Tami Simon: You’re listening to “Insights at the Edge.” Today I speak with Cheri Huber. Cheri Huber is the founder of Mountain View Zen Center and the Zen Monastery Practice Center, both in California, and the author of 19 books, including, When You’re Falling, Dive: Acceptance, Freedom, and Possibility and the new book, What You Practice Is What You Have: A Guide to Having the Life You Want. She is the founder and director of Living Compassion, a nonprofit organization dedicated to peace and service. With Sounds True, Cheri has released the audio series, Unconditional Self-Acceptance: The Do-It-Yourself Course.
In this episode of “Insights at the Edge,” Cheri and I spoke about how your life is what you give your attention to. We also spoke about how to work constructively and compassionately with what Cheri calls “negative voices in the head,” how depression is linked to self-hatred, and also what a compassionate approach to self-discipline might actually be like. Here’s my conversation with Cheri Huber.
Cheri, you’ve written close to twenty books, and I’m curious: If you were able to describe the key themes that are like through-lines that run through your books, what they would be? What do you think are the central themes?
Cheri Huber: Well, the books are all designed to support people in the process of waking up and ending suffering, and they’re really kind of a road map of where I’ve gone with this. So I’ve started out looking at various issues that seem to arise in most people’s meditation practice in that process of, again, attempting to wake up and end suffering.
As I went along, I had a growing sense that the main thing that was happening for people was that they were not allowing themselves to end suffering because they didn’t feel deserving or worthy of that. And so, about halfway through the books, I wrote Regardless of What You’ve Been Taught to Believe, There’s Nothing Wrong With You. It speaks to the self-hatred that so many people live with, the voices in the head that focus on what’s wrong in life and what’s missing. And mostly what it always comes back to is something the person is doing wrong that’s the cause of everything that isn’t working in life.
That was really a turning point. Since then, most of what I’ve done has been focused in that direction: assisting people to recognize what goes on in their head, recognize that there’s a conversation in there that’s not a supportive conversation for most people, and that there’s a way to extricate ourselves from that conversation. At this point, pretty much all my work is focused on going beyond the limitations of a conditioned mind, being able to step into the freedom and joy that life actually is when we’re not giving our attention to a conditioned, egocentric reality.
TS: Now, I know one of your books actually carries the title, There Is Nothing Wrong With You, and I remember when I saw that for the first time, I thought it was such a powerful teaching. Just that sentence, “There’s nothing wrong with you,” I can imagine people listening and saying, “Well, let me tell you the list of what’s wrong with me.”
TS: I mean, “I’m overweight, I’m getting old, I don’t have as many friends as I would like . . . I could go on and on.” What do you mean, Cheri, “There’s nothing wrong with you”?
CH: Yes. Well, since that book came out, I’ve gone the next step, which really kind of pushes people over the drink, which is: There’s nothing wrong! Period! Not only is there nothing wrong with you or me or them, there’s nothing wrong with it. There’s just nothing wrong. There are lots of things we don’t like, mostly because we’ve been conditioned to believe that there’s something wrong with them, and we get stuck in that loop a lot. But the fact that I don’t like something or that I would prefer that something be another way is not the same as “It’s wrong.”
So you know, people will regularly ask, “Well, what is the point of all this? What the heck are we doing here?”
And right after, I say, “Well, of course, I have no idea!” What I speculate is: It seems to me that what we’re doing here is answered rather perfectly by, “This is our best opportunity to choose compassion no matter what.” And of course there’s no more intimate experience of the need for compassion than with ourselves. We know ourselves better than anyone. We know most intimately and clearly what has happened to us, how we’ve been hurt, what we struggle with, and the voices in the heads. And so, if we can extend compassion to that human being that we know so well, we have a possibility of recognizing what goes on for all human beings, and the compassion simply grows. As it grows to include human beings, it grows to include the rest of life and this beautiful planet that we live on.
TS: You know, as I’m listening to you, it occurs to me that you believe—and I’d love to hear your take on this—that our suffering is a choice in some way, a choice we’re making and a choice we could stop making if we wanted to. Is that correct?
