Ramblings

Fear, courage, and the contemplation of mortality

 

It’s been a while since my last post, so I figured I’d pop in to add some new (ancient) thoughts and discoveries.

I came across the quote below by the controversial genius G.K. Chesterton a few weeks ago. It’s from his book Orthodoxy, which serves as an attempt at explaining his relationship with the Christian faith. I haven’t had a chance yet to explore his work as fully as I’d like to. It’s on my to do list. (I did watch the entire Father Brown series on Netflix, which is based on one of Chesterton’s fictional characters. Unfortunately, I don’t think that counts as a serious look at his work.). 🙂

Anyway, what I have read of his work so far, and of him generally, reveals some deeply mystical understandings. He is known for his infinite capacity to savor the mundane in the present moment; an early twentieth century Power of Now type. He was a prolific writer, poet, theologian, journalist, and art critic. His later conversion to Catholicism and the wondrous belonging he finds there remind me a lot of my own explorations. (He was also vehemently anti-semitic, which is part of what makes him controversial. I’ve learned how to appreciate the good aspects of a person, while accepting that there are also less than desirable ones.).

The subject of this quote, the experiential cultivation of courage, like so many other virtues, is intensely interesting. This quote captures some of the complexity and subtlety of the process, and the difficulty of articulating it in such a way that it fits into a contextual framework. (True virtue has this sort of you-know-it-because-you-live-it-and-feel-it quality that defies explanations.).

“Take the case of courage. No quality has ever so much addled the brains and tangled the definitions of merely rational sages. Courage is almost a contradiction in terms. It means a strong desire to live taking the form of a readiness to die. ‘He that will lose his life, the same shall save it,’ is not a piece of mysticism for saints and heroes. It is a piece of everyday advice for sailors or mountaineers. It might be printed in an Alpine guide or a drill book. This paradox is the whole principle of courage; even of quite earthly or brutal courage. A man cut off by the sea may save his life if we will risk it on the precipice.

He can only get away from death by continually stepping within an inch of it. A soldier surrounded by enemies, if he is to cut his way out, needs to combine a strong desire for living with a strange carelessness about dying. He must not merely cling to life, for then he will be a coward, and will not escape. He must not merely wait for death, for then he will be a suicide, and will not escape. He must seek his life in a spirit of furious indifference to it; he must desire life like water and yet drink death like wine. No philosopher, I fancy, has ever expressed this romantic riddle with adequate lucidity, and I certainly have not done so. But Christianity has done more: it has marked the limits of it in the awful graves of the suicide and the hero, showing the distance between him who dies for the sake of living and him who dies for the sake of dying.”

Courage, like all virtues, is the natural default spiritual state. It is the inherent nature of all humans liberated from ego. It’s not something to be positively acquired. It’s not something you collect or build up, like muscles. Rather, like love, compassion, trust or integrity, it’s something that emerges when the barriers to it are removed. Namely, fear.

In truth, to really cultivate courage, one must focus on the undoing of fear. Then courage emerges on its own, without any effort or doing.

It would be absurd for me to try to address this topic adequately in a single blog post. But if you’ll forgive my hubris, I’m going to offer just a few thoughts. Here goes.

If you were to google images of “courage,” primarily you’d find renderings of people engaged in all sorts of life-threatening adventure sports – rock climbing, para-sailing, flinging themselves off of cliffs into bodies of water… This is what modern society believes courage looks like. But these are not accurate portraits. It is our cultural misunderstanding that drives these ideas. As with many other societal problems, we have all been taught to worship the wrong gods.

The prevailing myth is that throwing oneself, head-first, into a scary situation and surviving that situation, somehow means the fear has been conquered, and courage has been cultivated. This is not true. 

When a person forces himself to do something that terrifies him, he goes against himself. He locks himself in a battle with his own spirit. His body and soul are screaming “no,” while his mind is overpowering them with “yes.”

When this happens a whole bunch of stress responses become activated in the body. And depending on the strength of his will power, he may have the ability to push himself through them. Carried on an adrenaline high, the more he is able to dissociate from his body, from his feelings, the better he can endure the situation. The less he feels, the more courageous he is said to be. 

This is what modernity calls courage, and we idealize and emulate those people who feel the least. This is backwards, not to mention self-abusive.

Courage is the ability to feel the fear completely in the body; to work through the fear, undo it, and then move forward and take action in an embodied way, with integrity. Mind, body, and spirit all in alignment with each other. In order to conquer fear and be courageous, one must actually feel his feelings.

