Maitri: Unconditional Friendship with and Acceptance of Oneself

Friends: Here is my second theological reflection, with some love from the wisdom of our Buddhist brothers and sisters.

Honoring the Personally Transformative Nature of CPE

By Employing the Four Qualities of Maitri

I began CPE with the specific expectation that it was going to focus on the Clinical Portion of Pastoral Care, essentially: how to go “be a chaplain” or “Do chaplaincy.”  I spent a good deal of my first unit totally confused about what we were actually doing.  Somehow I was so intent on learning some nonexistent rules about what to do and how to do it, I completely discounted the immeasurable value of the portion of CPE dedicated to Pastoral Identity and Self-Discovery that is at the core of a balanced chaplain and minister.  Perhaps for the purpose of an unconscious sense of self-preservation, I was blind to the Pastoral Formation and Reflection portions of the program, and fixated on the Pastoral Competencies, particularly as they related to performance with patients.  I met the HUGE body of work around self-awareness and peer group dynamics with great resistance.  I thought I knew myself to be incredibly reflective and self-aware.  In many ways this was true; but what was lacking, and what would leave a gaping hole in my ministry unless addressed, was self-love and acceptance.

Many years of serving in my family, relationships, and bodywork career as a poster child for co-dependency and people pleasing lead to an unconscious exhaustion and bitterness that would sneak out in vulnerable moments where I did not have the energy to control it.  Yet still I prized the Idea of what a good person, a good Christian, and a good woman Should be like, rather than actually stopping and feeling my emotions and desires, and offering them the time and energy I reserved for everyone else.  Then, along came CPE.  It was the pinnacle of service, the goal I have put high on a pedestal for 17 years. I was more than happy to focus on the other and even ranked the toughest, most gut wrenching cases as more valuable, feeling like a slacker if I was not “in the trenches” enough.  All along, this was a way of keeping the focus on others, never on who I was in the experience.  It just didn’t seem prudent, much less useful.  By the end of my first unit I had arrived at a holding space for what I called the Holy AND, a place of celebration of the existence of suffering and rejoicing at the same time, like the mystery of Christ being both on the cross and resurrected at any moment of our spiritual journeys.  It was a recognition of wholeness— so I thought.  But, it was only a recognition.  The Holy AND was about situations we encounter daily as chaplains; but what about our internal encounters? What am I feeling in these stories?  Why does it matter?  I completely missed that my lack of self-consideration showed a tremendous lack of faith and underestimation of who God is.

Finally, after years of listening to lectures and reading books by a Buddhist nun named Pema Chodrin which introduced me to the concept of maitri, just this unit I began to integrate the concept within the context of CPE!  Maitri pronounced “my tree” is a Sanskrit word that is translated as unconditional friendship with and acceptance of oneself.  Chodrin explains that maitri is about beginning a process of looking inside oneself for love and acceptance, with loving-kindness for whatever we see when we look within.  It is suggested to be the basis of compassion and the root to healing all suffering in the world.   The first of the Four Noble Truths in Buddhist philosophy is that suffering or discontent is Universal; and fully recognizing its existence is the first step on the path of awakening (Brach, 18).  Buddhist meditation teacher Krishnamurti teaches that “This moving away from comfort and security, this stepping out into what is unknown, uncharted, and shaky is called enlightenment and liberation.” (Chodrin,18).  Well congratulations all CPE students!  We are on the path to enlightenment here!  Somehow the answer to alleviating suffering is to go deeper into it and make friends with it.  I realize that I got into chaplaincy to help alleviate suffering in other people, lessen the existence of suffering in the world in general; but I never considered that this mission began with befriending my own suffering.

As humans we share a tendency to look outside ourselves- to others, spiritual practice, distracting behaviors and addictions for love and acceptance.  We use distancing behaviors as a primal reaction to avoid being open with and close to our own suffering, both physical and mental.  It is reflexive and self-preserving on many levels.  But on the spiritual journey, Buddhist philosophy and the CPE process invite us to sit with, go deeper into, and even honor the experiences that cause inner turmoil.  Chodrin suggests that this learning to feel friendly and at home with ourselves in whatever we discover under the surface sheds a Light on the dark and lonely places of life.  Pema suggests that we engage the spiritual process with the four qualities of maitri: steadfastness, clear seeing, experiencing our emotional distress, and attention to the present moment.