CH: Well, yes, although we could have a whole discussion on choice. But it is my experience that it’s something we’re doing, that it’s an action. Suffering is an action. It’s something that is added to life, and so we can stop doing that anytime we want to.
Now, of course when we say that, it sounds like I’m presenting something that I think is easy, and I don’t. I think it’s simple, but what people have to be willing to go through in order to drop suffering is impressive.
The way I talk about it is that pain is inevitable. We’re in form, and pain is inevitable for all sentient beings. It’s just how it is. Suffering is what happens when we want something to be other than what it is. The moment we kind of step outside of life and move into that oppositional position, the moment we have a better idea about what should be going on, I’m in resistance to how life is and I’m going to suffer as a result of that, and I don’t need to do it! So much of the agony that we go through as human beings is a result of listening to a conversation in the head that says, “No, this is not OK. This is not right. You should be this way. They shouldn’t. That shouldn’t. It’s wrong.” Without that conversation, the suffering really does just fall away.
TS: So what do you suggest to people when they have that conversation in their head? Maybe it’s about “There’s nothing wrong,” and they’re looking out at the world and they’re saying, “You know, Cheri, I’ll tell you what’s wrong with the world. I’ve got a long list here of incredible acts here, and there’s nothing wrong?” Or it’s about “There’s nothing wrong with me,” and the conversation in the head is, “I’ll tell you my litany!” What do I do about that conversation?
CH: Well, that’s why I’m so excited about this new book, What You Practice Is What You Have. For years, until people just started rolling their eyes every time I would say it, I would tell people: the quality of your life is determined by the focus of your attention. So whatever your attention is given to, that’s what you’re going to have as your life. When people stop and look at it a little for a couple of minutes, they can actually get it!
You know, if I give all of my attention to worrying, my life is going to consist of worrying! We’re taught to believe that if I worry enough, I’m going to hold all the bad stuff at bay, and nothing bad is going to happen to me. And it feels like control, but really all I get is a life of worry, and stuff still seems to happen to me at the same rate. So people can get that if I’m focused on “I’m too fat,” then my constant life experience is that I’m too fat! You know, I could be somewhere where it doesn’t even matter what I weigh, and my life is still being made miserable because my attention is focused on a voice telling me I’m too fat!
So attention is the secret. It’s the key to the whole thing, and when we learn that, when we can direct our attention to where we want it to be instead of where conditioned mind takes it, hijacks it in order to maintain its position in the universe, we begin to realize that—this is back to the “choice” word—we really do have a great ability to decide what our life experience is.
For instance—and this is tried-and-true for spiritual types for as long as we’ve known about spiritual types—if you focus your attention on gratitude, on everything in your life that’s working, everything you’re thankful for, there aren’t enough hours in the day to get through the list of things that we are thankful for. Of course, focusing on what we’re grateful for is a quick trip to feeling good. There’s just no doubt about it, because it feels good to be thankful and grateful. If I have all of this wonderful stuff in my life but it gets no attention, if gratitude never gets any attention because all my attention is focused on whatever conditioned mind is presenting as the current “what’s not OK,” we can see the difference in how my life is going to go.
For most people, you get through the day, and just about everything worked! You know, OK, the plane was 20 minutes late. It didn’t crash! Maybe the car didn’t start. I have a car! I know a mechanic! On most days, for most people, the vast majority of things are going their way, but conditioned mind will focus on the one, two, or three things that it presents as not perfect. And that gets all the attention, and the person is miserable and actually living in a delusion that life isn’t working.
TS: Now, Cheri, I’m wondering, right here at this moment, if you could share with our listeners, if you’d be willing, a practice they could do, something they could do when their conditioned mind is telling them that something’s wrong, either with them or with the world. How could I interrupt that right on the spot?
CH: This is the thing that I am most excited about! I swear I am praying for a revolution!
TS: OK! I’m praying with you!