To move on adrenaline is not courage. To numb the fear, and the feelings, and the integrity is not courage. To desensitize oneself in order to complete an action is not courage; it’s self-abuse. (And it’s abusive to the spirit).

The truly courageous person is the one that feels his feelings completely, confronts them, and works through them, not the one that is able to silence or numb them.

A person who jumps into a scary situation, full of (numbed) fear, hasn’t actually conquered anything. The surge of intensity makes him think something has changed, but it hasn’t. This is where all the motivational stuff breaks down, because faced with the same situation again in the future, the physical experience of fear returns just as strongly. Nothing is actually changed at the level of consciousness. You can pump yourself up to get through it, but that’s all you’ve done – gotten through it. Endured it. But nothing internally, spiritually, has changed. No character has been built via the experience.

While it’s true that gentle graduated repeated exposure can be used to overcome certain types of phobia (because of the accumulation of personal evidence of a safe outcome), fear doesn’t generally respond to rational evidence that way. Fear has a way of outdoing any real efforts of the intellect or willpower to overcome it. Except for one – which is to confront it with awareness. In the exposure therapy, what’s happening is a lot more subtle than merely enduring the circumstances. In the gentle and graduated tempo fear is actually being confronted psychologically first and foremost.

The real work of conquering fear is a lot more stationary than adventure sports, and also a lot more interesting. In order to conquer fear, by which I mean to heal the source of it and stop the physical reaction in the emotional body, one has to actually confront the fear. Not by throwing himself into it, but merely by looking at it. (For most people, this is scarier than jumping off a cliff).

In the most rudimentary form, it means imagining the worst case scenario, and exploring what is so scary about it. By applying inquiry and doing a little investigation and acceptance work within, the fears (and their reaction components) cease. The emotional body actually stops reacting. As the source of the fear, and the false beliefs driving it, are brought into conscious awareness, the whole thing dissolves. It’s almost magical to watch as it happens within. (This works on small fears and big fears alike.).

This requires a turning toward fear, a turning into it, rather than away from it, which is counter-intuitive. The mind naturally runs from scary thoughts. Even when spiraling in a terrifying “what-if” scenario, it never stays with the scary thoughts, it just keeps pushing them away with new ones. It is like a child imagining monsters under the bed, who pulls the covers tighter over her head to keep safe. Instead, if we gently coax the child to look under the bed, she will see that there’s nothing there. The whole thing is an illusion. There is nothing to fear, meaning there is nothing inside of fear. It has no substance. It is a kind of trick of the mind that keeps us under the covers.

I came across a wonderful article recently that mentions a new innovative therapy for otherwise treatment-resistant mental illness. I won’t get into all the details here, you can read the article yourself if you wish, but the upshot (and the reason I mention it), is that it implements this very idea. Instead of trying to prevent triggers and fears, (hiding from them) it teaches the patient to turn towards fear, and confront it. In this case, it’s the mother of all fears, existential panic. And it works! (It also works with panic attacks, and anxiety, and even with persecutory delusions. The process is the same).

This “new” treatment approach is very exciting for many reasons, but it comes as no surprise to the spiritual practitioner. These are ancient teachings. Confronting fear with awareness is one of the greatest and most healing methodologies known to humanity. It is the very central focus of spirituality and evolution of consciousness.

There is a quote floating around somewhere, attributed to Buddha, that the point of life, the point of spiritual practice, is to learn how to live fearlessly. The transformation of fear is the central pillar of all the work. The transmutation of fear into love is also the central theme of all the alchemical and esoteric traditions. And as fear is transformed, courage emerges. When you remove the fear barrier, the natural default virtue arises.

As one gets deeper into practice, he approaches what Chesterton is getting at above. Having cleared out the surface level fears, bigger more fundamental fears arise. And in order to wrestle with them, the sober contemplation of mortality must be undertaken. The process is the same – it is a turning towards – but in this case the subject is death.

The contemplation of death is a really uncomfortable subject for many people. Depending on one’s belief system, thinking about death can be depressing. It can trigger unresolved grief and pain. And for some it can even induce a sort of existential panic. Big religious questions arise, and then there is discomfort over the doubts and the questioning itself. Some thoughts about death and dying are stigmatized as suicidal ideation, which makes it an oddly dangerous and taboo subject to even think about.

