Some years ago, it seems to have been dropped, there was an advertisement on South African TV.
It opened with a man in a long brown coat and hat walking on a railway platform towards a train that had just pulled in to the station. He walked with lightness, with delight, almost on his toes like a dancer and whilst you could not see him from the front, only his back, you had a sense that he was meeting someone very dear to him, a person who dwelled deeply in his heart.
The camera panned left to the train and showed a man, not easily distinguishable walking out of a compartment into the carriage passage heading for the exit-door to disembark. The camera behind the man showed him climbing down from the train to the platform below. From the back one could see that the man was wearing a long brown coat and a hat.
The camera then moved back to the man waiting on the platform. He moved forward with his arms straight out in front of him as if he was about to hug somebody. Still only his back could be seen. From behind the disembarking man was walking on the platform towards the first man, his arms stretched out in front of him as if he was about to hug somebody.
Slowly the two men came together and hugged each other tightly, heads resting on the others left shoulder, lovingly, comfortably, familiarly, with closeness and intimacy. As they embraced each other they spun on the spot, the two men melded together.
So now you had two men in long brown coats and hats embracing and pirouetting on the spot in animated delight. As they pirouetted the camera showed the face of one of the men, a middle aged man with spectacles, a moustache and a broad smile. As they turned the camera showed the face of the other man, a middle aged man with spectacles, a moustache and a broad smile. The two men were physically absolutely identical in every respect. The ad had not been accompanied by any sound; no music, no talking and no ambient station noise. As they spun a voice softly said.
“To be truly happy you must be your own best friend”.
I think this advertisement was created for the South African Federation for Mental Health or the Cape Mental Health Society, I can no longer recall.
Now perhaps we are used to hearing the more common adage; you must love yourself before others can love you. Love thy neighbour as thyself. Ok, fine, but to me the word love (one of the most important words in human language and discourse) is overused, misunderstood and has largely been misappropriated by all and sundry; Hollywood, Bollywood, advertising, marketing and dating agencies so on. Love has become and has been for a long while an idealised impossible notion. This wonderful coveted feeling that fills all empty spaces within us, that makes us feel invincible and inoculates us against pain.
I prefer the word friend in this case; I think it is well chosen, very apt and wholly pertinent to the message underpinning the advert.
Friendship describes a relationship, love suggests a feeling word not a doing word. Friendship is a commitment of will, a choice to engage, to get to know. Love the feeling is conditional on the continuing presence of the feeling, to feel the pleasure.
But why was this ad produced by mental health organisations? Why the focus on mental health? What does being your own best friend have to do with mental health? Does this not simply promote selfishness?
As persons we have feelings and attitudes towards other people. Feelings and attitudes that either bring us together or keep us unconnected separate from each other. It is equally true that we have feelings and attitudes about ourselves that either bring us together with ourselves or keeps us disconnected from ourselves.
Once I was teaching a visiting lecturer a simple meditation technique in my office. I explained to her that unconditional friendliness to self was one of the outcomes of long-term meditation. Something I believed to be absolutely foundational to mental, psychological and emotional well-being; the alpha and omega.
She responded with some agitation that she was not enamoured by such a notion. I do not ever wish to settle, be satisfied with myself as I am and be complacent.
I explained to her that in my estimation unconditional friendliness to self could not be equated with complacency, narcissism, selfishness, passivity and a desire not to extend oneself and grow as a person. It is precisely the fecund ground from which all authentic and meaningful personal growth and development emerges.
There is a correlation between the person’s freedom and the nature of their relationship with themselves which is directly proportional; the healthier and more accepting the relationship the greater the freedom. But freedom to do what? It is the freedom to become who we are; to nurture and fulfil our potential and to consciously and deliberately manifest our being in the world as opposed to not doing so.
How can this easily be done if we don’t know ourselves and don’t have friendliness, compassion, understanding and acceptance towards ourselves?
So the equation might go like this. Mental health equals greater unconditional friendliness to self, equals the freedom to use the material and resources of oneself and to creatively and constructively will one’s life potential towards responsibility and fulfilment.
The corollary of this equation goes like this. The absence of unconditional friendliness to self means that much energy and will is tied up in protecting oneself form internal and external distress such as shame, guilt, self-doubt, self-contempt which occupies us and deprives us of a constructive connection to our own creative energy, resources and power and thus to the freedom to live who we are and how we want to be.
Which if we stop and reflect perhaps allows us to understand the African proverb; “when there is no enemy within the enemies outside cannot hurt you.”
Meditation alone will not resolve issues of unfriendliness to self but the practice may serve as one of many approaches to finding friendliness towards ourselves; being our own best friend.
South African Federation for Mental Health & Cape Mental Health Society, https://www.facebook.com/The-South-African-Federation-for-Mental-Health-107457912637214/timeline/, http://www.capementalhealth.co.za/
“Love, love is a verb, Love is a doing word”, Teardrop by Massive Attack, http://www.alwaysontherun.net/massive.htm