Monday, September 9, 2013

"To thine own self be true"

At a recent Sunday Service the subject was ego transcendence. Much is made in religion and the spiritual path of the need to rise above the demands of the ego to realize one's divine birthright as a child of God. This idea is expressed in many different ways by great spiritual teachers and representatives of orthodox faith.

My interest is not the philosophical idea but the process of attaining the goal of God-realization (or, Self-realization). Paramhansa Yogananda defined "ego" as the "soul identified with the body." A pithy definition, to be sure, but it is a workable one, ripe with introspective fruit.

No one ego can ever be fully secure. Not only is there the inexorable fact of mortality, but there's injury, illness, and innumerable threats to one's person, reputation, financial security, marital, family and job stability, and on and on. Even when, for a time, a person can be on top of the world, oblivious of these nearby shadows, there's something deeper, even sinister that lurks around the fringe of one's self-assertive confidence: an existential incompleteness; "Something's not right. Why am I nervous about, well, nothing? Or, maybe, everything?" Most people don't even try to live in a false bubble of self-confidence.

I have lived in intentional community for most of my adult life, over thirty years, anyway! I have taught hundreds of students meditation and yogic philosophy. I have counseled and talked more deeply (than just about the weather and sports) with countless sincere and intelligent people.

My sense of people, including myself, is that most intelligent, self-aware, sincere and energetic people find themselves all too often on the short end of the sensitivity stick. The spiritual path, especially the inner path of meditation, will expand our sympathies and awareness of subtler things (like the thoughts and vibrations of others). In so doing, however, it can make us vulnerable, if not to others, then, at least to becoming self-preoccupied about what others think of us or about how slow (or worse) is our spiritual progress---all too often in comparison (we believe) with others (who invariably seem to be progressing farther and faster than we!).

In a talk given by my teacher, Swami Kriyananda (1926-2013), he stated that "Self-acceptance is the first step towards ego transcendence." This is an interesting and fertile statement to ponder. One of the things I've admired and appreciated about S.K. is his transparency: his almost child-like willingness to be wrong, to share what he feels, and, in general, to simply be himself!

Living all these years in spiritual community and being blessed by so many souls deeply centered in God I observe that far from becoming an indistinguishable "nothing" the soul's emergence produces vigor, vitality and a unique individuality that is transparently genuine---so unlike the imitative caricature that most worldly "characters" assume or affirm.

What I am describing is no less the question of "What does it mean to 'love yourself'?" While I prefer to couch this in terms of self-acceptance (it seems somehow more objective than self-love), I doubt there's any real difference.

The example I gave in my recent talk goes like this: if you go to a shopping mall (perhaps one that is unfamiliar to you), and you are looking for a specific store, you must first find where in the center that store is located, and then you must find "You Are Here!" We must always know where we are in order to know how to get to where you want to go! This, in my view, is "self-acceptance."

Thus self-acceptance is therefore not an embracing of all our foibles and faults and pretending "I'm good." Rather, its the acknowledgement of where I am. Paramhansa Yogananda, the now well respected world teacher of yoga and author of "Autobiography of a Yogi," used to give his students a self-assessment psychological inventory to complete. (I doubt the students handed it in to him!)

In this way, we begin the habit of objectivity in our introspection. Ruthless self-honesty is, I believe, a prerequisite to spiritual growth. This does not mean we necessarily parade our yaw-yaws in front of every "Tom, Dick or Harry" ("Sue, Sally or Molly"). How often I've seen devotees disguise their desires with well-meaning platitudes and scriptural quotations. "I feel God wants me to ............ "

One arena of human life where we can readily test our resolve in the direction of self-acceptance and self-honesty is that of criticism. I've been told that I "never" say "I'm sorry." (I'm practicing it by typing it.) Criticism is a funny business because much of the time we only imagine that we heard even but a hint of criticism. Follow the banter in people's conversation and look for the hints of self-protective, self-justifications. Self-justification is like an acid that corrodes the sharp spiritual edge of introspection.

If, however, in fact, you are criticized directly and in person, you might tentatively say, "Perhaps you are right." Then, consider whether there's any merit. Do what you can to rectify an error or to change your behavior, including to make amends, if appropriate. Be willing to thank the other person, even a self-styled detractor, for pointing out something that needs correcting. If, as sincerely as you are able, you can find no cause for the critique, then say, then, let it go.

Now there are some situations where there are principles at stake or a larger issue at stake and you might need to defend the shared goal or principle, but that's a different matter than defending yourself.  Spiritually speaking, defending yourself is, well, very, very tricky territory. (If in attacking me, a person is attacking Ananda which I represent, then I might defend Ananda and to some extent, therefore, myself, but this must always be secondary. Yogananda was assailed by lawsuits and slander and he would defend himself in the name of defending the work he represented.)

At night before bed, pick out the fleas and burrs of attachment and self-definitions based on upbringing, social status, gender, age etc. etc. and flick them into the fire of wisdom: Tat twam asi: Thou art THAT I AM!

Blessings, I AM your very SELF,