those thoughts and notice how you feel.
Is letting go of resistance going to make you into a doormat? No. Letting go of resistance doesn't mean you just say yes to everyone and everything. Letting go of resistance means that you can say no without emotional attachment and without being defensive. You can say no in a way that leaves no room for argument and without feeling guilty. You can be comfortable with saying no and realize that sometimes it is the best thing you can do for yourself and for the other person. Practicing mindfulness helps you to know when it is appropriate to say no as in the story of two monks jogging around a building in Chicago.
As they jog, they encounter a homeless person on one side of the building. One monk asks the other for a dollar to give to the person. They continue jogging and encounter another homeless person on the opposite side of the building.
The same monk says to the second homeless person, “get a job” and continues jogging. *
So why did the monk have such difference reactions to the two homeless people? Their situations seemed the same. However, the monk was mindful enough to know what each of them really needed.
* Story told by Andrew Weiss. Andrew is the author of Beginning Mindfulness – Learning the Way of Awareness. Andrew has studied mindfulness meditation for many years in the United States, Europe, and Asia. His early studies of Zen focused on the Korean tradition with Zen Master Seung Sahnh and Zen Master Su Bong. In 1991, he was ordained a Brother in Thich Nhat Hanh's Order of Interbeing. In 1999, he was ordained by zen priest Claude AnShin Thomas in the White Plum Lineage of Japanese Soto Zen.