“Trying to change ourselves does not work in the long run because we are resisting our own energy. Self-improvement can have temporary results, but lasting transformation occurs only when we honor ourselves as the source of wisdom and compassion.” ~Pema Chodron, The Places That Scare You
In my late thirties, I was a yoga teacher and an avid practitioner. I lived by myself in a small but beautiful studio apartment in Tel Aviv, Israel, right next to the beach.
Every morning I woke up in my large bed with a majestic white canopy and said a morning prayer. I meditated for an hour and practiced pranayama and yoga asana for another hour and a half.
When I was done, I prepared myself a healthy breakfast and sat at the rectangular wooden dining table, facing a huge window and the row of ficus trees that kept me hidden from the world. I ate slowly and mindfully.
Since then, my life has shifted. I found love, got married, had a child, started a new business, and moved to live in the US. I stopped having the luxury of a two-and-a-half-hour morning sadhana. But my morning prayer stayed with me all this time:
I am grateful for everything that I have and for everything that I don’t have.
I am grateful for the opportunity to live.
I love myself the way I am.
I love my life the way it is.
I love all sentient beings the way they are.
May all sentient beings be happy and peaceful, may they all be safe and protected, may everyone be healthy and strong, and know a deep sense of wellbeing.
I created this prayer because I wanted to be grateful for life, but I was not. I wanted to love myself, but I did not. It was sort of “fake it till you make it.”
I borrowed this principle from the metta bhavana practice. In this practice you send love and good wishes to yourself, then to someone you love, then to someone neutral and eventually to someone you have issues with.
When you send love to someone you hate, you connect with your hatred and resentment. You can witness how hard it is for you to want this person to be happy and well. But the more you do it, the easier it becomes. The hatred dissolves and you become more authentic with your wishes.
Similarly, I assumed that if I kept telling myself that I was grateful, I would eventually become grateful. If I told myself that I loved myself, I would eventually love myself.
Today, I can say that I do love myself and I do love my life, a lot more than I used to when I created my morning prayer. But the more I am happy with what I have, the harder it is to say that I am happy for everything I don’t have.
Right now, for example, I am dissatisfied with my business income.
I could reason myself out of my dissatisfaction.
I could tell myself that I only started my business three years ago, just before COVID. I am still not making enough money, but I am making money and my situation keeps improving.
My husband makes enough money for both of us, so my life is pretty good as it is. I know I am fulfilling my purpose, and it gives me great satisfaction to serve and inspire others. I get many affirmations that I am on the right path.
I could also count my blessings.
I have an honest and deep, loving relationship. I have an out-of-this-world connection with my son. I have a charming old house in a city that, for me, is heaven on earth. I have great friends and a strong community of likeminded people.
I could compare myself to many other people who do not have any of these gifts.
This is what most of us do when we feel discontent or dissatisfied with our lives. We sweep our lack of satisfaction under the rug. We remind ourselves of all the reasons we should be content. We convince ourselves to stop complaining and be happy.
But when we fake our gratitude, when we reason ourselves to be happy, or focus on our gifts rather than our sorrows, we do not increase our happiness, we get further away from it!
Let me explain.
Behind our dissatisfaction there is pain.
There might be childhood wounds, there might be weaknesses. When we ignore our frustration, we miss a valuable opportunity to work with these themes.
When I delved into my discontent, I realized a lot of it was rooted in my childhood. My father was a banker, and my mother was an artist. My mother loved art and different cultures. She wanted to travel to many places. She worked hard at raising three children, but she did not get to travel because my father thought traveling was a waste of time and money. My mother had no say, since she was not the one who made the money in our house.
Because of this, as a child I promised myself that I would never be financially dependent on anyone. This decision motivated me to study accounting and economics, and to have a successful financial career. My work did not fulfill my purpose, but it brought me financial security.
For me, not having a sustainable income equaled being weak, like my mother was.
When I understood that, I could work with it. I could remind myself that I was not my mother. That I was a good businesswoman. That I’d made some good investments. That I was strong.
We are afraid to experience dissatisfaction and pain because we fear they will bring us down. But in truth, depression comes from not dealing with the pain! You can only suppress your discontent for so long. At a certain point, everything you swept under the rug comes out, and you discover that in its dark hiding place it grew bigger and bigger.
After my mother died, when I was eighteen, I decided to live life to the fullest. I was very grateful for being alive, and I thought my gratitude should be expressed with constant happiness. For few years, I forced myself to be happy, and pushed all the pain, hurt, and loneliness away.
I lived like I was on top of the world, until one day I crashed to the ground. I got so depressed I could not get out of bed or stop crying for months.
At first, I did not even understand why I was depressed while my life was so “perfect.” It took me years to open my eyes and see all the things I refused to acknowledge before.
Since then, I’ve come a long way. I stopped running away from my pain. I turned around, looked it in the eyes, and said, “let’s be friends.”
Even though I have so many reasons to be grateful, I am still allowed to be dissatisfied. I am not going to judge myself for that. I am not going to tell myself to stop whining and snap out of it. I am not going to deny this pain or try to modify it and shape it into gratitude.
Befriending your pain and dissatisfaction is not an easy process.
Our natural tendency is to fear these feelings, to avoid them, to deny them. It requires us to go against our instincts.
On the first slope I ever skied, my instincts told me to lean back to prevent falling. But leaning back is exactly what makes you fall. You need to lean forward, into the downhill, in order to slow yourself down and ride the slope well.
Leaning into your dissatisfaction works exactly the same. When you accept your dissatisfaction and allow yourself to be dissatisfied, you work with the situation. You make it your teacher. You appreciate the wisdom of it. Only then, transformation occurs, and you become content.
So why do I keep saying the same morning prayer?
In his book Infinite Life, Robert Thurman quotes Ram Dass, who once asked his guru “’What about the horrors in Bengal?’ His guru smiled to him and said, ‘Don’t you see, it’s all perfect!’ Ram Dass then said, ‘Yeah! It’s perfect—but it stinks!’”
According to Thurman, there are two perceptions of reality that we must hold together. There is the enlightened perception in which everything is perfect, and the samsaric perception, in which we experience pain and dissatisfaction, which must be acknowledged and worked with.
In my morning prayer I hold the enlightened perception. But when I start my day, I remember to lean into my true deep feelings, especially when I feel pain, frustration, and dissatisfactions. It makes me so much happier.