Try telling someone that you’re sitting at home, alone, in contemplation of death, and you can be sure that the men in the white coats aren’t far behind. I’m be facetious of course, but not entirely. Reading accounts of people who have had dealings with the mental health system reveals a dystopian absurdity surrounding this question – thinking about death is considered very very bad, end of story. And telling a mental health practitioner (the very person charged with helping and healing you) about those thoughts, ensures that you will be confined and treated against your will, for your own safety, of course.

But the contemplation of death is taught, as a practice, in all spiritual traditions. There’s nothing inherently pathological about it. And as Chesterton tells us, it’s the fundamental acceptance of death, the welcoming of death, the drinking-it-like-wine perspective, that allows us to live fully and courageously.

I understand, of course, that there’s a difference between choosing to consciously contemplate death versus having unwelcome uncontrolled suicidal thoughts. But the first step to healing those thoughts is to accept them, without stigma, without panic, without fear of confinement.

Socrates taught:

To fear death, my friends, is only to think ourselves wise, without being wise: for it is to think that we know what we do not know. For anything that men can tell, death may be the greatest good that can happen to them: but they fear it as if they knew quite well that it was the greatest of evils. And what is this but that shameful ignorance of thinking that we know what we do not know?

To ignore death, or fear it, or hold it as bad or scary is a mistake. It keeps us stuck in the pursuit of things (fear-based things) that have no actual intrinsic value to us. Avoidance of death, ironically, keeps us from living. The key is to turn towards the concept of death, and to learn how to live and how to die without fear or resistance.

Jung spoke and wrote at length about death. Here are two snipets:

What happens after death is so unspeakably glorious that our imagination and our feelings do not suffice to form even an approximate conception of it. The dissolution of our time-bound form in eternity brings no loss of meaning.

Shrinking away from death is something unhealthy and abnormal which robs the second half of life of its purpose.

The Stoics taught that remembering death allows us to live each day in gratitude for what is – which is not a depressing thing, but a joyous one. By keeping death close, without fear of it, we savor the present moment as it is. We are grateful for the present experience, appreciating its transitory nature, knowing and accepting that it will change, as all things do, without clinging to it.

We see this non-clinging impermanence echoed in the intricate sand mandalas of Buddhist monks. They passionately and intently work on these exquisite creations, knowing that as soon as they are finished the creation will be destroyed. There is no sadness about that, because it’s about savoring the process not about clinging to the outcome. It’s a metaphor for living and dying.

In The Ladder of Divine Ascent, an important monastic treatise for Eastern Christianity, written at the start of the seventh century, St. John Climacus wrote: “A monk is a mourning soul that both asleep and awake is unceasingly occupied with the remembrance of death.” Regardless of religion or tradition, death is a monk’s greatest companion.  

In the medieval Latin Christian tradition of Memento mori (literally “remember death”) the practice of reflecting on mortality is a means of breaking attachments, and counter-acting the vanity of earthly life. By remembering that we are going to die, and welcoming that idea, things lose their ego-assigned value, (because what’s really going to matter when you’re gone?). Thus we become more free to live fearlessly and passionately. By keeping death close in this way, we find the courage to do what we otherwise fear to do, and pursue things we actually care about.

Kundalini is another powerful example. Many people report that at one time or another, with varying degrees of severity, the kundalini process can evoke suicidal thoughts, or feelings that death is imminent. This is so important in the evolutionary and transformational process. It’s not something to fear or panic about, but rather something to work through. The experience is intended to illuminate (via emotional triggers) the person’s ideas and beliefs (and attachments) about death and dying; to evolve their consciousness into a more spiritually aligned place. As with all the other symptoms, the sooner the person deals with these questions in his mind, the sooner the thoughts subside.

It’s a delicate and powerful contemplation, with truly profound effect on the emotional body. A proper untangling of the conditioned knots within (and questioning a lot of the false beliefs in the process) unleashes passion and courage like nothing else can. The shifts are permanent and profound. It’s something that can only be felt and experienced subjectively, not something that can be explained in words. It’s not just a philosophical perspective, but an internal liberation from the somatic experience of fear. As Chesterton captures, it’s difficult to articulate the magnitude of the resulting sensation of “furious indifference” to life. When fear is grappled with and dissolved, and courage takes its place, all of life becomes possible. There are no barriers and nothing standing in the way. It is a joyous savoring of all that is, as it is, while it is.