CH: All right! The practice—and it’s explained in this new book in great detail—but the practice is one of self-mentoring. And the thing that is revolutionary about it, I think, is that it is done with a recording device. What people are being able to do is to have a relationship, via this process that we call mentoring, where you access the wisdom, the love, the compassion inside of you that actually is the animating force in your life. You access that, and begin to relate to that mentor through a recorded conversation.
For instance, just with what we’re talking about: I get to the end of the day, and those voices are beating me up because I said something stupid in a meeting. Of course, we’ll never know whether it was stupid or not, but they’re beating me up as if it is. I can do a couple of things. Just to change my energy, I can focus on everything good that happened during the day. I pick up my little recording device, and I talk about all the smiles I gave and got, every indication of kindness, all the good news that I heard, somebody who looked great today, all of that. I could go through a list of all the things I’m thankful for that happened during the day, and all the things I’m thankful didn’t happen. So I’m changing that energy.
Then I can say to this recording device—it can sound crazy, but it actually works!—“I had this experience at work today: I was in a meeting, I said this thing, suddenly there was this paralyzing self-consciousness and the voices were telling me how stupid it was! And of course, when I looked at people, what I’m projecting is they thought it was stupid! I plunged into this . . .” OK?
Now right there, you can just turn it off after you’ve described the whole thing. You hit “Listen,” you hit “Play,” you listen to it, and this is the miracle part: what will arise is the wisdom, the kindness, the compassion, that the person in that situation needed to hear. It’s like walking around with a combination of the Buddha, Jesus, your most loving therapist counselor, and a best friend who loves you unconditionally. That’s who you have access to anytime, day or night, when you’re being besieged by all of these forces that are trying to make your life miserable. It’s access to all the good stuff, because you can just focus constantly on how great life is and how beautiful it is. Because it is! It’s not a Pollyanna thing, but instead a real focus on everything that’s good and beautiful in life and in the world.
By the way, that tends to give us the strength and willingness to address the issues in life that we find to be a problem, things that we’d like to change. Maybe instead of being demoralized at the end of the day, I’m feeling energetic, and so I’m going to go volunteer at that homeless shelter, or I want to do some work for, in my case, people who live in a slum in Africa. And there’s energy to do that because I’m uplifted rather than beaten down by voices all day long. I have access to all of that wisdom and kindness that supports me anytime I want or need it. It’s a great thing.
TS: Now Cheri, I know you’ve written and taught quite a bit about depression and taking a helpful, self-accepting view toward depression. I’m imagining, if somebody was listening to this and was suffering from depression, even a mild case, that this might all sound just a little too cheery for them. You know, “I’m going to take a tape recorder, I’m going to talk about what I’m grateful for? I’m depressed! Come on! This thing that’s going on in my head, it’s much too heavy for me to be recounting my list of gratitudes!”
CH: Yes, people will, and of course that conversation would be the very conversation that is causing their depression. It’s true.
I’ve written a lot about depression because I come from a long line of severely depressed people acting out in every way, from my grandmother shooting herself and killing herself, alcoholics, unbelievable eating disorders, and just every way that terribly depressed people act in order to get through life. I do consider myself something of an expert on the subject of depression, having gone through years of every stage of it, and I am convinced that there is nobody who is depressed that isn’t actually suffering from self-hatred, that the depression is the result of the conversation in their head. It’s not actually chemical, it’s not physical, and boy, it took me a long time to get to the place of realizing that, because my depression took the form of near paralysis, just the inability to get up and move a single muscle.
What I discovered is, when I have a conversation in my head from somebody who loves me and is supportive in every effort I make, somebody who essentially, as you said, is cheery in the sense of “You can do this! It’s fine! That’s great! Just make an effort. I’m right here with you. We’re going to do it every step of the way. You’re doing great! It’s fine!” then people are able to do things, even with an identification of “severely depressed,” that absolutely rocks their world.
