Sunday, October 27, 2013

Get Over Yourself: Resisting the Tyranny of Ego

When I lived in the monastery, one of the most profound and challenging aspects of our training as monastics was the principle of choicelessness.

As humans, we ordinarily spend a vast amount of time — maybe even the majority of our time — fussing over our personal preferences about everything from our food to our clothing and appearance to the creature comforts of our home. A big chunk of this time goes into trying to get our way and impose our personal preferences on other people, and negotiating all the conflict that arises from clashing preferences. Our partner feels like eating sushi tonight and watching a certain TV show, but we feel like eating pasta and watching a different TV show.

Dropping the Habit
Like Goldilocks in the children's fable, we jump constantly from one experience to another, always searching for the one that's "just right" — the one that fulfills our personal preferences. We spend our lives trying to make ourselves comfortable by selecting and acquiring the objects that meet our criteria. But our preferences are fickle and quixotic, and things often don't live up to our expectations. The movie we so looked forward to — and coerced our friends into seeing with us — turns out to be dreadful, and we leave the theater feeling disappointed (and chastened by our friends). The pasta that pleased us yesterday bores us today. The shirt we loved when we bought it last season looks like a fright when we put it on now.

In the monastery we were encouraged to drop this self-defeating habit and to work, instead, with the discipline of choicelessness.

  • Forget about your appearance. Leave your fancy hair products behind. Shave your head like everyone else. Forget about jewelry and make-up and accessories and your favorite clothing — they're not allowed. Wear the simple robes that are given to you, which (surprise!) look like everyone else's. Stop trying to be "unique" and to "express yourself" with your appearance. That's just your ego.
  • Forget about your eating preferences. Eat the food that is prepared for you, and eat it only when it's placed in front of you at the appointed hour. If you don't like the food, you're cordially invited to keep your complaints to yourself. Or don't eat.
  • Forget about your creature comforts. Sleep in the bed that's offered to you. If you don't like your roommate's snoring, you're cordially invited to get over it. Try wearing earplugs.
  • Forget about sleeping in, or planning your day according to your mood. Wake up with the others and follow the schedule. Do your practices. Do your chores. Do your work. Don't like the schedule? You're cordially invited to get used to it.
  • Forget about escaping on Open Day into the movie of your choice. You can choose to watch the one movie that is provided on Friday night — which is selected by majority vote — or you can choose not to watch it. Don't like it? Leave the room. Go to bed early.

Life Does Not Revolve Around You
You learn very quickly in the monastery that life does not revolve around you and your personal preferences. As in the military, there's a structure and a program to be followed for pretty much everything. You either get with the program, and learn to be generally okay with it, or you make yourself miserable by struggling against it. That's your choice. Which one is more appealing?

That may sound harsh, and in some ways it is. But when you actually embrace choicelessness as a practice, a form of spiritual training, it can open you up in unexpected ways. You start to see that the quick thrill of getting what you want pales next to the deeper sense of contentment that comes from accepting that which is, without complaint or struggle.

You've spent your whole life trying to get everything and everyone around you to align with your personal preferences. How's that working for you? Maybe, just maybe, it has caused more trouble than it's worth. So how about dropping all that and just letting things be as they are?

Sometimes a Burrito is Just a Burrito
You may still hate the burritos that are served every two weeks, like clockwork; you may still hate the film that was chosen by the group for movie night. You may hate the schedule, and feel a burning resentment at being coerced out of your warm bed and into the cold meditation hall at 6 a.m. for the first practice session of the day. But after a while you start to glimpse that your personal preferences are just that: they're just your personal preferences. You begin to see that you are enslaved to them, and they make you miserable because you take them so seriously and believe it's your job to satisfy them all the time. The less seriously you take them — that is, the more you stop whining and get with the program — the less miserable you make yourself and those around you. You begin to taste the freedom that comes from not blindly following your own patterns and urges.

Maybe you discover that the burrito is not the dramatic culinary insult that you have made it out to be. It's just food, after all, and you could actually do something completely contrary to habit, like choose to eat the burrito anyway, without throwing a temper tantrum because it's not what you like. In doing so, you may even experience a faint glimmer of gratitude that, unlike so many other people in the world, you have a burrito to eat in the first place. What's that, you say? A burrito isn't what you wanted? So what? Who said life was supposed to give you everything you want all the time?

Choicelessness in Everyday Life
You don't have to go to the extremes of shaving your head and living like a monk or a nun to work with the practice of choicelessness. You can experiment with it in your everyday life. Take one small opportunity each day to notice when your ego is trying to manipulate a situation to get your way — and when you notice that, just see if you can drop it. If there's a discussion between you and your partner or your friends about what to do on a Friday night, make a conscious decision to drop your personal agenda and just do what they want to do instead. Watch your ego kicking and screaming like a brat as you eat the burrito. Eat it anyway. It's food. What's the big deal? Notice, afterwards, how your whole world did not, in fact, come crashing down as your ego predicted it would.

The spiritual path is about learning to recognize and peel away the layers of our individual ego — with all its demands and distortions, its likes and dislikes — in order to uncover the egoless, undifferentiated Being that is our true nature. As long as we are caught up in the lifelong momentum of trying to satisfy our ego's preferences and keep ego happy, it will be hard to make much progress at peeling away those layers. The practice of choicelessness is a tool that helps us, moment by moment, drop down through the onion, one layer at a time.

It's a lifelong practice, and I'm not sure that anybody really gets it perfect. But the more you can drop your mind's struggles to acquire what you like and push away what you dislike, the more possible it becomes to glimpse the truth and to find a more abiding form of contentment.

Seng-ts'an, one of the forefathers of Zen Buddhism, put it like this:

The Great Way is not difficult for those who have no preferences. When love and hate are both absent everything becomes clear and undisguised. Make the smallest distinction, however, and heaven and earth are set infinitely apart. If you wish to see the truth then hold no opinion for or against. The struggle of what one likes and what one dislikes is the disease of the mind.

You are cordially invited to get over yourself — starting right now.


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