No motivational speeches or rock-climbing equipment required. 🙂

The Divine Will

 

Below are the exquisite lyrics to one of my favorite songs – Going Home, by Leonard Cohen. I’ve been thinking a lot about the Divine Will over the last few days, and this song came to mind. (It was also published as a poem in the New Yorker magazine). I first heard it a few years ago, and have been obsessed with it ever since.

Right from the start, from the very first time I heard it, I felt an intense connection with its message. Somewhere deep within was the immediate recognition of a resonant experience, some shared knowing, which I didn’t really remember having. Kind of like when you are suddenly reminded of a really important dream, that you understand and appreciate inside your mind, but you can’t really convey it in words. I couldn’t pinpoint how I knew it, or where I knew it from, I just knew… I felt thrilled and moved in a way that music had never done to me before.

In my naive zeal, I couldn’t wait to share it with others. I made everyone I know listen to it with me, hoping they would hear what I was hearing. Hoping that they too would get what I got. But, of course, they didn’t. They couldn’t… To them it was just a strange and eerie song, which made them vaguely uncomfortable. Not only did they not get its significance, but they couldn’t understand why I was so taken with it. And at the time, frankly, I couldn’t either. I could explain the song’s meaning, but I couldn’t explain how I understood it, or why it was so important. I didn’t know the momentous gravity that the message of this song would come to have in my life. Looking back now, I understand it as a real-life moment of foreshadowing. 

This song captures ideas that are thrown about a lot, superficially. But rarely are they lived or experienced in their entirety, even among avid spiritual seekers. It’s hard to know if this song comes from creative inspiration, or if it’s a testament to Leonard’s own experience. None of his other songs, as far as I’ve heard, reveal quite this level of mystical consciousness and development. Given his monastic life and reclusive periods, it’s entirely possible that he attained this level of understanding. On the other hand, in my occasional intersections with the world of artists, I’ve found that they can sometimes produce amazing and brilliant work, but be totally ignorant to the spiritual significance of their own creations. It’s possible that this piece came to Leonard, as is. Or it could be grounded in his actual experience. I don’t know. I have to assume it’s the latter, which is staggering (I’ll tell you why in a second). Either way, the song seems to stand apart from the man, even while using him as its subject.  

The lyrics are speaking from the perspective of the Divine Will, through the vessel of Leonard, the human. There is a matter of fact simplicity to what’s being said. The tone is casual, because the theme is universal – this story is as old as time itself. The Divine Will is describing Leonard’s experience of being governed by it, and the inherent tension between them. This is the very essence of mystical life. We first see Leonard’s resistance, surrender, and courage; of which the Divine Will approves. And then we see Leonard being taken over fully, his egoic ambition diminished and eclipsed, as an obvious and necessary condition of the arrangement. In exchange, the Divine Will cushions him in loving wisdom and guidance, alleviating the source of his human tension and striving.

Saying nothing of the incredible artistry on display, these lyrics reveal a tremendous spiritual depth, a knowing, and a sacred understanding, that can only come from years of honest and painstaking inner work. That’s why I have to assume it’s Leonard’s own experience. This kind of nuance isn’t just something you stumble across as an amateur seeker. It sounds very much like lived experience.

A mystical relationship with the Divine Will is intensely complex. It is a kind of sacred dance; a trust and intimate personal connection and understanding, that develops over many different moments and experiences together. It is very much like a sacred marriage, described by so many ancient texts. The Divine Will, by its very nature, will push its vessel into fear and discomfort, through various trials and hardships. We see this in all accounts of all the mystics and prophets since the dawn of time. The Divine Will asks its vessel to say or do uncomfortable things (speak unpleasant truths to power, preach unpopular or controversial ideas or reforms, break with conformity and social rules, endure public shame and ostracism, etc). It does so in order to spiritually grow, advance, and purify the person. In the friction, to illuminate for him where he is out of alignment with love, and to fortify and infuse him with faith and courage. In cultivating and practicing ever-deepening levels of surrender, the vessel heals and releases his resistance, allowing the Divine Will to flow and express itself more freely.

The practice of surrender is itself a fascinating but voluminous subject for another time. It is, however, the only path forward. The vessel learns pretty quickly that the dictates of the Divine Will can’t be refused. Resistance causes the pressure (in whatever form) to escalate until the vessel is forced to capitulate. This can be read as something menacing or punitive, but it’s not that at all. It doesn’t ever intend to hurt. It loves deeply, but like a strict (at times ruthless) teacher, it will provide the lessons to be learned. The smart vessel will turn towards his resistance and work to undo it quickly, rather than endure the resulting pressures. This all comes with time and practice, at a relatively advanced level of spiritual mastery.

