“I think I’m a bit of a loser monk,” said Ajahn with a serious face, but not a hint of self-aversion. “What’s so bad about that? People always think they have to be the best at everything they do, and if they don’t get recognition from others, they get depressed. Me, I’ve never wanted to be a star monk. I’ve always been a mediocre meditator, I raise chickens and take care of flowers. I haven’t read the whole Tipitaka [Buddhist canon], but I’ve read all the Harry Potter books. But I’ve never given myself a hard time about this. I always do my best in my practice, and I love myself. And I don’t really care what others think.”
We’d been talking about self-judgment and the suffering it causes. I was telling him this is an epidemic in the West, that many of us learn very young to think there’s something wrong with us. I told him I often thought I was a loser because I wasn’t sure which way to go, and at 45 I didn’t have a career, a girlfriend, a home or a career. “And you think you should, he said softly. Your suffering comes not from this wonderful life of yours, but from thinking it should be different. You give yourself a hard time for not measuring up to someone else’s idea.” Bam, as simple as that.
“When I was a junior monk, I met many star monks. They could sit straighter than me and meditate for longer. When I was at Chithurst Monastery for a year [in England], the monks would make fun of me because I would walk around with a book of wildflowers and I’d spend hours identifying them. And even today in Thailand, I have a reputation for being a soft monk.” “A soft monk?,” I asked. “Yes, because I do many things that are seen as not serious for a forest monk. I love art and gardening. But it’s interesting, because a lot of these “hard” monks have disrobed over the years, whereas I’m still here after 23 years, and I have no real suffering,” he said with a smile.
“A few years ago, a lady came to see me because she was depressed. I remember very well she said she was a loser. I asked her what was so bad about that, who was she trying to impress? And she got it. She realized she was beating herself up because she wasn’t living up to someone else’s idea of success, but in reality she was perfectly fine. Her only problem was what she was telling herself. At Chithurst there was a French monk who was always perfect, the hardest of the star monks. Well, he eventually confessed that he’d been depressed all his life, and always felt like a failure. I think he wanted to be a star monk because he hated himself. The rest of us tried so hard to help him, and the monastery even changed the schedule to accommodate him. Unfortunately, he eventually disrobed and committed suicide.”
“He must have grown up with a lot of shame and criticism,” I speculated. “Yes, he did. I’m not saying that it’s easy to let go of these things, but part of the Buddhist training consists in seeing that our ideas about ourselves are not true, we are not who we think we are. And we develop metta [loving-kindness] for ourselves and others, this is key. Look at the lady who was sad because she thought she was a loser. When she realized that this identity was just a borrowed idea, she was suddenly freed of nasty self-concepts. She saw that her life was fine the way it was. So when I say I’m a loser, what I mean is I don’t care about failing to measure up to other people’s concepts, because I know I always do my best in my practice. I accept myself completely, with my strengths and weaknesses, and I don’t give myself a hard time at all for not being a star monk. Doing your best for yourself is the only thing that counts.”
“I have a lot of metta toward myself, but I also do many things that warm my heart, like gardening, reading, and practising generosity. I think these hard monks disrobed because their practice got dry. They didn’t know how to nurture themselves. So you should be a loser too: don’t try to shine and impress others. Instead, do things that nurture you and warm your heart. Be kind and generous. Love yourself always.”