In steadfastness, we develop a loyalty to our experiences, including all sensations or thoughts and emotions of the wildest diversity, knowing that they are all a part of our intended practice- or as one CPE instructor would say: “everything is grist for the mill.”  Pema teaches that, just like in CPE, in meditation we must practice patience and maitri with ourselves. When we start to look closely and see everything about ourselves and our experiences clearly, we can become extremely uncomfortable and wish to flee or judge ourselves for what is coming up.  I relate this to how I feel in IPR and receiving feedback during verbatims.  It is such a closely magnified look, with witnesses to boot, that it can be excruciating.  Yet, with a gentle curiosity, a friendly affinity for ourselves and our fundamental nature- worded in my theology: honoring the inner dwelling of the Holy Spirit in ourselves and all creation- we can come to love ourselves into wholeness and freedom from the suffering caused by the desire to be different than we are.  We can share and model that liberating sense of friendliness, love, acceptance, and clear-seeing to others if we are willing to offer it first to ourselves.  (Chodrin 27)

As chaplains we have the unique opportunity to be reminded of most all kinds of human suffering on a daily basis.  Some of the worst suffering humans experience is a feeling of loneliness or abandonment.  Whatever pain we have physically, mentally, or spiritually is exponentially increased by the sensation of isolation in that suffering.  So as chaplains we offer to hold space for, sit in on, and dive into the empty darkness with our patients.  As CPE students we also do it for each other; and if we are really brave- ourselves.  Until I was willing to sit in my own uncertainty and squirm at my own self-recognition, forgive myself for mistakes, admit my shame and embarrassment, I was giving well intentioned, but ultimately inauthentic feedback.   Up until sometime last year my therapist who is a trained HeartMath instructor would always ask me where and how I felt a feeling.  I would use descriptions that were verbal, intellectual concepts; but I was absolutely terrified and repulsed by the suggestion of going into my heart and body where the pain was, and describing it in detail, allowing it, and breathing into it.  Then I realized that is exactly what I do when I am present with my massage clients and patients in extreme crisis.  I am not afraid to go towards it when the suffering isn’t coming from me, but when it is, I tend to resist it tooth and nail.

What I am coming to see in myself is a beloved daughter of God who at times also feels hurt, less than, unworthy, ashamed, weak, unprepared, unlovable, unattractive, fearful, lonely, misunderstood, eager, impatient, and a host of other feelings which I ate, talked, wrote, exercised, slept or helped other people in order to avoid.  I avoided them so much they got louder, bigger, more painful and expressed themselves in ways that were leading me farther from my path in God.  Using the second quality of maitri, clear seeing, we are watching our every tendency, and those to whom we minister care-fully (Patton 47).  Whether on the meditation cushion as in Buddhist practice, or in a pastoral caring moment, we are not trying to get rid of any kind of thoughts that may arise within us, or that we are observing happening in front of us.  “Rather, we are seeing clearly the defense mechanisms, our negative beliefs about ourselves, our desires and expectations.  We also see our kindness, our bravery, our wisdom,” (Chodrin 27-28).  We are offering ourselves and others the compassion of holding the space for both pleasant and unpleasant, powerful and vulnerable within in the same person or circumstance.

This practice of clear seeing often times evokes the third element of maitri- the experience of emotional distress.  Here is when we need to hold ourselves with loving kindness the most.   We are no longer just an objective observer of patterns and possibilities, we are engaged participants.  We are awake and poignantly aware.  We must engage that strength and steadfastness through faith in the viability of a program that asks us to stay where we would rather not in these moments, and see into the fourth corner of our Johari windows.  Buddhist teaching offers us this: “Transformation occurs only when we remember, breath by breath, year after year, to move toward our emotional distress without condemning or justifying our experience,” (Chodrin 28).  Meditation is suggested as a sort of training for staying with and growing from things we once tried to escape.  In CPE, the exercises of visiting patients, attending to crises, participating fully in group and supervision are all pieces of the obstacle course of this spiritual boot camp.  It is a delight to see that all we encounter has value, and to feel oneself expanding because of it.  It is empowering to find myself in personal relationships, with family, at work, or church, or even in conversation in my own head willing to slow down, get curious, offer words of loving kindness, and be willing to try again, and again, and again- knowing it may be just as painful, or it may open up an unknown world of possibility.

