So, I messed up (if that’s the way to put it). I let my ego dynamics take over.
When I tore my Achilles tendon playing basketball a few years ago, the rehab was cut short and I’ve been hesitant to put too much strain on it ever since. Last year I finally joined a gym and started getting into (some amount of) shape. It’s great to be around people first thing in the morning, catch up on podcasts or audiobooks, get a good stretch and hit the showers. After a few months I thought I’d give basketball a shot again.
I played a few times, overcame a few growing pains having not put certain muscle groups to the test for years, and met some good guys. It was fun.
Then one morning someone came to play I hadn’t met before, though I’d seen him play during my treadmill runs. He was combative, contentious, hogged the ball, complained on nearly every call, and after an accidental foul from me shouted I was a dirty such-and-such. I was mad, but kept it internal. People in that frame of mind turn the atmosphere toxic, and everyone was a little more on edge that day.
Though I stayed calm in the moment, my emotions caught up with me after the fact (which is my general pattern). For days, I recounted the situation in my mind, coming up with witty comebacks, challenges to this person’s manhood, putting him in his place, vowing internally not to play again if this toxic person was there. Body tense. Blood pressure elevated. Then I got even more aggravated. Not only had this person ruined my morning, but now my weekend as well.
How dare he say that to me? And worse, how dare he bring that atmosphere into my morning sanctuary?
This is a common ego response to situations that threaten us. It took a few days to see it, but I soon recognized this process as the seed of violence. This recognition is one of the portals along the contemplative path. Usually our daily concerns and ego triggers are front and center with our practice. We want to know how to bring awareness into our family and partner relationships, into our workplace. We learn to recognize those patterns, and gradually, to let them go.
But what about the antagonistic stranger, especially when our guard is down? Obviously I was responding unskillfully, and my ego was triggered enough to rear its ugly head, if only internally. But my peace was disturbed, and it was all in my own head. I also realized the extent to which this particular dynamic – of being recognized for playing basketball well and being a good teammate – had been a huge source of ego support, a source of recognition, a source of identity, for most of my childhood and adolescence. On an unconscious level, my need for affection and esteem was especially high in this forum. Just like romantic relationships and musical performances. No affirmation could possibly be enough in these areas.
These are unconscious fixations of my personal identity, family identity, tribal identity, ego identity. And clinging tightly to them prevents me from being fully present, from manifesting awareness-in-the-moment in that space. Unconscious needs take over.
From a contemplative perspective, my opening at the top of this post of “messing up,” isn’t really accurate. My extended period of anger toward this person is where I was internally. My practice and awareness without judgment and guilt about that tell me I need to be somewhere else internally, and can help show me how to get there: through the release of these underlying ego needs.
As Richard Rohr reminds us in Eager To Love and elsewhere, the contemplative path isn’t primarily a means of moral perfection, but bringing awareness to our inner selves, our thoughts, emotions, and behavior, so we can consciously choose what to do with them.
The man’s insult was a gift. Yes, it was probably born of some kind of pain of his own that manifested in his unskillful behavior that morning. But it also showed me where my ego lives, where it has set up shop, my ego’s address. The anger was the road sign. Let’s recap how we can find our ego’s address and how to stop paying the rent:
- Bring awareness to our negative emotion
- Identify the situational patterns that give rise to it
- Identify the underlying attachment or desire that’s being threatened
- Bring that awareness into the situation next time around
- Watch the negative emotion gradually fade, then dissolve altogether
Next time I see him, instead of getting ready for an attack and responding in kind to this individual, I can bring that awareness to the moment. I can subtly bow to him for his gift.