Love your neighbor as you love yourself
The Buddha told a story that highlights the vital importance of increasing the capacity to love. Imagine a glass full of clear, sparkling water that is perfectly drinkable. Then dump some dirt into it. It will quickly cloud up, losing its purity and becoming noxious. But dump that same amount of dirt into a clean river and there will be no noticeable change. The water will remain drinkable.
When we love small we are more influenced and negatively affected by the dirt of hatred and cruelty heaped upon us by others. But when we learn to make our hearts bigger and more compassionate this same experience has less of an effect on us and we go on about our days without being pulled down into the muck.
The only way to be in a position to love others is to be able to love yourself. The passage from the Bible above makes it clear that there is nothing wrong or selfish in self-love and in fact it’s a mandate. As Erich Fromm succinctly puts it “The logical fallacy in the notion that love for others and love for oneself are mutually exclusive should be stressed. If it is a virtue to love my neighbor as a human being, it must be a virtue-and not a vice-to love myself since I am a human being too. There is no concept of man in which I myself am not included. A doctrine which proclaims such an exclusion proves itself to be contradictory”(Erich Fromm, Man For Himself, pg. 128).
In order to be able to love others you have to be able to love yourself and the image that keeps popping up in my mind as a metaphor is the sun. The only reason we feel its light and warmth is that it has a powerful burning center that radiates outwards and touches us even though it’s 92,960,000 miles away. You’ve got to start at your own center and radiate outwards. You can’t start outwards and hope doing so will somehow energize your center.
Some visible and visceral ways to increase your self-love are to decide to treat your body the way it deserves with exercise and a healthy diet, assuming these are not a part of your lifestyle already, and to start practicing mindfulness in your daily life. These are concrete ways to make the emotional decision that you are worth the time and the trouble. You might notice your decision to be a first step in a series of decisions that are made out of increased self-love, which in turn will increase your capacity to love. Like Fromm says, if you believe other people are worth the time and energy then it follows that you are worth the time and energy. Treating your body well is treating your Self well, and you will start thinking about all of the other conditions that are necessary for you to give yourself the love you deserve, putting you in a better position to really love others too.