“We can spend many years getting better at the struggle of life, but we find peace much faster through a daily practice of acceptance and humbling our egos.”
Humility, Acceptance, Monks, and the Dishes
-Katie Read, MFT
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the human ego. Not ego as in someone who brags a lot, but ego as in the force that runs our lives from the background and is always ensuring we get our way, get the last word, feel right or safe or justified or anything else we need.
Much of therapy—and almost all of self-help—teaches the ego to get better at its job. We learn better skills for handling challenges, finding comfort, and getting our needs met. This is good and important work, but it lacks a spiritual secret. You see, I might get better at getting my needs met, but even this implies that I’m still in the struggle. I can become the queen of, “I feel…when you…” statements, but I’m still dependent on your response, desperate for you to stay the right thing.
So what’s the spiritual secret?
Well, think about the last argument you had with a friend or family member. Remember it? Ok, now picture a Buddhist monk taking your place in that argument.
Hard to do, right? Can’t exactly picture the monk yelling back at your spouse that it was his turn to do the dishes?
Now, monks are not super-humans, but they are people who have cultivated a quality that quietsthe ego. Doesn’t help its quest for world domination…but instead quiets it.
And yes, they go and live in seclusion on mountaintops because maintaining this state, in the daily world, is very very hard. But we canquiet the ego, with conscious attention and daily practice.
And when this becomes the goal—to step out of the battle,
rather than fighting better—everything changes.
So, what is one effective way to quiet your own ego?
It begins with a deep commitment to accepting life on life’s terms: the good, bad, and ugly. And it requires a daily practice of working gently against your ego’s belief that it is always right. If my ego is right, then yours is wrong, so I’m not truly accepting life, or our differences. I’m still struggling—whether with you in reality or in my own head.
How do I undercut my ego’s conviction that it’s always right? By looking for my part, my fault, in every situation that upsets my, and making true efforts to change.
When I am angry, fearful, hurt, left out, or any number of negative emotions, my first impetus is to blame someone else, wallow in self-pity, and brood over how to respond to get things back the way I want them. These ego impulses can take up plenty of head space, even if I don’t act on them.
And what if I changed the game? What if, instead, I looked really hard at how I contributed to someone hurting or angering me? Maybe I realize that my tone of voice triggered the argument, or that I had been inconsiderate in the past, much as they were being now. Whatever it is, I boldly look for the truest truth I can find. Because once I find that truth, your actions become much easier to understand and accept. Once I see that I’m not pearly-white, I can accept both of our shortcomings, my ego comes back to right-size, and I can respond more like the monk in the dishes argument.
From here, the job is not to linger on the idea that we’re terrible: only that we’re normal and flawed like everyone else.
We can only clean our own front yard, so that’s what we do next. Humbling our egos, we correct our behavior, or apologize for our part of the disagreement, not needing to remind the other person that they have responsibility, too. Of course they do, but we can’t control them, so we work with what we can actually change—ourselves.
When we commit to this as daily practice of both humility and acceptance, interesting things happen. Relationships clear up. We sleep better, no longer lying awake angry at someone, or quietly guilty over anything. That noisy ego, with less to defend, begins to calm. It spends less time plotting and planning what we will say or do tomorrow. It never leaves, but it moves over. And when you’re hurt or threatened the trusty ego sweeps back in to protect you, but it doesn’t own you anymore: you can let it recede again, anytime.
And you don’t even have to move to a mountaintop! So next time you’re stewing on something, remember the monk. You’ve got him inside, anytime you want.