The final maitri factor that we cultivate in meditation or CPE practice is attention to the present moment.  In my mystical Christian theology, this takes on a particular brilliance, because it speaks to the presence of God.  I do not believe in time as we know it as an ultimate construct; only that as humans living on the earth plane we are temporarily and partially subject to its divisions.  Staying in the present moment is directly experiencing the fullness of God.  It is knowing for ourselves, as believers of the Resurrection of Christ, that Christ was yesterday, is today, and will be tomorrow.  In His death and Resurrection, all barriers of time and between diversity of the Beings He created, are destroyed.  Being in the present moment is honest, brave, loving, faithful, and transformative.  Staying present is a choice, often a painful one, when the moment we are in happens to be less than pleasant.  But by staying in the moment we are also empowered, as Quay Kestor instructs, by being perpetually at “choice-point.”  “Attending to our present-moment mind and body is a way of being tender toward self, toward the other, and toward the world.  This quality of attention is inherent in our ability to love.” (Chodrin 29-30).  When we seek to change the world we live in, first we must fully inhabit it, as Jesus did.  The practice of Christian Meditation called Centering Prayer suggests that every moment of suffering or distraction that we become aware of, is merely an opportunity to return to God (Thomas Keating).  So combining last unit’s awareness that God is in all experiences with the practice of maitri, this unit I have decided to be present in all my own experiences.  I decided to show up in the Dungeon and to supervision prepared to writhe in the naked truths of what I was feeling, hiding from, wishing to change, and watching in others.  Employing the concept of Radical Acceptance for all that is within in us, which sits at the heart of maitri, allows us to meet the God, the hound of Heaven, who seeks us wherever we may tend to run to or hide from Him (Psalm 139).

I would certainly not call myself enlightened, but a light has been shed on pieces of me and the common experiences of suffering we all share.  Now I can see more clearly how my own tendency to fix, fast forward, rescue and defend others wallowing in discomfort and uncertainty denies them the valuable experiences of resilience and growth.   God exists in all times, places and experiences.  I was refusing to meet God where God was, by refusing to sit quietly and lovingly with my own discomfort.  I was lashing out at Marla for beckoning me to come closer, and hiding from the group that was not trying to shame me into self-awareness, but rather love me into wholeness.  “Carl Jung describes the spiritual path as an unfolding into wholeness.  Rather than trying to vanquish waves of emotion and rid ourselves of an inherently impure self, we turn around and embrace this life in all its realness- broken, messy, mysterious and vibrantly alive.” (Brach 42)

Through maitri we can know that at any one time we too have been hurt, scared, angry, hungry, lonely, happy, in love, excited, brave, or peaceful.  We share this collective human experience and the planet on which we are having it.  We have to practice.  We have to trust the process.  We have to love ourselves first in order to love our neighbor.  Employing the qualities of maitri in CPE and life helps us not only sharpen our listening and communication skills, but softens and expands our hearts.  “When we carry our pain with the kindness of acceptance instead of bitterness and resistance, our heart becomes an edgeless sea of compassion and we become the compassionate presence that can hold, with tenderness, the rising and passing waves of suffering (Brach 216).


Works Cited

  1. Brach, Tara, Ph.D. Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life with the Heart of a Buddha.  Bantam Books, New York, 2004.
  2. Chodrin, Pema. Start Where You Are: A Guide to Compassionate Living.  Shambala Classics.  Boston, MA, 1994.
  3. Chodrin, Pema. The Places that Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times.  Shambala Classics. Boston, MA, 2001.
  4. Chodrin, Pema. Good Medicine: How to Turn Pain into Compassion.  Audio Lecture produced by Sounds True.
  5. Patton, John. Pastoral Care: An Essential Guide.   Abingdon Press, Nashville, TN, 2005.

One thought on “Maitri: Unconditional Friendship with and Acceptance of Oneself

  1. Dear Gina.

    Thank you for your recent blog on pastoral care, and especially on your experiences of it through CPE. Your honest self-sharing will be meaningful to those who follow your posts.

    You have introduced me to the concept of Maitri Pema Chodrin, and I hope to explore her writings. If you get a spring break, I hope you’ll have time to come over. I’d love to catch up and hear about your experience at Drew.

    With my prayers for you and your family this Holy Week and Easter –

    Sr. Barbara Jean


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