The Stories We Comfort Ourselves With

I was reading Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism by Trungpa Chogam, and a passage of the book has been popping up in my mind ever since.

We would rather hoard and preserve the flavor and beauty of the experience so that, when bad times come, when we are depressed and down, we can bring that memory to mind in order to comfort ourselves, to tell ourselves that we have actually done something worthwhile.

I believe Chogam was talking about the way some people mentally cling to some of their more moving spiritual experiences (frankly, I don’t fully understand a lot of what he’s saying) but it stuck out to me because it seemed to be a more general applicable. Why do people post only their happiest memories on the internet? Why do people create this sanitized, beautified story about their lives? I had always found it somewhat offensive, even though I do it too. But, when I read that line, instead of feeling my normal annoyance at all the people who did this, I felt a sort of sadness – as if I were looking at a bird with with a broken wing trying to fly.

Apparently, the singer Amy Winehouse died alone of alcohol poisoning watching youtube videos of herself. Something about her death struck me as particularly iconic of our times, as if she had given a bolder expression of what so many of us do every day. It’s so easy to get caught in this loop, watching ourselves, and obsessing, trying to see how beautiful we are but never quite seeing it. I’d always thought facebook was a tool to show off to others, but I think actually it’s appeal is that it allows us to show off to ourselves.

When we are forced to see something difficult about ourselves, we can turn to these stories and say “see, this is who I am, the person in these photos!” But, we never actually believe it do we? Because if we did, we wouldn’t need the stories.

Ego

Have you ever been accused of having too much ego, or being too egocentric? I certainly have! Many times.

And, you know, the people who told me that were right in a way. The times I have been the most depressed, for lack of a better word, heavily correlated with the times I spent the most energy introspecting, thinking about myself, and ruminating on everything I did wrong. Unfortunately, after being accused on being egocentric, I simply ruminated too much on how egocentric I was. To try not to be be egocentric starting with the idea “I am egocentric, and this is bad” is, unfortunately, by its very nature deeply egocentric. It is very focused on who “I” am, and who “I” want to be.

Also, accepting someone else’s evaluation of this can be dangerous. Sometimes, when people say “you are being too egocentric” what they actually mean is “you are being too inconvenient.” Often, for instance, oppressed groups of people are encouraged not to feel angry about their oppression. I took a class in non-violent communication with a black woman, who was careful about expressing frustration because she didn’t want to be another “angry black woman.” But, black women in America have plenty to feel angry about! And, it is possible to use pseudo-spiritual language to oppress people even more. “You have too much ego, you care so much for these little slights when clearly someone just made a slip of the tongue when talking to you. You will be happier if you just let go of some of this anger, and don’t stress out about every little comment someone makes.”

(On a side note, I *hate* the idea of “letting go” of anger.)

I disagree that a black woman who represses her anger is letting go of ego, however. I think a black woman who endured a racist remark, and hid her anger, would be embracing her ego. Not that that’s “bad” per se – sometimes it’s necessary – but she would not be expressing what she feels, in the effort to maintain a good image either to herself, or to others. To be or nor to be an “angry black woman” – both paths are full of ego. However, people who don’t like to face the repercussions of their own racism, or sexism, will gladly tell black women not to be “angry,” and if they can clothe it in hippie, new age-y type language to give it more credibility, so much the better.

In fact, I don’t think it is very useful for someone else to tell you you have too much ego, because to attack it directly like that is to play right into the ego. “I don’t want to be an egocentric person,” is a trap from which we cannot escape. The very desire itself stems from ego.

Perhaps a better question is, “What have you wanted to do, but been able to, because you were preoccupied with your self image?”

One answer for me is dance! I love dancing, but I care so much about what other people think of me, I will sometimes not do it. Even when I’m alone in my room, I’ll start to dance, and then sometimes stop because I am ashamed at how “badly” I dance. Even though there is no one else there, to think of myself as a “bad dancer” is so painful I will avoid thinking about it by avoiding dancing.

Another answer is meditate. Often, when I am meditating I get up with thoughts that approach something like “I can see so much!” Sometimes it’s not so much a thought, as a feeling of excitement, that stems from a sense of “this means something about me.” It throws me out of wherever I was, and starts me down a path of thinking about myself.

And, in a way, that’s ok. There is a lot of culture there, that I’m carrying. I exist in this facebook world of self promotion, and I don’t want to just cut it off or cut it out of me. It’s how I relate to my friends, it’s how I connect with the people around me. It’s part of what will enable me to understand pain other people are going through. ┬áIt’s important, but it interferes with some things I’m trying to do. I don’t really have a good solution. My current plan is to keep trying to do the things I’m trying to do (to dance, to meditate) with the hope that eventually, I’ll just get bored. I’ll stop being interested in thinking about what this means “about me,” and just do them.