EGO: Catch Me If You Can

 


CHAPTER - 8

EGO


Catch Me If You Can

They are forever free who renounce all selfish desires and break away from the ego cage of “I,” “me,” and “mine”

—Bhagavad Gita, 2:71

The Sanskrit word vinayam means “humility” or “modesty.” When we are humble, we are open to learning because we understand how much we don’t know. It follows that the biggest obstacle to learning is being a know-it-all. This false self-confidence is rooted in the ego.


The Bhagavad Gita draws a distinction between the ego and the false ego. The real ego is our very essence—the consciousness that makes us aware and awake to reality. The false ego is an identity crafted to preserve our sense of being the most significant, the most important, the one who knows everything. When you trust the false ego to protect you, it’s like wearing armor that you thought was made of steel but is actually made of paper. You march onto the battlefield, confident that it will protect you but are easily wounded with a butter knife. The Sama Veda says, “Pride of wealth destroys wealth, pride of strength destroys strength and in the same manner pride of knowledge destroys knowledge.”

THE EGO IS A MASK

An unchecked ego harms us. In our eagerness to present ourselves as the greatest and smartest, we hide our true natures. I’ve mentioned the persona that we present to the world. It is a complex stew of who we are, who we want to be, how we hope to be seen (as discussed in Chapter One), and what we are feeling in any given moment. We are a certain person at home, alone, but we present the world with another version of ourselves. Ideally, the only difference between the two is that our public persona is working harder to be considerate, attentive, and generous. But sometimes our egos intrude. Insecurities make us want to convince ourselves and everyone else that we’re special, so we contrive a dishonest version of ourselves in order to appear more knowledgeable, more accomplished, more confident. We present this inflated self to others, and we do everything we can to protect it: the self we want others to perceive. Fourth-century monk Evagrius Ponticus (also called Evagrius the Solitary, because sometimes monks get cool nicknames) wrote that pride is “the cause of the most damaging fall for the soul.”


Vanity and ego go hand in hand. We put enormous effort into polishing the appearance of the self we present to the world. When we dress and groom for ourselves, it is because we want to feel comfortable and appropriate (easily achieved through a daily “uniform”) and even because we appreciate the color or style of certain clothes. But the ego wants more—it wants us to get attention for how we look, a big reaction, praise. It finds confidence and joy in impressing others. There is a meme that shows Warren Buffett and Bill Gates standing side by side. The caption reads, “$162 Billion in one photo and not a Gucci belt in sight.” I have nothing against Gucci belts, but the point is that if you are satisfied with who you are, you don’t need to prove your worth to anyone else.


To contemplate the difference between yourself and your persona, think about the choices you make when you’re alone, when there’s nobody to judge you and nobody you’re trying to impress. Only you know whether you choose to meditate or watch Netflix, to take a nap or go for a run, to wear sweatpants or designer threads. Only you know whether you eat a salad or a column of Girl Scout cookies. Reflect on the you who emerges when nobody else is around, no one to impress, no one with something to offer you. That is a glimpse into who you truly are. As the aphorism goes, “You are who you are when no one is watching.”

THE EGO MAKES US LIARS

Sometimes the ego works so hard to impress others that it does more than hype itself. It drives us to lie, and, counterproductively, all that effort only ends up making us look bad. For one of Jimmy Kimmel’s “Lie Witness News” interviews with random people on the street, he sent a camera crew to Coachella to ask people walking into the venue what they thought of some completely fictitious bands. The interviewer says to two young women, “One of my favorite bands this year is Dr. Schlomo and the GI Clinic.”


“Yeah they’re always amazing,” says one of the women.

“Yeah, I’m really excited to see them live,” the other adds. “I think that’s going to be one of the bands that’s going to be really great live.”

“Did you see them when they played at Lollapalooza?”

“No, I didn’t. I’m so mad.”

Then she asks a group of three, “Are you guys as excited as I am about the Obesity Epidemic?”


One of the guys responds enthusiastically, “I just like their whole style, like their whole genre is great. They’re kind of like innovative and they’re new.”


The ego craves recognition, acknowledgment, praise; to be right, to be more, to put others down, to raise us up. The ego doesn’t want to be better. It wants to be seen as better. When we bluff our way through life, pretending to be who we are not, we end up looking worse than we truly are.


The story of Frank Abagnale Jr., told in his memoir Catch Me If You Can and the movie of the same name, is a spot-on example of the false ego in play. Abagnale was a talented con man, forging and acting his way into jobs as an airplane pilot and a surgeon, jobs he hadn’t earned and couldn’t perform. Wrapped up in his ego, he used his natural abilities for low, selfish purposes, and lost himself. But after he was released from prison, he used the same skills and talents to lead an honest life as a security consultant. Real ego—a healthy self-image—comes from acting out your dharma for the highest purposes. Presumably his stint in prison gave him time for reflection and humility, and he found his way to a higher purpose.

THE EGO CREATES FALSE HIERARCHIES

Building a facade of confidence and knowledge isn’t the only strategy the false ego uses to convince itself and everyone else that it’s great. It also goes to great lengths to put other people down—because if others are “less than” we are, then we must be special. Our egos accomplish this by ranking ourselves and other people based on physical attributes, education, net worth, race, religion, ethnicity, nationality, the cars we drive, the clothes we wear—we find countless ways to judge others unfavorably just because they’re different.


Imagine if we segregated people based on what toothpaste they used. That divide is clearly ridiculous. Discriminating based on elements of our bodies or where we were born is an equally false divide. Why should skin color matter more than blood type? We all come from the same cells. The Dalai Lama says, “Under the bright sun, many of us are gathered together with different languages, different styles of dress, even different faiths. However, all of us are the same in being humans, and we all uniquely have the thought of ‘I’ and we’re all the same in wanting happiness and in wanting to avoid suffering.”