To go further, and to allow oneself to be overtaken and transformed completely by this majestic power, to become the purest vessel for it, is the height of mystical consciousness. It is an acknowledgement and fundamental (not just intellectual, but experiential) acceptance that this power has always been in control. And that the very thing fighting against it, the part that resists it, isn’t actually real. It is a creation of fear. An inner illusion. (I’m not invalidating the feelings; they are very real. But going to depth and discovering it fully, reveals that there’s no substance to it. The mere act of looking at it dissolves it). With awareness and discovery work, that part, the resisting part, is slowly and steadily healed and dismantled, until there is nothing left. Then the Divine Will flows freely, expresses itself fully, unencumbered by fear. This is the ultimate unitive state of love. It is the culmination and climax of inner spiritual work and tremendous pain. It requires a magnitude of surrender that most people will never understand.

And the resulting nature of life is a moment by moment, nearly-impulsive way of being. Impulsive implies ignorance or recklessness. That’s not what I mean. It’s impulsive in the sense that it receives and follows the instruction of the Divine Will without a plan or vision. Existing in the present moment, with full trust and faith, and inexplicable courage, the person expresses that which asks to be expressed, without reservation. All the time. He follows his feelings (which are now pure of egoic desire), and this intuitive guidance above all else. In doing so, he experiences joy, divine love and bliss, intense satisfaction, and incredible inner peace. (He also adventures into mystical realms and discovers unexplored horizons).

In these seemingly unassuming phrases, Leonard captures the essence of faith and surrender, of undoing, of nothingness, of humility, and of the highest order of authentic expression. All of which make up the true mystical experience – the courageous self-less embodiment of complete service to, and union with, the Divine Will.

To arrive at this place, to actually carry out this charge, is (in my opinion) the most difficult and most rewarding mission in the world. It’s not easy. It is a painful (at times excruciating) process that takes immense dedication, fortitude, and a lot of work. To the skeptical observer, spirituality appears to be a peaceful or tranquil practice. Some people even believe that spirituality is some sort of retreat from real life, or an intoxicant for avoiding pain. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

To the genuine practitioner, what goes on within is nothing short of a civil war. It’s brutal, and bloody, and devastating, often teetering on the brink of madness. It is a fight to the death, literally. But to those few who are called to it, genuinely, all else is happily forsaken. They wouldn’t trade their calling for anything else in the world. They feel blessed to be chosen, and utterly unworthy of such an experience of Grace. 

I used to think that the “going home” chorus of the song meant dying; that he was returning to Source. In some sense, it is a death, of the ego. But I now see a deeper meaning. The going home is a metaphor – it’s about the journey home. This very arduous journey to truth, to love, and back to union with God. It’s what the journey of the mystic is really all about. 

Here it is on youtube.

 

“Going Home”
I love to speak with Leonard
He’s a sportsman and a shepherd
He’s a lazy bastard
Living in a suit

But he does say what I tell him
Even though it isn’t welcome
He just doesn’t have the freedom
To refuse

He will speak these words of wisdom
Like a sage, a man of vision
Though he knows he’s really nothing
But the brief elaboration of a tube

Going home
Without my sorrow
Going home
Sometime tomorrow
Going home
To where it’s better
Than before

Going home
Without my burden
Going home
Behind the curtain
Going home
Without the costume
That I wore

He wants to write a love song
An anthem of forgiving
A manual for living with defeat

A cry above the suffering
A sacrifice recovering
But that isn’t what I need him
To complete

I want him to be certain
That he doesn’t have a burden
That he doesn’t need a vision
That he only has permission
To do my instant bidding
Which is to say what I have told him
To repeat

Going home
Without my sorrow
Going home
Sometime tomorrow
Going home
To where it’s better
Than before

Going home
Without my burden
Going home
Behind the curtain
Going home
Without this costume
That I wore

[Chorus]
I love to speak with Leonard
He’s a sportsman and a shepherd
He’s a lazy bastard
Living in a suit

   

A little bit of Jung

 

There are so many brilliant moments in Jung’s work. It’s hard to highlight one without mentioning at least ten others. But I came across this specific quote yesterday, which encapsulates so many important ideas.