TS: Now Cheri, I know you’ve been a Zen teacher for three-plus decades, and I’m curious: Did you become interested in Zen while you were depressed? And how did all this work in your personal life, your interest in meditation and then your breakthrough to this place of self-acceptance?
CH: Well, of course, yes, it’s been a long journey. And as I’m fond of pointing out to people, I was depressed before it was popular, before there was a label like “manic-depressive,” before there were drugs, and I consider myself incredibly fortunate that that’s the case. The route that I took was, like my grandmother, picking up a gun. But as I kid about it, my aim wasn’t as good as hers, and so I lived through the attempt. And it was coming back from this that caused me to try to figure out if there was something that somebody had going on that could make me want to live another day, and not just try to get my hands on another gun.
I studied philosophy, I studied religion, and when I finally got to Zen, it just clicked. I just knew that these folks—I didn’t know what they were talking about, but I knew that they knew, and I knew that they knew what I wanted to know, what I needed to know in order to have a different life experience.
And so I set about finding a place where I could train and practice. When I went there, I didn’t go there with any idea at all that it would affect my depression. I just went for the training, because I wanted to be a Zen monk. And it was while I was in the monastery that my teacher began to work with me with these kinds of practices, not the recording obviously, but he began to help me to use awareness against the depression.
TS: Can you say more about that? What do mean?
CH: Well, for instance—again, keep in mind this was a long time ago. Now it’s fairly widely understood that exercise affects depression, but it wasn’t known then. So one of the things that he had me do was to exercise. He had me change my sleep patterns, because depressed people have different sleep patterns than people who are not depressed. In changing these behaviors and examining, at a really minute, microscopic level, exactly what was going on with me, I could see how the triggers happened, and I could go in a different direction when that trigger happened.
In other words, when I would feel my energy drop, instead of sitting on the couch and going into a conversation about “Oh God, no! Here it comes again! I’m going into a depression! Oh my God! What am I going to do?” I would start exercising. I would go outside and I would go for long walks. And I would be in nature, and I would feel that energy of being in nature and my body moving.
What I learned was that the depression was not a result of not enough energy. It was the result of too much energy that was imploding and shutting down my system. I learned how I could monitor that experience and be able to maintain a level of energy that supported me. That’s the way awareness practice works with it. I learned to watch how the energy fluctuations in my body went, second by second by second by second, and I would be responding to those various fluctuations.
TS: Now let’s unpack one thing that you said. You said that there was too much energy in your body, and that your body would then shut down. Now normally, I think that when people are depressed, they feel like they don’t have energy. So you attune to that? What do you mean “There was too much energy,” and what created the shut down?
CH: So my form of depression is manic-depression, so if there had been this diagnosis then, I would be diagnosed as bipolar, and so I would go from huge energy—just wild, wacky, don’t sleep for days on end, and just have more energy than I know what to do with—then into these states of not being able to get up out of the chair and walk across the room.
I realized that—it seems silly when you think about it, but until you’ve seen it, it’s terribly mysterious—how did I get from manic to depressive? Of course the way that I did it was that the energy system collapsed. And the first time I watched it collapse, watched it go from all of that energy just rocketing around in my system to no energy whatsoever, I saw what happened, and that’s how I knew that it would be possible to begin to—not to manipulate the energy, but to monitor it in a way that takes care of the system instead of turning it over, again, to conditioned mind to talk about what’s going on with me.
TS: Mm-hmm. Now, you also made this interesting comment that you would posit that self-hatred is always at the root of depression, or is one of the key roots of depression. Now, that’s based on your own experience, from working with other people?
CH: Yes, certainly from my own experience. Now, keep in mind that when I was figuring this all out about depression, I didn’t know yet about self-hatred. There were those voices, certainly, but I didn’t have a way in to think about them or talk about them. I just thought it was me thinking, which is pretty much the orientation that most people have to it. It takes a long time of watching, of paying attention, to realize, “Wow! That is a voice in my head talking to me, and that voice in my head really doesn’t like me, doesn’t talk to me in nice, supportive ways.” I was just going through the depression piece of it without that knowledge. If I’d had that knowledge then, it would have been very helpful, but I don’t know that anybody had that knowledge then.
