Don't Take Yourself Seriously

Practice of the Week
Don't Take Yourself Seriously

Category: Slogans to Live By: Carry these reminders at all times. These practices don't require setting aside a separate substantial chunk of time -- but they will slow you down a bit (and that's a good thing.) Resolve to get stronger at living by these maxims, day by day. Sometimes make one of them the focus of your daily journaling.

Adapted from Norman Fischer, Training in Compassion, "Don't Be a Phony," and "Don't Be Tricky," and Judith Lief, "Change Your Attitude, but Remain Natural," and "Don't Act with a Twist."

Click the picture for a video that
humorously illustrates ego
hijacking one's spiritual efforts.
Taking yourself too seriously takes two forms: (A) making too many rules for yourself, and (B) becoming overly ego-involved, allowing the ego to hijack the spiritual project.

A. Relax a bit about rules. Remain natural.

A commitment to spiritual training often, at first, makes a person very kind but maybe a little stiff, a little too deliberate about everything one does, very mindful about everything If you go to a monastery, you'll notice that the newer monastics are like this: very careful with the forms, very precise, very polite, perfect, and stiff. They are clearly trying hard, which is appropriate. It takes time to learn how to try hard while at the same time not taking oneself seriously.

If you're going to revolutionize your life, please do. But don't impose a rigid, artificial regimen on yourself. Change your attitude, but remain natural. Don't be a phony. In fact, as you go on, you begin to see that the spiritual process is exactly the opposite of this: that you've been imposing a regimen on yourself all of your life, you took it to be yourself -- and now finally you can stop, you can relax, you don't have to impress anyone, especially yourself.

So when you notice you're imposing something on yourself and your efforts to be good feel like a straitjacket, then try this slogan: "Lighten up, relax, maybe go to a movie, have a glass of wine, don't try so hard, maybe there's something good on TV."

B. Relax the self-importance.

Most of us have the attitude that we are more important than others. This is our default position, and deeply ingrained, although it’s embarrassing and we don’t like to admit it. Mind training is all about changing that fundamental stance. It takes effort to radically shift our attitude so that our concern for the welfare of others pops up first, rather than a distant second.

This kind of attitude adjustment seems like a pretty big deal, but it is important not to get caught up in the big-dealness. Spiritual practice has an odd way of combining radical challenges with the encouragement to just relax. Taking your spiritual growth seriously might prompt exhibitionism or spiritual posturing. Don’t let that happen! Get over yourself and just relax. Meet the challenge humbly -- through small but consistent moves in the direction of awareness and loving kindness.

When the ego hijacks your spiritual project, it injects ulterior motives. You want very much to cultivate altruism deeply and seriously -- but the ego will turns your efforts to its ulterior purposes such as winning friends and influencing people. Of course, it is wonderful to have friends, and if we can influence people for the good, this is worthwhile, but the focus of spiritual practice is the conviction, based on long reflection, that the cultivation of altruism is simply the best, truest, and most satisfying way to live.

Egoistic motives are not easily eradicated. Look closely at yourself and see whether, in fact, in some subtle way you are trying to gain advantages and "points" by being a nice person others will admire. Probably you do have this motivation, at least in part. We all do.

As you commit to spiritual practice, you may encounter people who tell you it's wonderful that you're on a serious spiritual path. They express admiration that you meditate, or do yoga, or are wise and healthy and a vegetarian. They may express the wish they could maintain a spiritual discipline. Even though the more common attitude is that meditation and spiritual practice are hooey, the province of the pious or naïve, in certain circles you'll be credited for your spiritual efforts, and thus you may grow proud of them.

You may find yourself keeping track of your acts of kindness and your moments of awareness as demonstrations of how you are progressing. Instead of genuinely opening your heart, you're going through the motions. You catch yourself looking around to make sure that your benevolence is properly noticed and admired.

When we peek through our self-satisfaction and self-deception and notice the pride we have been generating in ourselves for our fine spiritual efforts, we should simply admit it, and be able to laugh at, and forgive, ourselves. Selfish motivation is perfectly normal, and we will always be dealing with it. Notice this and be real about it. There’s no need to be bothered by it. But don’t be fooled by it either.

When egoistic motives arise in your heart, take an honest and lighthearted look at yourself and be ready to forgive yourself for your natural foibles. There's no point in self-recriminations, regrets, and self-blame -- those are just further manifestations of self-importance -- but do notice your egoistic motives. Then move on.

The self-importance of taking ourselves seriously results in acting "with a twist" -- the "twist" being the egoism behind our efforts to appear to have compassion, kindness, wisdom, and spiritual insight. When we relax the self-importance, our words and actions are not "sticky." They are straightforward, with no hidden schemes attached. When we practice meditation or otherwise develop compassion, we have no thought that we’re getting any credit. Instead, moment by moment, as each new situation arises, we work with it as best we can and then we let it go.

Ironically, moving from selfishness to concern for others starts with being honestly selfish. When such selfishness is hidden, that underground force colors everything you do, and you can’t help but "act with a twist." But each time you expose it, you are diminishing its power. Not taking ourselves seriously, we can let go of those selfish motives and relax.


Notice how often what you do is based on “What’s in it for me?” Rather than try to hide that, bring it into the open.

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