We can get in touch with another person only by an attitude of unprejudiced objectivity. This may sound like a scientific precept, and may be confused with a purely intellectual and detached attitude of mind. But what I mean to convey is something quite different. It is a human quality – a kind of deep respect for facts and events and for the person who suffers from them – a respect for the secret of such a human life. The truly religious person has this attitude. He knows that God has brought all sorts of strange and inconceivable things to pass, and seeks in the most curious way to enter a man’s heart. He therefore senses in everything the unseen presence of the divine will. This is what I mean by “unprejudiced objectivity.” It is a moral achievement on the part of the doctor, who ought not to let himself be repelled by illness and corruption. We cannot change anything unless we accept it. Condemnation does not liberate, it oppresses. I am the oppressor of the person I condemn, not his friend and fellow-sufferer. I do not in the least mean to say that we must never pass judgment in the case of persons whom we desire to help and improve. But if the doctor wishes to help a human being he must be able to accept him as he is. And he can do this in reality only when he has already seen and accepted himself as he is.

The quote is from a talk he gave, which was later published as Modern Man in Search of a Soul. (Or vice versa, I can’t be sure which came first).

The work of acceptance (first of self, and then of the other) is the only path. It’s not a matter of preference. Acceptance is the very heart of love. It is the highest of mystical truths. It is the pillar upon which peace, freedom, empathy, compassion, dignity, respect, and humility rest.

It is also the only way to heal…

 

The illusion of evil

 

Evil never sees itself thusly.

It lacks such a capacity.

It abides by darkness alone.

In its own eyes, it is always good, and right; a precious victim of the wickedness of others.

In this sense, evil resides within each one of us, in every hidden unforgiven pain.

It is only honest reflection upon the nature of our own evil, that marks the beginning of our virtue.

 

Becoming nothing…

 

One of the hallmark processes of a kundalini transformation is a destruction of the ego. It has been written about by mystic poets for centuries as the process of becoming nothing. A burning away of all that is not love. A destructive fire that, with the grace of God, tears you down to nothing, and shows you how to love and accept yourself as nothing, for no reason, other than the fact that you’re alive. It removes all that is not truth. It removes all the pretense and delusion. It reveals the deepest and ugliest of truths, so that one can find love and acceptance in that space. To accept oneself as God accepts him. It’s an intensely interesting experience, which is both very painful and very spiritually rewarding.

It doesn’t happen in every case of awakening – there are plenty of people who have been through the kundalini process with little transformation of consciousness. (There are other purposes served by their awakening). But those that are destined to go through the real deal are changed at the core of their being.

This process is not as foreign or unusual as it may seem. Mysticism is the realistic experience of the truths upon which religion rests. It is not a philosophical or intellectual account of reality. It is not an adopted belief system. It is the actual experience of Reality, beyond the ordinary course of normal life. And religion (with its ritual and its dogma) is what grows out of the reports about that Reality. It is a trickling down of mystical truth, for the masses. And this same mystical process, of becoming nothing, is recalibrated as a religious teaching of cultivating humility. It’s taught in nearly all religions as a virtue, and therefore a behavioral mandate.

But how do you actually cultivate humility? It’s not about appearing humble. Or sounding humble. It’s not about pretending you are less than you are. It’s not about diminishing yourself in a social context, or making yourself appear small. Those are phony ego tricks that remain at the surface of consciousness. They have nothing to do with actual inner transformation, or any sustainable spiritual growth.

To tackle this question, first it must be understood that humility, which is the complete acceptance of our flaws and our truths, is the natural default spiritual state. And the opposite of humility, which is arrogance and hubris, is just a mask which hides those seemingly shameful flaws and truths.

Arrogance (by that I mean superiority, condescension, the need to always be right, defensiveness, etc.) is a psychological defense mechanism that protects the inner vulnerability. Its intention is to cover up the deep-seated beliefs and feelings of shame and unworthiness. If you encounter someone who is arrogant, defensive, or condescending, you can be sure that within, that person is deeply insecure and lacking in self-love. The more arrogance, the greater the inner shame and vulnerability. It is precisely this mechanism – toxic levels of inner shame and the need to cover that shame –  that make narcissists so grandiose, haughty, and always fishing for compliments.

In order to permanently undo the mask, to undo the arrogance and feelings of superiority, the vulnerability needs to be accessed and accepted. It’s very similar to the practice of self-love. It’s about identifying those aspects that we deem negative, or shameful, and accepting them as part of a beautiful flawed imperfect humanness.