In Chapter Five we talked about misappropriation of the varnas in India’s caste system. The idea that Brahmins, determined by birth, are superior to others and therefore should have senior positions in government is an ego-driven interpretation of the varnas. The humble sage values every creature equally. This is why monks don’t eat animals. According to the Gita, “Perfect yogis are they who, by comparison to their own self, see the true equality of all beings, in both their happiness and their distress.”


When success goes to our heads, we forget that everyone is equal. No matter who you are or what you’ve achieved, notice if you are expecting or demanding special treatment because of your presumed status. Nobody deserves a better seat in the theater of life. You might wait in line for hours the night before the tickets go on sale, pay more for a closer seat, or be given a better view out of gratitude for your support of the theater. Or you might simply hope for a better seat as most of us do. But if you feel like you are entitled to better, dig into that feeling. What makes you better than the other audience members? The arrogant ego desires respect, whereas the humble worker inspires respect.


I often wonder what it would take for all of us to see each other as citizens of the world. I shot a couple of videos for the Ad Council as part of a public service campaign called “Love Has No Labels.” In Orlando I spoke to people about the aftermath of the Pulse nightclub shooting and heard stories from diverse members of the communities about how they came together in the aftermath of this tragedy. I met with Reverend Terri Steed Pierce, from a church near Pulse with many LGBTQ+ congregants, and Pastor Joel Hunter, whose congregation is mostly white and straight. In the aftermath of the tragedy, they worked together and became friends. “Somebody will find hope merely because we’re having the conversation,” Reverend Pierce said, and Dr. Hunter added, “And that is the bottom line of what will change the future.” As Reverend Pierce put it, they are “two very like-minded people that want to make a difference in the world.”


The question this beautiful friendship evokes is: Why does it take a tragedy for us to come together? Our ego sets us on a path where we put more value on ourselves and those whom we recognize as being “like us.” Why is it that we walk this path until a bulldozer plows through it? Presuming equality keeps the ego in check. Whenever you think someone’s status or worth is less than yours, turn your gaze back toward yourself and look for why your ego feels threatened. It is core to monks to treat everyone with equal honor and respect.

JUDGMENT

Even without segregating, outwardly ranking ourselves, or excluding others, we attempt to elevate ourselves by judging others, including our colleagues, friends, and family. There’s a Zen story about four monks who together decide to meditate in complete silence for seven days and nights. The first day goes well, but as evening approaches, the first monk grows impatient because the monk whose job it was to light the lamps is still sitting, motionless. Finally, the first monk erupts, “Friend! Light the lamps, already!”


The second monk turns to him. “You broke the silence!” he exclaims.

The third monk jumps in, “Fools! Now you have both broken the silence!”

The fourth looks at his companions, a proud smile creeping across his face. “Well, well, well,” he boasts, “Looks like I’m the only one who has remained silent.”


Every monk in this story reprimanded another monk for speaking and, in so doing, became guilty of that same sin himself. That is the nature of judgment: It almost always backfires on us in one way or another. In the act of criticizing others for failing to live up to higher standards, we ourselves are failing to live up to the highest standards.


In many cases, we’re passing judgment to deflect others’ attention or our own from shortcomings we see in ourselves. “Projection” is the psychological term for our tendency to project onto others emotions or feelings that we don’t wish to deal with ourselves. And projection happens a lot! So, before judging others, pause for a moment and ask: Am I finding fault in order to distract myself or others from my own insecurities? Am I projecting my own weakness onto them? And even if I’m doing neither of those things, am I any better than the person I’m criticizing? I can’t say what the answers to the first two questions will be in every case. But the answer to the third question is always “No!”

THE EGO IS AN OBSTACLE TO GROWTH

All of this artifice leaves us in ignorance. Like Frank Abagnale, who didn’t make the effort to actually qualify as a pilot or a doctor, our efforts to construct an impressive facade distract us from learning and growing. Even those of us who aren’t con artists miss out. When you’re sitting in a group of people, waiting for someone to finish talking so you can tell your fabulous story or make a witty comment, you’re not absorbing the essence of what’s being said. Your ego is champing at the bit, ready to show how clever and interesting you are.


In our desire to show ourselves and others that we know it all, we jump to conclusions, fail to listen to our friends, and miss potentially valuable new perspectives. And once we’ve got a point of view, we’re unlikely to change it. In her popular TED Talk, “Why You Think You’re Right Even When You’re Wrong,” Julia Galef, host of the podcast Rationally Speaking, calls that rigidity “soldier mindset.” A soldier’s job is to protect and defend their side. Conversely, there’s the “scout mindset.” Galef says, “Scout mindset means seeing what’s there as accurately as you can, even if it’s not pleasant.” Soldiers have already signed on to a cause, so they value continuity. Scouts are investigating their options, so they value truth. Soldier mindset is rooted in defensiveness and tribalism; scout mindset is rooted in curiosity and intrigue. Soldiers value being on the right side; scouts value being objective. Galef says whether we’re a soldier or a scout has less to do with our level of intelligence or education and more to do with our attitude about life.


Are we ashamed or grateful when we discover we were wrong about something? Are we defensive or intrigued when we find information that contradicts something we believe? If we aren’t open-minded, we deny ourselves opportunities to learn, grow, and change.

INSTITUTIONAL EGO

It isn’t just individuals whose egos limit their perspectives. Governments, schools, and organizations—under close-minded leadership—fail to look beyond what they know and end up constructing an ego-driven culture. Elected officials fight for their constituents and/or donors, without concern for the world beyond their supporters and those who will come after we all have gone. Textbooks tell history from the perspective of the winners. Organizations get trapped in business-as-usual mindsets, without responding to changes around them. When Reed Hastings, the cofounder of Netflix, offered to sell a 49 percent stake in the company to Blockbuster in 2000, he was turned down. Ten years later Blockbuster went bankrupt, and today Netflix is worth at least $100 billion. There is danger in the words “We’ve always done it this way,” or “I already know that.”


