Read an Excerpt
Chapter 8: About Ego
The difficulty in our relationships is that we don't see our mutual images as transparent projections, but take them personally as truth and thus keep smarting in their wake.
Can we start with distrusting ideas about others and ourselves the next time we feel their oppressive weight? Statements like "I'm not good at this" or "I'm too good for this" or "People don't like me—they don't talk well about me" can be questioned for their validity. "How do I know that this is true?" Questioning not only the relevance of such statements but also the soundness of the emotions and tensions that grow out of labeling each other "good" or "bad." Can we look and listen inwardly to track down this "me," this "I," every time it makes itself painfully or pleasantly felt? What is it really?
New space creates itself out of genuine curiosity, serious questioning. What is this "me" that seems so much at the center of our stories—creating conflicts, suffering, unfulfilled wanting, pleasures, and a sense of insufficiency resonating deeply within us?
Does everybody know and experience feelings of insufficiency? Very likely we all do. We are born as helpless, vulnerable creatures. Though the newborn baby is amazingly whole and complete, it can't fend for itself, and it does not "know" about itself. It's totally at the mercy of other people's feedback, gathering and embodying in a growing sense of personality ("me"-ness) whatever judgments, descriptions, and labels have been given it by others: "You're a good baby," "You're a bad boy," "You're so cute," "You are smart, talented, clumsy, lazy, angry, bright, dull." These verbal attributes build up a construct of "self" in the brain that causes alternating pleasure, pain, sorrow, and infatuated attachment. We are deeply convinced that we actually are these different images, aren't we?
But we are also free to question the validity of self-images. If it becomes increasingly transparent how much they dominate our thinking and reacting, space may open up to actually see them and see through them as sheer imagery bare of reality. Then the question arises naturally: Is that what I am—a buildup of images, stories—or is there something true to this "me" other than projection upon projection?
Last night during group dialogue, somebody reported feeling painfully rejected when her husband didn't happily accept the leftover soup she had offered him for supper. He just said, "I'll cook for myself." Hearing this as a participant in someone else's story, we may think, "What an unkind response!" We will remember our own experiences of "rejection" and sympathize with the person, entering into someone else's story like stepping onto slippery ice.
But first let's wonder for a moment if it is really an insult to be refused an offer of leftovers with the comment, "I'll cook for myself." Is it inevitable that one would feel rejected and hurt by that remark, with all that goes with feeling hurt? How easy living would be if we stayed off that slippery ice of vulnerable self-images!
Reactions of hurt arise from habit. There is also the tacit assumption that we ought to feel rejected and ought to show our hurt to the "offender." Then things either run their course through pouting or hurting back, or the whole reaction can be seen at one glance, with the liberating question "Does it really have to keep on going that way?"
The difficulty in our relationships is that we don't see our mutual images as transparent projections, but take them personally as truth and thus keep smarting in their wake: "That person doesn't appreciate me; she is moody and I can't deal with moody people. I've got to stay away from her and talk to others to find out whether they agree with me about her." We attribute things to others and to ourselves that may not be accurate at all.
No need to make matters complicated. Just to keep open the simple question whether one needs to fee rejected, or whether one can see a situation factually the way it is: "He doesn't want me to fix him leftover soup but rather wants to cook for himself." That's clear. Finished.
There is tremendous investment in this "I," the center of the story, longing for gratitude and love. This person herself admitted after a moment of reflection, "I was probably not intending kindness toward him at all. I was doing it for myself. Yet I wanted to be seen as a nice, thoughtful, helpful wife." Then what happens when our desire to be seen as kind and thoughtful falls flat?
Can we let go of the expectation of gratitude? How quickly can it drop? It takes a flexible, "seeing" mind to let go of a story about "me," the victim. Story making is one of the most favorite occupations of the brain, but it needn't become emotionally entangling. Awareness need not be clouded by emotional reactions. When self-centered (emotional) stuff is left out of the picture, our relationships become easier and lighter.
All of us walk around wrapped in all kinds of changing moods that are woven out of thinking about "who knows what about me." Just like the weather that doesn't have much stability, our moods change all the time depending on whether we assume people are thinking well of us or not. Recollecting that someone disliked me creates an immediate mental burden, just as remembering someone's approving remarks or smile frees up the burden.
Can we live around a person who is temporarily under the cloud of moodiness and not take it personally? Without getting annoyed by it? Or do thoughts immediately start spinning: "He should not talk like that, not treat me that way. It clearly shows that he doesn't like me." "I'm not worthy of being loved." Just see all these ideas stirring around like drifting clouds. Why take them personally? Just let them be seen the way they are drifting in this moment. Can we agree that taking it easier with our temporary moods makes them dissipate faster? They need not be justified or defended! We help each other greatly by accepting each other's moodiness, letting it be a passing mind-state that we know we're all burdened with at one time or another. When the sun appears from behind the cloud cover, how liberating is the effect upon our moods!