Friday, July 26, 2013

Taking Yourself Too Seriously

the moon rises over my desert retreat house

Recently I had a conversation with a young man who was going through a "bad patch" in his life. He was feeling somewhat depressed and listless.  His career was going nowhere, his personal life was stagnant. I asked him if he was in touch with "why" he was so "stuck in a rut. He replied, "I know what my problem is: my whole life is all about me - me - me." That young man "hit the nail on the head." He is well on his way to climbing out of that rut.  

The Buddha taught that we suffer when we cling to the ego. Jesus taught that we find the "true self" when we let go of the ego. This teaching is not some abstract ideal, but rather a practical prescription  for leading a meaningful life.

People with big egos always take themselves too seriously. They gaze only at themselves and think that their problems are enormous, far greater than anyone else's. They imagine that everyone else is always thinking about them, talking about them, or evaluating them. They imagine themselves as being very important. They take themselves very seriously.

But of course none of this is true. Every one of us has troubles, and the pain of others is just as great if not greater than our own. We are hardly even thought of or talked about by most people. None of us is an "important" person. 

When the focus of my life is "me-me-me," I will indeed always suffer. I will be stuck in a hole with only "me" to keep me company. 

A few nights ago, I was sitting outdoors when suddenly I looked up to see an incredibly brilliant moon rise up into the desert skies. It was breathtaking and it reminded me of something I had read earlier that day by the British adventurer, T.E. Lawrence, describing his experience of the desert at night under the crystal clear skies.
We were stained by dew,
and shamed into pettiness by the innumerable silences of stars

Many things thrive in the desert. The ego doesn't grow so well. The desert is too vast, too awesome, too brilliant for any one single individual to honestly believe that he or she is the center of it all. The desert is a place to find the freedom of dying to self so that you can find your "self."

The 4th century desert Mothers and Fathers had learned this lesson of the desert. They moved out of the cities, into the vast wilderness, committed to following the teaching of Jesus, who taught that you find your self when you lose your ego.  Their everyday lives were planted in the vastness of the desert space; and they were lost in the silences of the stars - their egos "shamed into pettiness."

Over time the people in the cities began to think of these desert monks as gurus, exceptionally holy men and women. Spiritual groupies would travel out to the desert caves of the monks to honor them and seek advice of these "important" people.  But the monks knew that they had found their freedom by not taking themselves too seriously, and they refused to let others hold them in such high esteem. In fact they were often playful in showing just how unimportant they were:

Abba Simon, when warned that admirers were coming into the desert to seek his blessing, would invariably sit in front of his cell, stuffing himself with bread and cheese, or climb into a nearby palm tree, polishing its branches for all he was worth. The visitors would then look with disdain on the glutton gorging himself with food, or gaze up at the fool hanging unceremoniously from the tree, and wonder where the great Abba Simon had gone.

 I live in a desert. It is teaching me not to take myself too seriously.

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