The Blockbuster/Netflix story is well known in the tech world, so when I told it to around seventy marketing directors at a conference, I asked them, “How many of you, when I shared this, felt you already knew what I was going to say?” About half of them raised their hands, and I told them that the conviction that they already knew what they needed to know was exactly the problem that these companies had. When you presume knowledge, you put up a barrier that nothing can cross, and miss out on a potential learning opportunity. What if there was an extra piece of that story? (This point itself was the extra piece.) You can write off the familiar, or you can use it as a deeper reflection point. Even if you think you already know a story, try to live it as a new experience every time.


Nan-in, a Zen master, received a university professor who had come to inquire about Zen. When Nan-in served tea, he poured his visitor’s cup full, and then kept on pouring. The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself. “It is overfull. No more will go in!”


“Like this cup,” Nan-in said, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?” You can only be filled up with knowledge and rewarding experiences if you allow yourself to be empty.

THE EGO ISOLATES US

When a Roman general returned from victorious battles, it is said that it was customary to have a slave stand behind him whispering “Remember you are a man” in his ear. No matter how well he had done and how lauded he was for his leadership, he was still a man, like all other men. If you’re at the top of your game, beware. Ego isolates you. Don’t live in a world where you start thinking you’re so special that one person is worth your time and another isn’t.


In an interview, Robert Downey Jr., offered a modern version of the same wisdom. When he’s at home, he isn’t Iron Man. He said, “When I walk into my house people aren’t like, ‘Whoa!’ Susan’s like, ‘Did you let Monty out? Did you let the cat out?’ I’m like, ‘I don’t know.’ She’s like, ‘I don’t think he’s in the house—go look for him.’ ” This is a reminder to him (and to us) that even a movie star is just a person in their own home. If you believe you’re Iron Man, it should be because you can actually do what Iron Man does. If you inspire special treatment, it is because people appreciate you, but when you demand or feel entitled to it, you are looking for respect that you haven’t earned.

THE DOUBLE-EDGED EGO

The false self that builds us up, just as easily tears us down. When our weaknesses are exposed, the ego that once told us we were brilliant and successful has no defense. Without our personas, our lies, our prejudices, we are nothing, as Frank Abagnale must have felt when he was arrested. Egotism often masks, then transforms into, low self-esteem. In both circumstances, we are too wrapped up in ourselves and how others perceive us.


You can only keep up the myth of your own importance for so long. If you don’t break your ego, life will break it for you.


I’ve been at the ashram for three years, and I’ve been struggling with my health. I may not be this body, but I still need to live in it. I end up in the hospital, exhausted, emaciated, lost.

I’m here undergoing Ayurvedic treatment for two months. The monks visit and read to me, but I’m alone, and in my solitude two things come to me.

First, I am not physically cut out for the life I’m trying to live. Second, and more disturbingly, to live in the ashram may not be my calling. My drive to spread wisdom doesn’t fit perfectly into the monk framework. I am compelled to share ideas and philosophy in ways that are more modern. This may be my dharma, but it is not the goal of being a monk. It is not the sacred practice.

I don’t know if this path is for me.

This thought hits me, and it upsets me deeply. I can’t see myself leaving. And I wonder if my doubts come from my physical state. Am I in the right frame of mind to make a decision?

When I leave the hospital, I go to London for further medical attention. Radhanath Swami and I go for a drive. I tell him what I’ve been thinking. He listens for a while, asks some questions, thinks. Then he says, “Some people who go to university become professors, and some go to university and become entrepreneurs. Which is better?”

“Neither,” I say.

“You’ve done your training. I think it’s best for you to move on now.”

I am stunned. I didn’t expect him to come down on one side so quickly and definitively. I can tell he doesn’t see me as a failure, but I can’t help projecting that onto myself. I have failed, and he is breaking up with me. Like he is saying, “It’s not you, it’s me, it’s not working out.”

Not only am I reeling with the idea of giving up my leaders, my plans, my dream, but this is a huge blow to my ego. I’ve invested so much of myself in this place, this world, and all my future plans are based on that decision. But I know it’s not the right path, and my teachers know it’s not the right path. I won’t achieve what I set out to do. Furthermore, I’d taken the enormous step of declaring this path to my family, my friends, and everyone I knew. My ego was wrapped up in what they would think of me if I failed. Joining the ashram was the hardest decision I’d ever made. Leaving is harder.

I move back to my parents with nothing, purposeless, broken, consumed by my failure, with $25,000 of debt from college. It’s kind of exciting to buy some chocolate, but it is only a circumstantial fix to my existential crisis. I’d gone away thinking I was going to change the world. Back in London, nobody knows what I’ve done or understands its value. My parents aren’t sure how to engage with me or what to tell their friends. My extended family is asking my parents if I’ve come to my senses. My college friends are wondering if I’m going to get a “real” job. They’re kind of like, “You failed at being a monk? You failed at thinking about nothing?”

My biggest dream has been destroyed, and I feel the blow to my ego deeply. It is one of the toughest, most humiliating, crushing experiences of my life. And one of the most important.


Though the monks couldn’t have been more supportive of me and my decision, leaving the ashram upended everything that made me confident in who I was and what I was doing. When my world was rocked, my self-esteem plummeted. Low self-esteem is the flip side of an inflated ego. If we’re not everything, we’re nothing. If I was not this man of high intentions and deep spirituality, then I was a failure. If I’m not great, I’m terrible. The two extremes are equally problematic. Sometimes it takes the deflated ego to show you what the inflated ego thought of itself. I was humbled.

