The Dalai Lama was stumped. He thought he knew about the mind, he said, but he'd never heard of the mental experience about which he'd been asked. Yet here was a roomful of people to whom it was familiar as hunger or thirst. What, he wanted to know, is this self-hatred of which you speak?
It's an often-told story among American Buddhists (one version, by Sharon Salzberg, who actually asked the question at a conference in Dharmsala in 1990, is here), I suppose because it illustrates one of tradition's attraction to many middle-class Americans. We're formed in the United States to think that we can control our fates, and we're encouraged from the cradle to measure our performance. Joined together, these thoughts form a toxic explanation for any bad experience: First, what happened is our own fault. Second, we can change things by improving our score on some test. If life continues to play rough, then, we can't hate the economy or the boss or the random ups and downs of luck. We can only hate ourselves.
Other traditions tell a different story, and for many Americans they appeal precisely because they seem to be a way out of this cruel mental trap. (Salzberg began her journey to Buddhism, she writes, because she wanted to "resolve the ache of my self-hatred," and it was in meditating that she learned "to sit comfortably and feel my breath.")
Once you have an ideal with which to measure yourself--be it Jesus' Gospel, Buddha's psychology, Scientology--you can sit comfortably with yourself. Where once you worried what the neighbors thought and how you ranked on your office performance review, you're focussed now on the evaluations of your spiritual teacher and your fellow believers. (Sure, you may have just jumped from the frying pan into the fire, but that's another subject. My subject here is the desire to get free, not the particulars of each escape route.)
On the other hand, maybe you'd rather be miserable. Maybe you'd prefer to worry more about how you look to others, and maybe you'd like to invite more randomly selected people to score your behavior. Perhaps you're a spiritual hamster, who can't wait to jump on that wheel and learn how you can make yourself more worthy of our love.
If so, there's a website for that: failin.gs, now preparing for its beta launch. It's a site where you can "create a profile and invite people to leave anonymous constructive criticism about your character." There are probably more depraved sites somewhere on the Web, but at the moment I can't think of any. Yet I'm curious. Who thinks this is a good idea? And why? Wouldn't it be quicker to just shoot yourselves?