There is a wonderful article in the Dec. 23-30 issue of America magazine by Ruth Burrows titled Lose Yourself. In it, Burrows talks about Jesus’ “insistence on the necessity of becoming as little as a little child in order to enter into the kingdom of God.” She suggests that to understand what Jesus means, we need to appreciate that when Jesus talks about the kingdom of heaven, he is not talking about something that awaits us when we die. Rather, he is talking about the now. And that has implications. She writes:
“Our God reigns! Our God reigns,” we sing lustily enough, but does he? Does God reign fully in his Christian people? Does God reign in our hearts, every day, every hour of the day in every circumstance? To acknowledge God as king, to enthrone God in our hearts means accepting to be spiritually helpless, to be little, unimportant, totally dependent. It is to dethrone the ego. To become as a little child has everything to do with the first and greatest commandment: “You shall love the Lord your God, with your whole heart, with your whole soul and with your whole strength…and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
“I believe in one God,” we say in the Nicene Creed. But in every human heart without exception, God has a rival in the ego. No one can serve two gods at one time. Jesus tells us that it is impossible to see the kingdom, let alone receive or enter it, without a radical renunciation of our natural self-possession and instinctive self-glorification. Given the world as it is, given the way we are, God’s kingdom cannot come without renunciation and suffering.
What came to mind when I read this was the passage in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke where Jesus says that one cannot serve God and mammon. Some people like to translate “mammon” as material wealth or greed. That lets us off the hook far too easily. Much more challenging is to understand that Jesus is telling us that we cannot serve both God and our own ego. It is not just about giving up attachment to material possessions, but surrendering self-interest, giving up attachment to the small egoic self. In this, as in so many ways, Jesus is the model for doing precisely that.
You can read the entirety of the Burrows article here.
One of the wonderful by-products of extended periods of retreat is increased mindfulness. Almost a month after my annual 8-day silent retreat, I still experience the fruits of the extended period of meditation and prayer.
What that means, as a practical matter, is that I can see earlier than I might otherwise the ego arising to take over my reaction and response to situations.
This evening I was having a conversation with my husband about something that was causing great discord in me. I could see, as I was talking with him, how my reaction and response to the issue was shaped by the sense of my ego being bruised by the way someone was (indirectly) treating me.
I’m not going to say that I was sufficiently mindful to completely avoid being carried away by the emotion of the moment. But I could as I said earlier than I otherwise would have, see what was happening. Once I could see that, I could take a deep breath – OK a few deep breaths – and (admittedly with the help of my husband’s counsel) think about strategies that might alleviate the discord in an authentic way.
Things will arise that threaten our ego in various ways. The issue is how we will respond. And how we respond is very much affected by the level of mindfulness we bring to situations.
We all need to find ways to become more mindful, not just of what is going on around us, but by what is happening with us, moment by moment.
No matter how seriously we are committed to a spiritual path, our ego gets in the way sometimes. Our concern with building up our ego can cause us to envy the accomplishments of others rather than rejoice in them and it can put our focus (consciously or unconsciously) on making ourselves look good or important.
This is nothing new – Jesus’ disciples were no different from us in this regard. In today’s Gospel from St. Luke, we find the disciples arguing “about which of them was the greatest.” Then they complain to Jesus that there are others who are doing things in His name who are not part of their group.
What we forget at times, and what the disciples forgot at times, is that it is not about us. It is about accomplishing the task to which we have been appointed by Jesus. It is about furthering God’s plan of salvation, a plan in which each of us has a unique and necessary role.
When we remember that it is about God and God’s plan and not about us, it is a lot easier to understand that what matters is that the plan be fulfilled, not that we have a bigger role than others. When we remember it is about God and God’s plan and not about us, we can rejoice in others’ efforts to further the fulfillment of that plan rather than being envious.
We all can use a reminder now and then to keep our focus on God’s plan and God’s glory and not our own.
There is value in developing a consciousness of the things that set off our egoic reactions. For me, one of the big triggers is someone appearing to question my competence. It tends to set off an immediate reaction – I feel the indignation arise, often way out of proportion to the incident, which may be very minor.
Yesterday I got an e-mail from my dean, with whom I am meeting later today for my annual evaluation. The e-mail said that he could not locate a copy of my annual report and asked if I had yet sent it. If so, could I resend it; if not, he suggested it would be helpful to receive it before our scheduled meeting. Pretty innocuous e-mail…no reprimand or annoyance expressed in it…implicitly but clearly acknowledged that he might have received it and misplaced it. Yet my first reaction was one of annoyance and indignation. In my mind swirled various thoughts around the idea of: “I sent the report in over a month ago. How could he think I would not have submitted it in a timely fashion? I don’t miss deadlines. I always do things like this promptly. I’m never late.” Etc., etc. And I could feel the swirl of negative feelings around the thoughts.
Of course, as soon as I became aware of what was going on, I realized how silly it was and the negative feelings dissipated. The key of course is being aware – not getting completely caught up in the ego, but being able to step back and observe the thoughts and feelings. The idea is not to try to actively do anything to stop them, but simply to observe without judgement. If we can do that, the negative feelings lose their power and dissipate. And I think developing a consciousness of the things that have the greatest tendency to set off these reactions in us is helpful to being able to not get caught up in them.
To be sure, this is not always easy. But it is hard to have the peace of which Jesus and the New Testment writers speak if we can’t let go of our egoic reactions. If we can’t step back, there will always be something preventing our minds and hearts from being at peace.
I’m currently reading Eckhart Tolle’s A New Earth. One of the things Tolle talks about is the ego’s need to be right. He distinguishes between a simple statement of fact and identification with a particular position. Thus, to use his example, if I say “Light travels faster than sound,” I am making a factual statement. Someone may disagree with it, and they would be incorrect in doing so. But simply stating what I know to be true does not necessarily involve the ego.
However, Tolle points out, identification with mind and a mental postiion can easily arise. “If you find yourself saying, ‘Believe me, I know’ or ‘Why do yoiu never believe me?’ then the ego has already crept in. It is hiding in the little word ‘me.’ A simple statement, ‘Light is faster than sound,’ although true, is now in the service of illusion, of ego. It has become…personalized, turned into a mental position. The ‘I’ feels diminished or offended becuase somebody doesn’t believe what ‘I’ said.” What results is defensiveness, anger, agression.
Perhaps I react so strongly to reading this because I see the reaction often in myself. It drives me crazy when I know I’m right about something and someone doesn’t accept “my rightness.” Indeed, I experienced this just last evening. My husband and I were driving my daughter to a party at a friend’s house that we had never been to before. He was driving and I had the mapquest directions and map. We hit an intersection where it was obvious to me were supposed to turn right. My husband was convinced we need to go straight, so he went straight, ignoring my instruction. Ultimately I persuaded him that we were on the wrong road and we turned around and found our way to where we needed to drop my daughter off (exactly where I had said we should go).
I sat silently, seething inside. What was going through my mind was precisely, “You never think I’m right when it comes to directions. I knew the way to go and you didn’t believe me.” I felt, in Tolle’s words, “diminished…offended” that he didn’t believe what I said.
My reaction had nothing to do with the truth and everything to do with the ego. And so I sat for a while feeling angry. Fortunately, I could see what I was doing and was able to let go: I looked ahead on the road and saw a brightly colored pair of boxer shorts directly in our path. As we drove over them, I saw in a flash two options – continuing to fume silently or making some joking comment about running over the boxing shorts. I chose the latter and left the defensiveness behind.