HUMILITY: THE ELIXIR OF THE EGO

The ego is two-faced. One moment it tells us we’re great at everything, and the next moment it tells us we’re the worst. Either way, we are blind to the reality of who we are. True humility is seeing what lies between the extremes. I’m great at some things and not so good at others. I’m well intentioned but imperfect. Instead of the ego’s all or nothing, humility allows us to understand our weaknesses and want to improve.


In the tenth canto of the Srimad-Bhagavatam, Lord Brahma, the god of creation, prays to Krishna, the supreme god. He is apologizing to Krishna, because in the course of building the world, Brahma has been pretty impressed with himself. Then he encounters Krishna, and he confesses that he is like a firefly.


At night, when a firefly glows, it thinks, How bright I am. How amazing! I’m lighting up the whole sky! But in the light of day, no matter how brightly the firefly glows, its light is weak, if not invisible, and it realizes its insignificance. Brahma realizes that he thought he was lighting the world, but when Krishna brings the sun out, he realizes that he is no more than a firefly.


In the darkness of the ego we think we’re special and powerful and significant, but when we look at ourselves in context of the great universe, we see that we only play a small part. To find true humility, like the firefly, we must look at ourselves when the sun is out and we can see clearly.

PRACTICE HUMILITY

At the ashram, the most straightforward path to humility was through simple work, menial tasks that didn’t place any participant at the center of attention. We washed huge pots with hoses, pulled weeds in the vegetable garden, and washed down the squat toilets—the worst! The point wasn’t just to complete the work that needed to be done. It was to keep us from getting big-headed. I’ve talked about how impatient I was with some of this work. Why was I wasting my expertise picking up trash? The monks said that I was missing the point. Some tasks build competence, and some build character. The brainless activities annoyed me, but eventually I learned that doing an activity that was mentally unchallenging freed space for reflection and introspection. It was worthwhile after all.


Performing mundane tasks at an ashram isn’t exactly replicable in the modern world, but anyone can try this simple mental exercise we used to become more aware of our ego on a daily basis. We were taught that there are two things we should try to remember and two things we should try to forget.


The two things to remember are the bad we’ve done to others and the good others have done for us. By focusing on the bad we’ve done to others, our egos are forced to remember our imperfections and regrets. This keeps us grounded. When we remember the good others have done for us, we feel humbled by our need for others and our gratitude for the gifts we have received.


The two things that we were told to forget are the good we’ve done for others and the bad others have done to us. If we fixate on and are impressed by our own good deeds, our egos grow, so we put those deeds aside. And if others treat us badly, we have to let that go too. This doesn’t mean we have to be best friends with someone hurtful, but harboring anger and grudges keeps us focused on ourselves instead of taking a broader perspective.


I heard another way of thinking about this from Radhanath Swami when he was giving a talk at the London temple about the qualities we need for self-realization. He told us to be like salt and pointed out that we only notice salt when there is too much of it in our food, or not enough. Nobody ever says, “Wow, this meal has the perfect amount of salt.” When salt is used in the best way possible, it goes unrecognized. Salt is so humble that when something goes wrong, it takes the blame, and when everything goes right, it doesn’t take credit.


In 1993, Mary Johnson’s son, Laramiun Byrd, was just twenty years old when, after an argument at a party, he was shot in the head by sixteen-year-old Oshea Israel, who served more than fifteen years in prison for the killing. Johnson probably had the most valid reason any of us can imagine for hating someone, and hate Israel she did. Eventually, it struck her that she wasn’t the only one hurting; Israel’s family had lost their son too. Johnson decided to start a support group called From Death to Life for other mothers whose children had been killed, and she wanted to include mothers whose children had taken a life. Johnson didn’t think she could deal with the mothers of murderers unless she truly forgave Israel, so she reached out and asked to speak to him. When they met, he asked if he could hug her. She says, “As I got up, I felt something rising from the soles of my feet and leaving me.” After the initial meeting, the pair began to meet regularly, and when Israel was released from prison, Johnson spoke to her landlord and asked if Israel could move into her building. “Unforgiveness is like cancer. It will eat you from the inside out,” says Johnson. She wears a necklace with a double-sided locket; on one side is a picture of her with her son, and on the other is a picture of Israel, who says he is still trying to forgive himself. The pair, who now live next door to each other, visit prisons and churches to talk about their story and the power of forgiveness.


Remembering your mistakes and forgetting your achievements restrains the ego and increases gratitude—a simple, effective recipe for humility.

KEEP AN EYE ON YOUR EGO

With increased awareness, we begin to notice specific moments or circumstances when our egos flare.


Once a group from the ashram backpacked across Scandinavia, hosting pop-up meditations in city centers. Most people we encountered were very warm, interested in health, and open to meditation. But at one of our stops in Denmark I went up to a gentleman and asked, “Have you heard of meditation? We’d love to teach you.”


He said, “Couldn’t you do anything better with your life?”


My ego flared. I wanted to say, “I’m not stupid. I’m smart! I graduated from a really good school! I could be making six figures. I didn’t have to do this—I chose it!” I really wanted to set this guy straight.


Instead I said, “I hope you have a wonderful day. If you want to learn how to meditate, please come back.”


I felt my ego respond. I noticed it but refused to indulge it. This is the reality of keeping our ego in check. It doesn’t disappear, but we can observe it and limit its power over us.


True humility is one step beyond simply repressing the ego as I did. In a class at the London temple, some of my fellow monks were being rude—laughing at the exercise we were doing and talking when they should have been quiet. I looked to our teacher, Sutapa, who was the head monk in London. I expected Sutapa to reprimand them, but he stayed quiet. After class, I asked him why he tolerated their behavior.


“You’re looking at how they’re behaving today,” he said. “I’m looking at how far they’ve come.”


