After graduating High School in Germany, I moved to the Pacific Northwest to go to college.
The reverse culture shock was jarring at times. What would have been considered embarrassing social behavior back home suddenly seemed not only tolerated, but celebrated here. Young guys revving engines in muscle cars and massively oversized trucks was suddenly a normal aspect of male identity and expression.
Back home you were supposed to at least project humility and self-deprecation. Any attempt to stick out and act superior made you subject to open ridicule. To get approval, you had to cultivate a degree of well-rounded gentility.
Now suddenly everything seemed upside down.
Resentment began to fester over cultivating one kind of identity for social advantage that was now a liability. By and large Americans seemed to place even more value on the outer over the inner. The ego felt smaller. It was like starting back at the bottom.
Twenty years later and a thousand miles away, with many iterations of the self in between, including a deep commitment to the contemplative journey, I pulled out of my quiet street onto the highway to be cut off by an oversized truck with Washington plates driven by a young man. Instantly, the old habit energy kicked up.
The ego starts working: He needs to be cut off. He needs to be put in his place. He needs to be humiliated. But of course, the anger, tension, and physical strain are welling up within me. And I quickly realize one of the dangers of adulthood is the illusion of inner change. As we get older we get better at avoiding places, people, and situations that threaten our egos.
Thankfully, engaging in regular practice means eventually an awareness of this inner process set in. I was able to understand, let go, and even wish the young man well. Here’s the recipe I was able to follow for that to happen:
- Prepare for ego triggers with regular contemplative practice
- Become aware of the ego behavior pattern or habit energy (either as it arises, or, early on, shortly after)
- Recognize that pattern energy, what seems to trigger it and why
- Practice recognizing and welcoming that energy, whether anger or sadness, or whatever.
- Just as you let go of thoughts during practice, let go of the energy when you notice yourself beginning to attach to it.
As Anthony De Mello points out, though, as we become mindful or aware of these inner mechanisms, they begin to lose their hold. As we grow in that kind of spiritual awareness, we might even actively seek out things that once set us off just to feel it pass right through. That’s inner peace.
We begin to see through the behavior of others and our inner responses, and understanding deeply where it comes from without judgment. The tension dissolves. Instead of anger, we’re free to choose how to respond.
It’s what the Eastern teachers call no-self, aligning more with the spacious awareness than the ego response. It’s what Christ calls kingdom. It’s freedom. And it’s right there for the taking.