Cheri Huber is the founder of Zen Monastery Practice Center in California, and the author of 17 books including When You're Falling, Dive. Here, she talks with Sounds True about how self-acceptance is “unlearned,” and how to revive it.
Sounds True: On Unconditional Self-Acceptance you remark, “If self-improvement worked, it would have by now.” If your approach is not a form of self-improvement, what is it?
Cheri Huber: Self-acceptance, not self-improvement, is the focus of the work I do. At a very early age we are conditioned to judge ourselves for our “imperfections,” but we never actually had any imperfections. The adults around us just needed us to be different. This conditioning is so deeply ingrained that as adults we no longer recognize it for what it is: a no-longer-useful survival mechanism. We aren't aware of our conditioning. It's like one fish trying to describe to another fish what water is. Water is the fish's context, just like conditioning is ours.
Sounds True: But don't we have to be socialized?
Cheri Huber: We can be socialized in healthier ways. For example: I don't want children to get in my car and put sticky hands all over it. But until they learn to value their own things, they won't understand this. So in the meantime, we can have our meal together, and wash our hands together, and then get in the car. This way, they learn. Punishing them creates only inner judgment.
Sounds True: That's “The Judge” you speak of?
Cheri Huber: Yes. The Judge is a voice inside that gives us the same kind of reprimanding that we received from adult authority figures. Instead of waiting for someone to say, “You shouldn't do that,” or “That's not okay,” or “You shouldn't feel that way,” we quickly learn to say those things to ourselves. We become “self-regulating,” and the Judge begins to direct our lives all the time. A large part of awareness practice is recognizing the judge and no longer believing that it has a useful place in our lives.
Sounds True: How do we do that?
Cheri Huber: The “how” of compassionate self-acceptance begins with paying close attention to the judgmental voices in our heads. We mistake those voices for who we really are. A voice says, “You make too many mistakes. Get yourself together,” and we never question it. But we can practice noticing those messages. We can practice questioning and disbelieving the judge. Life becomes more enjoyable when we are no longer controlled by the self-judgments we learned as children. Compassion for ourselves and others grows as we realize we have all received some kind of conditioning.
Sounds True: Developing that compassionate relationship with ourselves is more easily said than done!
Cheri Huber: Yes, that's why in many spiritual practices, it begins with a guide who shows you how to attend to your inner states and thoughts, and to learn to co-habitate with them instead of letting them run your life. And then gradually you learn to do it yourself. On Unconditional Self-Acceptance, listeners work with me step-by-step through a series of very simple practices. Intelligent retreat attendees often find this frustrating at first because the practices are so simple. But simplicity is the point. Conditioned mind thinks of itself as complex and sophisticated and doesn't want to be scrutinized; it wants to be in control.
Sounds True: Can you give our listeners a practice they can try, to get an idea of your approach?
Cheri Huber: Sure. I call this the “kindness exercise.” First, find a comfortable place to sit with your feet on the floor. Now, think about all the kind things you have done today. Did you make an effort to really listen to someone in need, even though you didn't really want to? Did you let someone turn in front of you in traffic? Did you tell someone how much you appreciate him or her? If you hear a voice inside saying you haven't done enough, lovingly remind that voice that you know he or she thinks that, thanks for the opinion, and that you will listen in detail at another time. When we start with something as simple as this and build on it day by day, it's surprising how deeply it will change us.