So yes, I have never met anyone—and since I wrote a book on depression and spirituality, I work with a lot of depressed people—I’ve never met one of them who didn’t suffer from severe self-hatred. Now, I don’t know whether I just meet a particular segment of the population, or self-hatred is as rampant as I think it is in our culture, but there’s a lot of it that people are living with. It will take various forms, so some people have eating disorders. Some people have problems with alcohol. People have all sorts of manifestations of attempting to cope with all the abuse, the internal abuse, that goes on.
TS: Now the series that you recorded with Sounds True is called Unconditional Self-Acceptance. I can see that to use this technique, the tape-recorder technique where I’m suddenly talking to myself in a loving and kind way, and being my own mentor and dear friend, that that’s a very powerful step to make, and that’s a step in the name of unconditional self-acceptance. But it seems like there’s a big kind of gap, if you will, like a moat that people need to cross to get to the place where they’re even willing to turn the tape recorder on and make that kind of act of love toward themselves. How do you help people cross that divide?
CH: Well, one of the things that I’m most excited about with this work—because, as you’ve indicated, I’ve been doing this for a long time, so there are a lot of folks who’ve been going along with me every step of the way. I’m in the third month of an email class with people doing this work. It was supposed to be a month-long class, but it was so obvious at the end of the month that we couldn’t quit, that we went on again. Then we got to the end of two months, and we still weren’t ready.
What we’re running into is—I’m stunned by it, quite frankly. People have this experience, and it’s not really that I’m talking to myself in a nice way. What people are finding is that they are surprised by a level of wisdom that comes from them that is not something they’re thinking about. You know, they’re having a problem about something, and suddenly they’re hearing themselves saying these very wise kinds of things about what’s going on. So it’s accessing the deepest, wisest, most compassionate part of themselves.
There are three people involved in this: There’s the me who is going along in the world, who is in the meeting saying something that got called stupid. There’s the voice of self-hate beating me up for that incident. Then there’s this wise, compassionate voice that can talk to me and put it into perspective, that can encourage me that it’s probably not as bad as all that, that I’m a fine person, that I’ll probably live to have another meeting, and life will go on, and let’s not worry about it.
So what’s happened now, as we close in on this third month of class, is that people who have had profound transformational experiences doing this work are getting talked out of doing it. What they’re running into is—a moat is good, but it would kind of be a moat filled with fire. There’s just a level of resistance from conditioned mind, from ego, that is staggering, that would actually stop them from doing something that they know would end their suffering.
I don’t know about you, but for me, the idea of ending suffering was kind of a hope and a dream. The Buddha said it’s possible, I accepted that, so I’m going to work really hard at that, but is it going to happen? I don’t know! And then to have an experience—say you’re going along meditating, and suddenly all the lights go on and you see how it works, and you realize what’s possible, and then to listen to a voice that talks you into quitting meditation, that’s a sobering reality to confront.
TS: Well, and I think that’s my question, whether that resistance comes more about doing the process at all, or whether that resistance comes once you’re deep in the process and you start feeling the changes that are happening, and then some sort of firewall is erected. How do you suggest people work with their resistance to unconditional self-acceptance?
CH: Fortunately, Buddhists take a very long view of things, and so I don’t get terribly urgent. I think about what I do as planting seeds. If people open to the possibility that suffering can be ended, that’s huge. If they get a sense that there’s a process, a practice for accomplishing that, so they know there’s something there when they’re ready, that’s enormous. If people do the work and realize the possibility that is available to them, and watch themselves choose, that’s illuminating as well.
I’m just hoping that what happens—because I think this process is going to enter our culture in the way an awareness of the voices of self-hate has entered our culture. More and more people will be able to do the experiments, avail themselves of it. For some, it will be the thing that moves them through the resistance that they’ve faced all their lives. For others, it will just give them a clearer picture of the resistance that they’re up against, and we’ll all move along down the path to awakening pretty much as we always have.
