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Principles as Spiritual Practice — Your Own Inherent Worth and Dignity (1.2)

“I take up the way of affirming the inherent worth and dignity of every person.” 

There are two key phrases in this principle, and the second one often gets overlooked though it is probably the more profound of the two. That phrase is “Every Person”.

There have been creeds and religious documents throughout the ages that have affirmed the inherent worth and dignity of “some people”. There have been exclusivist and hate based ideologies that affirm your particular worth and dignity (often at the expense of others) just as long. Some theologies are designed to convince people of their lack of inherent worth and dignity in favor of that of others, while some denigrate that of others in favor of themselves.

It is impossible not to talk about Jesus when talking about this… and it is equally impossible not to talk about Gautama Sidhartha, the Buddha. Jesus invited the outcast of society to be his company; the tax collectors and the prostitutes, the sick and the lame, the fishermen and the foreigners. These were people who had been told by their society over and over that they had little worth and no inherent dignity… but this one radical rabbinical teacher not only invited them into his company, but defended them from society’s leaders, healed them, and shared meals with them… the unclean, the unwashed, the unwelcome. Jesus affirmed their inherent worth and dignity.

The Buddha once confronted and befriended a serial killer. Someone who was not only an outcast from society, but whom society lived in fear of. He convinced him through compassion, friendship, and love to give up killing, to become a monk. Buddha gave him a new name, and set him to meditation and good works. Many outcasts and people of different castes studied with the Buddha.

The people of the town that once feared the former serial killer came to love and respect him… until they learned who he really was. At the trial they held, the former serial killer agreed to accept whatever judgment the village offered, but the Buddha challenged them to accept him as the transformed being he now was, not the wounded and hurting being he had been before. Like Jesus defending the prostitute, Buddha affirmed the inherent worth and dignity of this man who had done horrific things.

What was the difference between Jesus and the outcasts of his time, and Buddha and the serial killer? I believe that a large part of the difference was that Jesus and Buddha both understood that the Inherent Worth and Dignity of Every Person not only included the outcasts of society, but also and deeply included themselves. Jesus and Buddha both knew that they themselves were of inherent worth and held inherent dignity. It was this strength of personal love, personal acceptance, and personal understanding that was the foundation for their ministries… ministries which changed the world, and continue to change the world.

We live in an odd time, caught in paradox between the cult of the individual and an epidemic of self-hatred. Our media and entertainment presents us with an ideal of human life that is assertive, focused on our own wants and desires, and where failure is always personalized.

Is it any wonder that those of us not living in a television series often suffer from extreme lack of self-confidence and self-worth? Is it any wonder that depression is rampant, that our normal state is stress and anxiety, and that we crave television dramas where the crime is solved and the guilty punished in 45 minutes? Or that we turn to religious and cultural ideologies which tell us we have worth only because others are worse than we are?

We have an epidemic in this country of self-hatred and loathing. We see the symptoms of it in the rise of plastic surgery, in rampant consumerism (you will be whole if you buy this), in a skyrocketing divorce rate, in the rise of reality television, in levels of diagnosis for depression, for anxiety disorders, and in the continued rise of drug and alcohol use. We see it in the rise of religious movement that foster and exploit that sense of guilt and failure over natural aspects of human behavior.

For a nation of individuals, we sure don’t like ourselves very much.

Probably the most profound practice of the first principle of Unitarian Universalism is to apply it to oneself. In truth, it is probably impossible to practice this principle in any other way without first learning to practice it inwardly. Buddha and Jesus were both effective practitioners of affirming the inherent worth and dignity of others because they had both become convinced of their own inherent worth and dignity.

To do this, to practice this principle internally, you must first begin to compassionately accept yourself.

So you sometimes snap at the people you work with and say not so nice things. You are not evil, you are good. You still have inherent worth and dignity. Try to do better.

So you may not weigh what you wish you did. You are not evil, you are good. You still have inherent worth and dignity. See what you need to do to be healthy.

So you have bad thoughts about your in-laws from time to time. You are not evil, you are good. You still have inherent worth and dignity. Perhaps you can forgive them for not being what you want them to be.

For the Buddha, a serial killer who had killed dozens of people still had inherent worth and dignity… so certainly you do.

The inward spiritual practice of this principle is to accept yourself as inherently good. To realize that you have an inherent worth that makes you the equal of anyone else. There is no one who has any more or any less right to the pursuit of happiness than you do. No matter how anyone treats you, or what someone tells you about yourself, you are inherently worthy of sitting at the table of Jesus of Nazareth, or sitting meditation in the Jeta Grove with the Buddha. You have inherent worth and dignity.

I believe this practice of self-acceptance, self-compassion, self-forgiveness, and self-love is the foundation not just of practicing the first principle in your life, but indeed the foundation to practice any and all of the principles. As we move outward into the other principles, always remember to come back to this practice of self-acceptance. Like coming back to the breath in Zen, or coming back to the divine in your heart in Christianity, all the rest of our work on the Principles as Spiritual Practice rests on this foundation.

So, I offer two specific skillful means to practice this aspect of the first principle. Both are very simple. The first is to begin following your mind, and notice when your thoughts turn down the familiar path of self-condemnation and self-loathing. Notice when your mind begins to say “I’m fat”, or “I never do anything worthwhile”, “No one loves me”. At first, don’t do anything to stop these thoughts, just notice them when they happen. Maybe keep a sheet of paper in your pocket, and make a mark each time it happens.

When you begin to become aware of how often this happens in your mind, then begin to recite this modification of the vow/principle when you notice it happening: “I take up the way of affirming my own inherent worth and dignity”… and take three conscious breaths. Not deep breaths, not slow… just pause from whatever you are doing and take three natural, conscious breaths.

That is all, nothing more. But from this foundation we will move into putting the rest of the precepts into practice in our lives, and thereby be the change we want in the world.

“We forgive principally for our own sake, so that we may cease to bear the burden of rancour.” – Gautama Sidhartha, the Buddha  

“I take up the way of affirming the inherent worth and dignity of every person.”

Next in series: Forgiving the Unforgiveable (1.3)

Go to Principles as Spiritual Practice Index Page

One Thought on “Principles as Spiritual Practice — Your Own Inherent Worth and Dignity (1.2)

  1. Thanks for the essay on the inherent worth and dignity of every person. I’ve been a UU since 1993, but it wasn’t until last spring that I suddenly realized that “every person” includes me. It is quite a revelation, as is your piece.

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