The monk was remembering the good they’d done and forgetting the bad. He didn’t take their behavior as a reflection of himself, or of their respect for him. He took a longer view that had nothing to do with himself.


If someone is treating you badly, I’m not advising you to tolerate it like the monk. Some mistreatment is unacceptable. But it’s useful to look beyond the moment, at the bigger picture of the person’s experience—Are they exhausted? Frustrated? Making improvements from where they once were?—and to factor in what has led to this behavior, before letting your ego jump in. Everyone has a story, and sometimes our egos choose to ignore that. Don’t take everything personally—it is usually not about you.

DETACH FROM YOUR EGO

The monk and I both used the same approach to quiet our egos. We detached from the reaction and became objective observers. We think we’re everything we’ve achieved. We think we’re our job. We think we are our home. We think we are our youth and beauty. Recognize that whatever you have—a skill, a lesson, a possession, or a principle—was given to you, and whoever gave it to you received it from someone else. This isn’t directly from the Bhagavad Gita, but to summarize how it sees detachment, people often say, What belongs to you today, belonged to someone yesterday and will be someone else’s tomorrow.” No matter what you believe in spiritually, when you recognize this, then you see that you’re a vessel, an instrument, a caretaker, a channel for the greatest powers in the world. You can thank your teacher and use the gift for a higher purpose.


Detachment is liberating. When we aren’t defined by our accomplishments, it takes the pressure off. We don’t have to be the best. I don’t have to be Denmark’s most impressive visiting monk. My teacher doesn’t have to see his students sit in stunned wonder at every moment.


Detaching inspires gratitude. When we let go of ownership, we realize that all we have done has been with the help of others: parents, teachers, coaches, bosses, books—even the knowledge and skills of someone who is “self-made” have their origins in the work of others. When we feel grateful for what we’ve accomplished, we remember not to let it go to our heads. Ideally, gratitude inspires us to become teachers and mentors in our own way, to pass on what we’ve been given in some form.

TRY THIS: TRANSFORMING EGO

Look out for these opportunities to detach from your ego and put forth a thoughtful, productive response.

  1. Receiving an insult. Observe your ego, take a broader view of the person’s negativity, and respond to the situation, not the insult.
  2. Receiving a compliment or accolades. Take this opportunity to be grateful for the teacher who helped you further this quality.
  3. Arguing with a partner. The desire to be right, to win, comes from your ego’s unwillingness to admit weakness. Remember you can be right, or you can move forward. See the other person’s side. Lose the battle. Wait a day and see how it feels.
  4. Topping people. When we listen to others, we often one-up them with a story that shows how we have it better or worse. Instead, listen to understand and acknowledge. Be curious. Don’t say anything about yourself.

STEP OUTSIDE OF FAILURE

When we feel insecure—we aren’t where we want to be in our careers, our relationships, or in reference to other milestones we’ve set for ourselves—either the ego comes to our defense or our self-esteem plummets. Either way, it’s all about us. In Care of the Soul, psychotherapist and former monk Thomas Moore writes, “Being literally undone by failure is akin to ‘negative narcissism.’… By appreciating failure with imagination, we reconnect it to success. Without the connection, work falls into grand narcissistic fantasies of success and dismal feelings of failure.” Humility comes from accepting where you are without seeing it as a reflection of who you are. Then you can use your imagination to find success.


Sara Blakely wanted to go to law school, but despite taking the exam twice, she didn’t pull the LSAT scores she wanted. Instead of becoming an attorney, she spent seven years going door-to-door selling fax machines, but she never forgot what her father taught her. Every night at their dining room table, her dad would ask her and her brother not “What did you do at school today?” but “What did you fail at today?” Failing meant they were trying, and that was more important than the immediate result. When Sara got an idea to start her own company, she knew the only failure would be if she didn’t try, so she took $5,000 of her own money and started the business that just fifteen years later would make her a billionaire—Spanx. So often we don’t take chances because we fear failure, and that often boils down to a fear of our egos getting hurt. If we can get past the idea that we’ll break if everything doesn’t go our way immediately, our capabilities expand exponentially.


My own version of Blakely’s revelation came in London, a week or so after I’d left the ashram.


I had believed that my dharma was to serve as a monk, spreading wisdom and aid. Now, back at my childhood home, I don’t want to settle for a lower purpose. What can I do? Our family is not well off. I can’t just relax and wait for answers to come to me. I am scared, nervous, anxious. All the things that I’ve been trained not to be rush back at me.

One night, washing the dishes after dinner, I look out the window above the sink. The garden is out there, but in the darkness, all I can see is my own reflection. I wonder,What would I be doing if I were in the ashram right now? It’s 7 p.m. I would probably be reading, studying, or on my way to give a talk. I spend a moment visualizing myself walking down a path in the ashram, on my way to the library for an evening class. Then I think, It’s the same time of day here as it is there. I have a choice right now. If I use this time wisely, I can make this evening meaningful and purposeful, just as I would in the ashram, or I can waste it in self-pity and regret.

It is then that I let go of my deflated ego to realize that as a monk I’ve been taught how to deal with anxiety, pain, and pressure. I am no longer in a place where it is natural and easy to achieve those goals, but I can put all I’ve learned to the test here in a louder, more complicated world. The ashram was like school; this is the exam. I have to earn money, and I won’t have the same quantity of time to devote to my practice, but the quality is up to me. I can’t study scripture for two hours, but I can read a verse every day and put it into practice. I can’t clean temples to clean my heart, but I can find humility in cleaning my home. If I see my life as meaningless, it will be. If I find ways to live my dharma, I will be fulfilled.

I begin to get dressed every day, as if I have a job. I spend most of my time at the library, reading broadly about personal development, business, and technology. Humbled, I return to being a student of life. It is a powerful way to reenter the world.