TS: But just to understand more: I know you’ve looked at this and deconstructed it and untangled how our thoughts trap us and bind us in so many different ways. The person who is perhaps resistant to make that first move, to even pick up the tape recorder, and they’re just like, “You know, I’m feeling too bad about myself to even do that,” what do you think is keeping that person stuck? What’s your sense of it?
CH: Well, I think it’s what I call egocentric karmic conditioning. It’s the illusion of one’s self as being separate from life, and that illusion of a separate self is attempting to protect its place. It only appears to exist when we give it attention. As you know very well, it only exists in the present, and that’s why that illusion of a separate self doesn’t exist in the present, which is why every spiritual person on the planet is encouraging us to get into the present! In the past, in the future, when we can get talked into a conversation about the past or the future, then the ego seems to be the most real thing in the universe. When we get present, we get here, we feel that interconnectedness with all of life, problems fall away, there isn’t anything wrong, and so the ego is in a constant battle to keep its position at the center of the universe. To me, that’s what people are up against.
The most difficult part for people is that they think that’s who they are! So when people are listening to a voice in their head say, “You are so stupid!” they don’t realize that they are listening to a voice that’s calling them “you.” They think it’s them just thinking. When a voice kicks in about “I can’t believe that she—” or “What a miserable—,” that kind of conversation, they think it’s them, and feel bad for those thoughts. So it’s trying to get people to see that changing the identity that likes this, doesn’t like that, wants this, doesn’t want that, is constantly dissatisfied, that this identity is not who they are. Because most people are not clear enough about what their authentic nature is, what it feels like, what it does, to know that that’s who they really are.
And of course, the conditioned voice, when they do have one of those moments—you know, you step out onto the top of that mountain, and you look out across all of that beauty, and your heart opens, and you just want to fall down and kiss the earth because it’s so beautiful, that conditioned voice is going to say, “Oh, please! Get over yourself! That has nothing to do with who you are. You need to worry about your job! You need to worry about your marriage! You need to worry about your kids! You need to lose some weight!” The heart closes down, and we go back to life with the ego.
TS: Mm-hmm. So this is key. What you’re saying is that we really have to see and recognize that this voice in our head is not really who we are. It’s just a voice.
CH: Yes, it’s just a voice. It’s a voice that is part karma, part social conditioning, and it fuels this illusion of a personality that is separate from life.
TS: And now the students who have been studying with you for three-plus months, who have this new form of resistance surfacing: We’ve undone some of this, started to be kind, started to mentor ourselves, but no further. This is as far as it’s going to go. What’s your understanding of that? What do you think is at work in those cases?
CH: Well, I think what we’re up against is huge! Every spirituality, every psychology, every religion, every whatever for as far back as we can track, has had some way to talk about the dark side, the shadow, the devil, that force that exists in life that kind of takes over people and causes them to do horrible things. We have a sense when we’re around it, we recognize it in ourselves, we’re taught to feel bad about it, but what we’re not taught is to just be able to see it as something, to say, “Yes, there is that tendency. Yes, if I’m not paying attention, I might gravitate toward a conversation about people that I don’t like or stuff that’s wrong.” So we don’t see it as a tendency, an option that we don’t have to choose. Of course, I see it as something that is actually not us. It’s really kind of a parasitic addition to who we actually are.
TS: Now, what if somebody said, “But you know, this voice in my head that is critical of me, that’s what pushes me to do more and to achieve more and to create greater financial security for my family. I need that voice! That’s the voice of excellence”?
CH: I would say that’s hogwash! It is the voice that is fighting for its own existence. What that’s saying is, if you’re happy, if you’re feeling good about yourself, if you’re enjoying life, you won’t want to do anything. My counter to that is, if you believe that, follow a three-year-old around for a day. They are just pure life force in motion. They are excited and spontaneous and enthusiastic and inventive.
