"We can spend
many years getting better at the struggle of life, but we find peace much
faster through a daily practice of acceptance and humbling our egos."
Monks, and the Dishes
-Katie Read, MFT
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the human ego. Not ego as in someone who brags a lot, but
ego as in the force that runs our lives from the background and is always
ensuring we get our way, get the last word, feel right or safe or justified or
anything else we need.
Much of therapy—and almost all of self-help—teaches the ego
to get better at its job. We learn
better skills for handling challenges, finding comfort, and getting our needs
met. This is good and important work,
but it lacks a spiritual secret. You
see, I might get better at getting my needs met, but even this implies that I’m
still in the struggle. I can become the
queen of, “I feel…when you…” statements, but I’m still dependent on your
response, desperate for you to stay the right thing.
So what’s the spiritual secret?
Well, think about the last argument
you had with a friend or family member.
Remember it? Ok, now picture a
Buddhist monk taking your place in that argument.
Hard to do, right?
Can’t exactly picture the monk yelling back at your spouse that it was
his turn to do the dishes?
Now, monks are not super-humans, but they are people who
have cultivated a quality that quiets
the ego. Doesn’t help its quest for world domination…but instead quiets
And yes, they go and live in seclusion on mountaintops
because maintaining this state, in the daily world, is very very hard. But we can
quiet the ego, with conscious attention and daily practice.
And when this becomes
the goal—to step out of the battle,
rather than fighting
So, what is one effective way to quiet your own ego?
It begins with a deep commitment to accepting life on life’s
terms: the good, bad, and ugly. And it
requires a daily practice of working gently against your ego’s belief that it
is always right. If my ego is right,
then yours is wrong, so I’m not truly accepting life, or our differences. I’m still struggling—whether with you in
reality or in my own head.
How do I undercut my ego’s conviction that it’s always
right? By looking for my part, my fault,
in every situation that upsets my, and making true efforts to change.
When I am angry, fearful, hurt, left out, or any number of
negative emotions, my first impetus is to blame someone else, wallow in
self-pity, and brood over how to respond to get things back the way I want
them. These ego impulses can take up
plenty of head space, even if I don’t act on them.
And what if I changed the game? What if, instead, I looked really hard at how
I contributed to someone hurting or angering me? Maybe I realize that my tone of voice
triggered the argument, or that I had been inconsiderate in the past, much as
they were being now. Whatever it is, I
boldly look for the truest truth I can find.
Because once I find that truth, your actions become much easier to
understand and accept. Once I see that I’m not pearly-white, I can accept both
of our shortcomings, my ego comes back to right-size, and I can respond more
like the monk in the dishes argument.
From here, the job is not to linger on the idea that we’re
terrible: only that we’re normal and flawed like everyone else.
We can only clean our own front yard, so that’s what we do
next. Humbling our egos, we correct our
behavior, or apologize for our part of the disagreement, not needing to remind
the other person that they have responsibility, too. Of course they do, but we can’t control them,
so we work with what we can actually change—ourselves.
When we commit to this as daily practice of both humility
and acceptance, interesting things happen. Relationships clear up. We sleep better, no longer lying awake angry
at someone, or quietly guilty over anything.
That noisy ego, with less to defend, begins to calm. It spends less time plotting and planning
what we will say or do tomorrow. It never
leaves, but it moves over. And when you’re hurt or threatened the trusty ego
sweeps back in to protect you, but it doesn’t own you anymore: you can let it
recede again, anytime.
And you don’t even have to move to a mountaintop! So next time you’re stewing on something,
remember the monk. You’ve got him
inside, anytime you want.
Labels: Acceptance, Ego, Katie Read, Mindfulness, Personal Responsibility