Being a victim is the ego turned inside out. You believe that the worst things in the world happen to you. You get dealt the worst cards.


When you fail, instead of giving in to a sense of victimhood, think of the moment as a humility anchor, keeping you grounded. Then ask yourself, “What is going to restore my confidence?” It won’t grow from an external factor that’s beyond your control. I couldn’t control whether someone gave me a job, but I focused on finding a way to be myself and do what I loved. I knew I could build confidence around that.

BUILD CONFIDENCE, NOT EGO

Here’s the irony: If you’ve ever pretended you know something, you probably discovered that it often takes the same amount of energy to feign confidence and feed vanity as it takes to work, practice, and achieve true confidence.


Humility allows you to see your own strengths and weaknesses clearly, so you can work, learn, and grow. Confidence and high self-esteem help you accept yourself as you are, humble, imperfect, and striving. Let’s not confuse an inflated ego with healthy self-esteem.


The ego wants everyone to like you. High self-esteem is just fine if they don’t. The ego thinks it knows everything. Self-esteem thinks it can learn from anyone. The ego wants to prove itself. Self-esteem wants to express itself.



The table above doesn’t just show the difference between an inflated ego and a healthy self-worth. It can be used as a guide to grow your confidence. If you look closely, you will see that all of the self-awareness that we have been developing serves to build the interwoven qualities of humility and self-worth. Instead of worrying what people will say, we filter what people will say. Instead of comparing ourselves to others, we cleanse our minds and look to improve ourselves. Instead of wanting to prove ourselves, we want to be ourselves, meaning we aren’t distracted by external wants. We live with intention in our dharma.

SMALL WINS

Accumulating small wins builds confidence. Olympic swimming gold medalist Jessica Hardy says, “My long-term goals are what I would consider to be my ‘dreams,’ and my short-term goals are obtainable on a daily or monthly basis. I like to make my short-term goals something that makes me feel better and sets me up to better prepare for the long-term goals.”

TRY THIS: WRITE DOWN THE AREAS IN WHICH YOU REALLY WANT TO BE CONFIDENT

Health, career, relationship—pick one of these three.

Write down what is going to make you feel confident in this area, something that’s realistic and achievable.

Break your area down into small wins. Things you can achieve today.

SOLICIT FEEDBACK

Confidence means deciding who you want to be without the reflection of what other people think, but it also means being inspired and led by others to become your best self. Spend time with healed, wise, service-driven people and you will feel humbled—and motivated toward healing, wisdom, and service.


TRY THIS: WRITE DOWN THE AREAS IN WHICH YOU REALLY WANT TO BE CONFIDENT

Health, career, relationship—pick one of these three.

Write down what is going to make you feel confident in this area, something that’s realistic and achievable.

Break your area down into small wins. Things you can achieve today.



When you ask for feedback, choose your advisors wisely. We commonly make one of two mistakes when we seek feedback: We either ask everyone for advice about one problem or we ask one person for advice about all of our problems. If you ask too broadly, you’ll get fifty-seven different options and will be overwhelmed, confused, and lost. On the other hand, if you drop all your dilemmas on one person, then they’ll be overwhelmed, unequipped, and at some point tired of carrying your baggage.


Instead, cultivate small groups of counsel around specific areas. Make sure you choose the right people for the right challenges. We’ll go deeper into finding people who provide competence, character, care, and consistency in Chapter Ten, but for now, in order to recognize productive feedback, consider the source: Is this person an authority? Do they have the experience and wisdom to give you helpful advice? If you choose your advisors wisely, you’ll get the right help when you need it without wearing out your welcome.


The monk approach is to look to your guru (your guide), sadhu (other teachers and saintly people), and shastra (scripture). We look for alignment among these three sources. In the modern world many of us don’t have “guides,” and if we do, we probably don’t put them in a different category than teachers. Nor are all of us followers of religious writings. But what the monks are going for here is advice from trusted sources who all want the best for you, but who offer different perspectives. Choose from those who care most about your emotional health (often friends and family, serving as gurus), those who encourage your intellectual growth and experience (these could be mentors or teachers, serving as sadhus), and those who share your values and intentions (religious guides and/or scientific facts, serving as shastras).


Always be alert to feedback that doesn’t come from the usual suspects. Some of the most useful feedback is unsolicited, even unintentional. Temper the ego by paying close attention to how people react to you nonverbally. Do their expressions show intrigue or boredom? Are they irritated, agitated, tired? Here, again, it’s worth looking for alignment. Do many different people drift off when you’re talking about a subject? It might be time to pull back on that one.


When people offer their reflections, we must pick and choose what we follow carefully and wisely. The ego wants to believe it knows best, so it is quick to write off feedback as criticism. On the flip side, sometimes the deflated ego sees criticism where it doesn’t exist. If the response to your job application is a form letter saying, “Sorry, we have lots of applications,” this is not useful feedback. It says nothing about you.


The way around these obstacles is to filter the feedback. Reflect instead of judging. Be curious. Don’t pretend you understand. Ask clarifying questions. Ask questions that help you define practical steps toward improvement.


The easy check to confirm that someone is offering criticism in good faith is to see if the person is willing to invest in your growth. Are they just stating a problem or weakness, or do they want to help you make a change, if not by taking action themselves, then at least by suggesting ways to move forward?


When soliciting and receiving feedback, make sure you know how you want to grow. Feedback often doesn’t tell you which direction to follow, it just propels you on your way. You need to make your own decisions and then take action. These three steps—soliciting, evaluating, and responding to feedback—will increase your confidence and self-awareness.

TRY THIS: RECEIVE FEEDBACK PRODUCTIVELY

Choose one area where you want to improve. It might be financial, mental and emotional, or physical.

Find someone who is an expert in that field and ask for guidance.