No. It’s just nonsense that you have to be beaten into being a good person. It’s just silly. Happy people are far more productive and do a far better job at everything they do than unhappy people, because all of their energy is available for what they’re doing, rather than for maintaining the unhappiness the ego wants them to be focused on.
TS: At this point in your life, Cheri, do you have bouts where you hear a voice in your head that’s quite negative, and do you resort to actually using techniques, or does it just not even come up anymore for you?
CH: Oh, my goodness! No, it doesn’t come up. That’s not to say it wouldn’t. I’m not through yet, so I have no idea what might come up for me. At this point in my life, it doesn’t, and part of that, I sometimes think, is because I spend so much time with other people’s voices that when I’m not in that mode, I have no interest in entertaining any of that. And I do this recording-listening technique every day of my life. I love it!
In fact, I had dinner with my daughter recently, and you know, when your parent does something like this, it’s usually not high up on your list of activities to pursue. I mean, she likes what I do and thinks I’m a nice person, but it’s not like she reads every book I put out. She was having kind of a hard time, struggling with some stuff in her life, and I said, “You know, I want to tell you about this new thing that I’m doing,” and so I explained to her how to do the recording and the listening and that sort of thing.
She called me the next day and said, “OK, I get it! I’m an addict!” She texts me every two or three days to say, “Oh, my God! This is getting me through! This is changing my life!” So yes, I hope I do this every day for the rest of my life, just because it’s so darned much fun!
TS: You know, I was supportive, of course, Cheri, in having a revolution where people do this. At the same time, it feels like a big step to me to actually get a tape recorder and start recording both the complaints I have about myself and then the voice of kindness toward them. It feels like a big step, so I’m wondering if you could offer our listeners an interim step for the person who’s not ready yet to get the tape recorder.
CH: Well, not really. I mean, people do a lot of other things, but the thing that I wish people would do— Well, maybe this is an interim step. Instead of believing that there is something that they don’t want to do, aren’t ready to do, don’t feel capable of doing that would possibly make a difference in their lives, I would ask them to examine that belief.
For instance, if I had a small child who had some sort of condition—well, my granddaughter has Asperger’s Syndrome. There’s nothing that her family is not going to do in order to support and assist her. Nothing! Nothing! Right? We’re not going to say, “Ooh, you know, that feels too hard” or “You know, I just don’t feel like I’m ready to take that on.” If that’s the case, if we can see that that’s how we would respond to someone that we love, that nothing is too hard, nothing is too good, that I will make any effort to make this work for somebody I love, then how can we, with any kind of good conscience, say, “But I won’t make that effort for myself,” and believe that there is anything but self-hate operating there?
TS: Now, I know in the series of audio CDs that you have created with Sounds True called Unconditional Self-Acceptance, you took people through a series of guided exercises. I’m wondering if you could give us a sense of that approach, of actually listening to a guided practice, and how that can be helpful in the quest for self-acceptance.
CH: Here’s what I think about that: When I first started doing this, I thought, “OK, I’m out of work, because once people get the hang of doing this, why would they want to do anything else?” But what I’ve realized is this really opens the door for being able to do the rest of the work.
So one of the things that we talked about in that particular Unconditional Self-Acceptance series is aspects of the personality. You know, we have all of these different parts of ourselves that run around inside, and they all use the name “I,” and they have all of these different things going on, and people don’t know what to do with that: “You’re wishy-washy,” “You need to make up your mind,” “You need to be consistent.” They’ve got all of these different things.
OK, so if you’re trying to do the work of making peace with all the aspects of yourself, and what’s running the show is self-hatred, it’s not going to go well. If you’re trying to do a meditation practice, and your meditation guide is self-hatred, it’s not going to go well. So to me, doing this self-mentoring and then being able to pick up something like that retreat in a box, that series of exercises, now it’s actually beneficial. Now it’s leading away from suffering instead of the potential to lead toward suffering.
