The contemplative process of waking up has granted me several sudden insights. One of them: I’m an ass. But allow me to explain by way of example in a social setting, say, going to church. Now, this same dynamic I’m about to describe holds for just about any social setting, but there’s more structure in a church context, so some of the ego dynamics are more obvious there.
I’m an introvert by nature and fairly reserved in social settings. I don’t particularly stand out in a crowd, have a medium to low affect most of the time and have never been accused of being terribly charismatic.
At the same time, like most of us, I have a deep and fairly constant need to be recognized, to feel unique, to stand out in some way. You see the problem. In a church context, there are people in official and unofficial roles of leadership, speaking, playing music, with those who naturally stand out or attract others gaining roles of responsibility, respect, admiration, and so on.
An inner tension arises from this disconnect. There’s a dissonance. First, there’s the unconscious inner need for approval and recognition. Then, there’s the perception that not enough of that is forthcoming. Then, we look for avenues, roles, responsibilities, relationships, and so on, where that need is more likely to me fulfilled. Then there’s the sense that others are getting far more of this precious finite resource – other people’s attention – than I am.
That’s what we might call the ego drive – for position, status, recognition, whatever.
But then there’s another, subtler dynamic at work – how we relate to others. When our ego needs aren’t getting met, especially if we don’t see an avenue to pursue where they even might be met, we tend to want to knock others down a peg to our own level, even if only in our own mind.
We critique. We’re annoyed. And at what? At how people dress, at how people sing, at how they curry favor from authority, at how insecure they are, at how badly they do whatever it is they do. We judge. We complain. All of these are subtle ways of situating ourselves above someone else or above a situation.
Isn’t this fairly normal, though? In a state of normal unconscious awareness, sure. But what might it look like in a state of greater awareness, in an awakened state?
By way of a quick detour, here’s a small clue. After an extended period of consistent, dedicated practice recently, I found myself in a convenience store. For whatever reason, this time I was suddenly overwhelmed by the sheer bounty on display and what it took to get it all there. On the one hand, what a bunch of junk food. On the other hand, what a marvel.
Chocolates and biscuits and fruits and gum and smoked almonds and salted sunflower seeds. Oil and air freshener and milk and tobacco and water and energy drinks. Things grown, harvested, processed, packaged, and transported from far parts of the country, or even farther.
Now, again, on the one hand, yes there’s waste and overconsumption and obesity and black lung and type 2 diabetes on offer here.
But also a riot of color and flavor and variety. And the need to find more holistic ways of living in the world with more health and less waste doesn’t negate the wonder of the surface experience. This experience demonstrates a deeper vibrancy and vitality available on the level of immediate experience than we enjoy most of the time.
How might this kind of Beginner’s Mind look in a social context, when we’re divested of all need for ego gratification? Other people come alive for us. We’re free to see through our own surface judgments. Each person has their wounds and fears, their victories and failures. Their inherited family issues. Their own needs. But in that Beginner’s Mind, we make space for all that. In fact, we become more identified with the space within which all that occurs than with the judging self that wants to feel superior.
We recognize their inherent inner divinity incubating beneath all of it.
And when we see others in an unconscious state? When the others are petty, unconscious, overbearing, begging for affirmation, shabby, judgmental, and self-righteous? Or show-offs with a guitar? Or narcissists with a microphone?
We recall our own finer moments of fear and withdrawal, of pride or lust. In a state of greater awareness, when we’ve gotten to know our shadow side with a greater degree of intimacy, the shame goes out the window, and we see it with a degree of distance and objectivity.
But as I say, most of the time, I’m an ass. Those petty thoughts keep coming. I want to be seen but remain unseen. I want to be respected, but feel insecure. Thankfully, there’s a cure for that. Only, it turns out, strangely, the cure isn’t taking it all away and becoming a being of pure light that glides along a foot above the ground, doling out blessing and wisdom.
Instead, the simple practice of watching thoughts means, over time, those thoughts simply come, are recognized, and let go of, without a moment’s indulgence. Yes, I’m an ass. Or better: by conventional standards, I’m an ass, but in an awakened state I don’t get caught up in that way of thinking. I simply acknowledge and let it go. The less I attach to it or identify with it, the less the insecurity I have about it, the greater freedom I experience.
Why is this so important right now? Given the state of our country, the direction it may be headed in, the divisions, the fear, the power consolidation, the various resistances, and the state of civil discourse, it’s important to pay close attention to the state of mind out which we’re operating. Those who want to work toward national wholeness will not achieve it without pursuing personal wholeness. If we’re unconsciously going about trying to meet our ego needs, any action will be limited in its impact. Otherwise we will get stuck in our ego position, perpetuating fear, perpetuating antagonism, perpetuating violence of one kind or another. It’s also important to safeguard the experience of awe, of wonder, of beauty, of ongoing creation and co-creation.
We can only do this in an awakened state, not of fear or the desire to assert our superiority. Fear and hand-wringing robs us of the ability to appreciate experiences of simple beauty, of common wonder. It keeps us out of that inner state Christ called kingdom. On the social and on the mental-emotional level, for many, there is great instability at the moment. There will be time for clear and direct action, though it may not yet be certain what that action is. Let’s make sure we’ve cleared out the inner cobwebs when that time comes, seeking a greater outer health and wholeness out of a great inner health and wholeness.
What I’m Reading This Week:
Dostoevsky‘s The Brothers Karamazov is an old favorite, but I haven’t read it in years, and felt it beckon to me from the book shelf this week. It’s especially timely given the social divisions at work in Russian society at the time of its writing. There were a lot of voices vying for their brand of radical social change at the time, given deep social divisions. The book represents Dostoevsky’s passionate statement on the matter. It’s got layers of subtle psychological insight, richly textured characterization, and deals with issues of family, death, suffering, the existence and role of God, and where healing comes from. And I’m only on page 45!