Ask questions for clarity, specificity, and how to practically apply the guidance to your individual situation.

Sample questions:

  • Do you think this is a realistic path for me?
  • Do you have any recommendations when it comes to timing?
  • Is this something you think others have noticed about me?
  • Is this something that needs retroactive repair (like apologies or revisions), or is this a recommendation for how to move forward?
  • What are some of the risks of what you’re recommending?

DON’T BUY INTO YOUR OWN HYPE

If you are so lucky as to be successful, hear the same words those victorious Roman generals heard: Remember you are but a man, remember you will die. (Feel free to tweak the gender.) Instead of letting your achievements go to your head, detach from them. Feel gratitude for your teachers and what you have been given. Remind yourself who you are and why you are doing the work that brings you success.


Remember the bad and forget the good to keep your own greatness in perspective. In high school I was suspended from school three times for all sorts of stupidity. I’m ashamed of my past, but it grounds me. I can look back and I think, No matter what anyone says about me today or how I think I’ve grown, I have anchors that humble me. They remind me of who I was and what I might have become if I hadn’t met people who inspired me to change. Like everyone, I got where I am through a mix of choices, opportunities, and work.


You are not your success or your failure.


Sustain this humility after you’ve achieved something too. When you are complimented, commended, or rewarded, neither lap it up nor reject it. Be gracious in the moment, and afterward remind yourself of how hard you worked, and recognize the sacrifices you made. Then ask yourself who helped you develop that skill. Think of your parents, your teachers, your mentors. Someone had to invest their time, money, and energy to make you who you are today. Remember and give thanks to the people who gave you the skills you’re getting recognition for. Sharing the success with them keeps you humble.

REAL GREATNESS

You shouldn’t feel small compared to others, but you should feel small compared to your goals. My own approach to remaining humble in the face of success is to keep moving the goalposts. The measure of success isn’t numbers, it’s depth. Monks aren’t impressed by how long you meditate. We ask how deep you went. Bruce Lee said, “I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.”


No matter what we achieve, we can aspire to greater scale and depth. I’m not concerned with vanity metrics. I often say that I want to take wisdom viral, but I want it to be meaningful. How can I reach a lot of people but without losing an intimate connection? Until the whole world is healed and happy, I haven’t finished. Aiming higher and higher—beyond ourselves to our community, our country, our planet—and realizing the ultimate goal is unattainable is what keeps us humble.


Indeed, our goal of humility is ultimately unattainable.


The moment you feel like you have arrived, you’re starting the journey again. This paradox is true for many things: If you feel safe, that’s when you’re most vulnerable; if you feel infallible, that’s when you’re at your weakest. AndrΓ© Gide said, “Believe those who search for the truth; doubt those who have found it.” Too often when you do good, you feel good, you live well, and you start to say, “I got this,” and that’s when you fall. If I sat here and said I had no ego, that would be a complete lie. Overcoming your ego is a practice not an accomplishment.


Real greatness is when you use your own achievements to teach others, and they learn how to teach others, and the greatness that you’ve accomplished expands exponentially. Rather than seeing achievement as status, think of the role you play in other people’s lives as the most valuable currency. When you expand your vision, you realize that even people who have it all derive the greatest satisfaction from service.


No matter how much you help others, feel no pride because there’s so much more to be done. Kailash Satyarthi is a children’s rights activist who is dedicated to saving kids from exploitation. His NGOs have rescued tens of thousands of children, but when asked what his first reaction was to winning the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize, he responded, “The first reaction? Well, I wondered if I had done enough to be getting this award.” Satyarthi is humbled by the knowledge of how much more there is to do. The most powerful, admirable, captivating quality in any human is seen when they’ve achieved great things, but still embrace humility and their own insignificance.


     We have been digging deep into who you are, how you can lead a meaningful life, and what you want to change. This is a lot of growth, and it won’t happen overnight. To aid your efforts, I suggest that you incorporate visualization into your meditation practice. Visualization is the perfect way to heal the past and prepare for the future.



MEDITATIONVISUALIZE

During meditation, monks use visualization for the mind. When we close our eyes and walk our mind to another place and time, we have the opportunity to heal the past and prepare for the future. In the next three chapters we are going to embark on a journey to transform the way we see ourselves and our unique purpose in the world. While we do so, we’ll use the power of visualization to assist us.


Using visualization, we can revisit the past, editing the narrative we tell ourselves about our history. Imagine you hated the last thing you said to a parent who passed away. Seeing yourself in your mind’s eye telling your parent how much you loved them doesn’t change the past, but, unlike nostalgia and regret, it starts the healing. And if you envision your hopes, dreams, and fears of the future, you can process feelings before they happen, strengthening yourself to take on new challenges. Before giving a speech, I often prepare by visualizing myself going on stage to deliver it. Think of it this way: Anything you see in the man-made world—this book, a table, a clock—whatever it is, it existed in someone’s mind before it came to be. In order to create something we have to imagine it. This is why visualization is so important. Whatever we build internally can be built externally.


Everyone visualizes in daily life. Meditation is an opportunity to make this inclination deliberate and productive. Past or future, big or small, you can use visualization to extract the energy from a situation and bring it into your reality. For example, if you meditate on a place where you feel happy and relaxed, your breath and pulse shift, your energy changes, and you draw that feeling into your reality.


Visualization activates the same brain networks as actually doing the task. Scientists at the Cleveland Clinic showed that people who imagined contracting a muscle in their little finger over twelve weeks increased its strength by almost as much as people who did actual finger exercises over the same period of time. Our efforts are the same—visualization creates real changes in our bodies.


I’ve mentioned that we can meditate anywhere. Visualization can help you bring yourself into relaxation no matter what chaos surrounds you. Once I took a two-to-three-day train trip from Mumbai to South India on a crowded, filthy train. I found it tough to meditate and said to my teacher, “I’m not going to meditate right now. I’ll do it when we stop or when it’s calmer.”