There are just so many people doing great spiritual work in this world, offering every kind of assistance to people, and almost all of it goes through the lens of self-improvement: “There’s something wrong with me. I need to figure out how to fix it.” That system is devoted to having that person do whatever that work is, and come out at the end still convinced that there’s something wrong with them, that they need to be fixed. Right?
So I think it goes beautifully together, and I’m hoping that it will just be a general support. Again, it’s like if you had a best friend who was incredibly wise and loved you unconditionally, and would talk to you anytime you wanted to talk—that’s what this is!
TS: Mm-hmm. Now interestingly, I know you wrote a book on A Compassionate Guide to Self-Discipline. You talked about how it doesn’t have to be about self-improvement. Obviously we can’t whip ourselves into getting the tape recorder out at night and being kind to ourselves, so what is a compassionate approach to self-discipline?
CH: Well, to me, it is that same thing, as if you had the kindest person in the world guiding you. So the philosophy is: I love you exactly the way you are, and I’ll help you be any way you want to be. I always encourage people to think of themselves as a four-year-old child. What does a four-year-old child need? What kind of encouragement and support and guidance and mentoring and that sort of thing? Whatever it takes to remember that kindness is key, that compassion is the secret.
So I was telling people recently at a workshop, when the voices start in, decide ahead of time what your little mantra is. My little mantra would be something along the lines of, “I’m practicing compassion no matter what.”
So if the voice kicks in and says, “You need to . . . blah, blah, blah,” or, “You should . . . duh, duh, duh,” or whatever it is, my response would be, “I’m sure you’re right about that, but you know, what I’m practicing is compassion no matter what.” So whatever a person hears inside, to just return to what is true for them.
You can do that without a recorder, of course! You can do it just walking around. Put it on a little sticky note and fasten it to the back of your had. Whatever happens, it’s just, “I’m sure that’s a good idea, and you’re probably right about that. I really am a mess, but I’m practicing compassion no matter what.”
TS: So you recommend that people come up with their own sentence. That sentence for you is, “I’m practicing compassion no matter what.” How do I come up with the right sentence for me?
CH: OK, this is a fun one! Imagine that you get a call from your best friend, whoever it is, somebody that you love unconditionally—parent, sister, brother, whatever it is. They are in a terrible state. Something god-awful has just happened in their life, and they’re reaching out to you. What would you say to them?
TS: Mm-hmm. So I would answer that question, and that comes up with the sentence for myself.
CH: That’s right, because what you say to them is what you need to hear. We always offer to others what it is that we need for ourselves. I watch myself walk around all the time, saying, “It’s OK. It’s OK. It’s OK.” With my granddaughter or my grandson, I would say, “You know, it’s OK. You’re fine. You’re fine! You’re OK. I’m right here. You’re OK!” That’s what I need to hear. Even though I’m a grown-up and they’re children, inside I’m not much older, and that’s what I need to hear. That’s the reassurance I need to hear.
TS: Yes, it makes sense. Cheri, just one final question. Our program is called “Insights at the Edge,” and I asked if this voice of self-criticism comes up for you, and you said, “Well, no, not very often at least, although we don’t know what the future might bring.” My question is: Right now, what would you say your edge is, in terms of your inner life, in terms of the inner questions you’re asking, your relationship with yourself? What’s your edge?
CH: That’s so interesting. I think, actually—I don’t know if this would be readily understandable, but I think my edge is continuing to find the balance between a desire to live and practice full-time, and a willingness to be of any assistance that I might still be able to offer to anyone else.
TS: Well, I’m definitely going to call you to be of assistance, Cheri, because we need you! I understand how that can be an edge, but I’m calling you out here. We need you!
CH: [Laughs] Well, thank you very much! That’s very kind of you!
TS: And thank you for speaking with us today. I really appreciate it. Thank you so much. It’s great to connect with you.
CH: Oh, it’s been an absolute pleasure. Thank you!
TS: Cheri Huber has created what she called “a retreat in a box.” It’s a series of guided practices and teachings on Unconditional Self-Acceptance, available through Sounds True.
SoundsTrue.com. Many voices, one journey. Thanks for listening.