When we get down into the character flaws and seemingly shameful aspects, and we bring awareness and light and acceptance into it, we integrate those pieces of ourselves into our consciousness. We then no longer need to cover or hide or deny those aspects, because we’ve allowed them, and we’ve seen how they serve us. The surface level egoic portion falls away naturally, as the underlying issue it was protecting and hiding no longer requires masking. Without the need to cover or hide those aspects, the need for arrogance, defensiveness, or competitiveness falls away.

I really like St. Teresa of Avila’s take of this. She teaches that we must keep a close check on the ego’s desire to be the best, or to believe we know the most, especially in spiritual work. There is a natural inclination to compete with others, even in this most personal, sacred, and subjective arena. (The famous contemporary philosopher Alan Watts often highlighted and ridiculed this sort of competitive suffering among spiritual practitioners, particularly among long range meditators – each one trying to outdo the other in the suffering he endured.).

Instead, St. Teresa says, strive to be the least knowledgeable. Strive to be the least advanced (spiritually or otherwise). This is not a call to laziness or inaction. Rather it’s a call to discover more and more of our truths. The more truth that is uncovered, the more acknowledgement of our flaws, the more recognition of ourselves in others, the less superior we feel to anyone else. In fact, the more we see our own flaws reflected in others, the greater our capacity for empathy, compassion, and connection (not the disconnection of competitiveness).

Notice how the ego balks at St. Teresa’s suggestion. It goes against the ego’s very fundamental reason for existence – seeking external validation, control, and the illusion of power through competition, while masking all unworthiness and vulnerability. It turns the notions of competitiveness in all their manifestations, and the endless material striving, on their heads. And helps to show us, through our reactivity, where we are holding beliefs and feelings that aren’t self-loving or accepting. The pursuit of interest-based success is a false one. It doesn’t lead to any lasting joy or satisfaction. The real pursuit is to be ever-more loving, and kind, and compassionate, both to ourselves and to others. That’s the only way to live a life of integrity and contentment.

We must sit back and listen, and open ourselves to learning from others, rather than teaching them (from the arrogant position of “I know what’s best for you. Let me tell you what you should do, what you should be, what you should think…”). By asking questions, and being curious about others, rather than asserting instruction, we ask the other person to allow us into their inner world. And in doing so, we have the opportunity to connect and share and reflect on our own ideas and perspectives. We must tread carefully. When someone shares something vulnerable with us, it is not an invitation to judge or criticize. It is a bid for connection. How we handle those bids determines the entire nature and course of the relationship.

In our ordinary lives, we must notice everytime we assume we know better than another. Notice when jumping in to offer advice, rather than offering empathy, understanding, or compassion. Notice how we deflect and divert the conversation when we don’t know the answer to a question. Notice how we lack the fortitude to just admit when we don’t know something – as if not knowing is some sort of shameful crime. Notice how the need to win, the need to be better, turns a conversation from a dialogue about the merits to a take down of the opponents’ characters… All of this is playing out right in front of our eyes.

I’ve said this before, but I think it bears repeating here: being more intelligent than someone else, or in possession of more knowledge, education, or experience, does not confer the right to be condescending. Nor does it justify taking a position of superiority or disrespect. Despite popular culture’s unyielding worship of bullies and mean girls, being smarter, richer, faster, or more successful does not mean being better. Tearing someone down is not cool. Destroying someone in real life, or on social media, doesn’t win you anything at all.

Over the past year, and especially over the last few months, undergoing this transformative process has taught me so much about these subjects. It’s taken me down to nothing, and shown me what that really means. While it doesn’t sound especially fun to have everything taken from you, (both inner and outer structures propping up self-worth), there is a surprising amount of freedom in becoming nothing. With nothing to prove nor seek, and nothing to hide, there is a great deal of space to just be myself.

It turns out that even as a nothing, I deserve love, acceptance, compassion, and respect, for no reason. These aren’t things that have to be earned. These are the most basic (albeit rare) of human dignities. But they have to come from within first. Meaning, if I can accept myself as a nothing, if I can love myself for no reason, then there is a complete and permanent undoing of all the stuff that feeds arrogance and self-importance. There is no need for the re-establishment of ego, because there’s nothing to hide. This is the real sense of cultivating humility. It means accepting all the imperfections of being human. It’s not easy, but it’s a worthwhile effort.