My teacher asked, “Why?”

I said, “Because that’s what we do at the ashram.” I was used to meditating in the serene ashram, surrounded by a lake and benches and trees.

He said, “Do you think the time of death will be calm? If you can’t meditate now, how will you meditate then?”


I realized that we were being trained to meditate in peace so that we could meditate in chaos. Since then I’ve meditated in planes, in the middle of New York City, in Hollywood. There are distractions, of course, but meditation doesn’t eliminate distractions, it manages them.


When I guide a meditation, I often begin by saying, “If your mind wanders, return to your regular breathing pattern. Don’t get frustrated or annoyed, just gently and softly bring your attention back to your breathing, visualization, or mantra.” Meditation is not broken when you’re distracted. It is broken when you let yourself pursue the distracting thought or lose your concentration and think, Oh, I’m so bad at this. Part of the practice of meditation is to observe the thought, let it be, then come back to what you were focusing on. If it isn’t hard, you’re not doing it right.


One important note: We want to choose positive visualizations. Negative visualizations trap us in painful thoughts and images. Yes, the “bad” in us emerges in meditation, but there’s no benefit to imagining ourselves trapped in a gloomy maze. The whole point is to visualize a path out of the darkness.


There are two kinds of visualization—set and exploratory. In a set visualization, someone verbally guides you through a place. You are at a beach. You feel the sand beneath your feet. You see a blue sky, and you hear seagulls and the crash of waves. An exploratory visualization asks you to come up with your own details. If I ask meditation clients to imagine the place where they feel most at ease, one might see herself riding a bike on a seaside trail, while another might summon a tree house from his childhood.


ear seagulls and the crash of waves. An exploratory visualization asks you to come up with your own details. If I ask meditation clients to imagine the place where they feel most at ease, one might see herself riding a bike on a seaside trail, while another might summon a tree house from his childhood.

TRY THIS: VISUALIZATION

Here are a few visualizations you can try. I also encourage you to go online to download an app, or to visit a meditation center—there are plenty of options out there to help your practice.

For the visualization exercises I describe below, begin your practice with the following steps.

  1. Find a comfortable position—sitting in a chair, sitting upright with a cushion, or lying down.
  2. Close your eyes.
  3. Lower your gaze.
  4. Make yourself comfortable in this position.
  5. Bring your awareness to calm, balance, ease, stillness, and peace.
  6. Whenever your mind wanders, just gently and softly bring it back to calm, balance, ease, stillness, and peace.

BODY SCAN

  1. Bring your awareness to your natural breathing pattern. Breathe in and out.
  2. Bring your awareness to your body. Become aware of where it touches the ground, a seat, and where it does not. You may find that your heels touch the ground but your arches don’t. Or your lower back touches the bed or mat but your middle back is slightly raised. Become aware of all these subtle connections.
  3. Now begin to scan your body.
  4. Bring your awareness to your feet. Scan your toes, your arches, your ankles, your heels. Become aware of the different sensations you may feel. You may feel relaxed, or you may feel pain, pressure, tingling, or something totally different. Become aware of it and then visualize that you are breathing in positive, uplifting, healing energy and breathing out any negative toxic energy.
  5. Now move upward to your legs, calves, shins, and knees. Again, just scan and observe the sensations.
  6. Whenever your mind wanders, gently and softly bring it back to your body. No force or pressure. No judgment.
  7. At some point you may come across pain you were not aware of before. Be present with that pain. Observe it. And again breathe into it three times and breathe out three times.
  8. You can also express gratitude for different parts of your body as you scan them.
  9. Do this all the way to the tip of your head. You can move as slowly or as quickly as you like, but don’t rush.

CREATE A SACRED SPACE

  1. Visualize yourself in a place that makes you feel calm and relaxed. It might be a beach, a nature walk, a garden, or the top of a mountain.
  2. Feel the ground, sand, or water beneath your feet as you walk in this space.
  3. Without opening your eyes, look left. What do you notice? Observe it and keep walking.
  4. Look right. What do you notice? Observe it and keep walking
  5. Become aware of the colors, the textures, and the distances around you.
  6. What can you hear? The sounds of birds, water, or air?
  7. Feel the air and wind on your face.
  8. Find a calm, comfortable place to sit down.
  9. Breathe in the calm, balance, ease, stillness, and peace.
  10. Breathe out the stress, pressure, and negativity.
  11. Go to this place whenever you feel you need to relax.

PRESENCE AND MENTAL PICTURE

Often the mental pictures we have form simply from the repetition of an activity rather than because we have chosen them. Visualization can be used to intentionally turn a moment into a memory. Use this visualization to create a memory or to capture joy, happiness, and purpose. It can also be used to deeply connect with an old memory, returning to a time and place when you felt joy, happiness, and purpose. If you are creating a memory, keep your eyes open. If you are reconnecting, then close them.

I use an anti-anxiety technique called 5-4-3-2-1. We are going to find five things you can see, four things you can touch, three things you can hear, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste.

  1. First, find five things you can see. Once you’ve found all five, give your attention to one at a time, moving your focus from one to the next.
  2. Now find four things you can touch. Imagine you are touching them, feeling them. Notice the different textures. Move your focus from one to the next.
  3. Find three things you can hear. Move your focus from one to the next.
  4. Find two things you can smell. Is it flowers? Is it water? Is it nothing? Move your focus from one to the next.
  5. Find one thing you can taste.
  6. Now that you have attended to every sense, breathe in the joy and happiness. Take it inside your body. Let yourself smile naturally in response to how it makes you feel.
  7. You have now captured this moment forever and can return to it anytime through visualization.








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