Getting Free of Self-Importance is The Key to Happiness: Polly Young-Eisendrath (Transcript)

Watch and read the full transcript of Polly Young-Eisendrath’s TEDx Talk: Getting Free of Self-Importance is The Key to Happiness at TEDxMiddlebury 2013 Conference.


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The Present Heart: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Discovery


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Polly Young-Eisendrath – Author

Hello there. I’m really happy to be here. I might need a prop. Because what I’m going to talk about today involves being here with you, I would like to say hello and hear you say hello to me. So I’m going to say ‘hello’. Can you say hello to me? So I know you’re there. You know it’s like OMing together or something.

So it’s true that the better part of my adult life, I have been spending trying to put together the wisdom of Buddhism and the insights of Western Psychology. Now I do that in my day job as well. I just wanted you to know that, and it’s one of the reasons why I’m speaking about the subject that I’m speaking about today.

On an everyday basis, I meet with people in psychotherapy, many of them are very much like the presenters here at TED. Others are just slightly neurotic Buddhist, and others are people who have in many ways done incredible things in the world and in their lives and yet to a person and over all of the years that I have been doing therapy, I would say that the biggest suffering that I meet is people not liking themselves. And so that underlying sort of self-hatred, whether you’re a Buddhist and you’ve been meditating for years, or you have done wonderful projects in the world, seems to be a very troubling situation in our society today. It’s something that actually made The Dalai Lama weep at one point when he heard that Americans don’t like themselves.

So I thought that it would be important to talk about the issues that surround what I’m going to call self-importance and happiness. So self-importance, as I’m defining it, is actually the tendency that we have to make ourselves the center of our experience. That is, that we imagine that we control our lives, we imagine that we can manage things, we imagine that our consciousness comes from somehow inside ourselves, from our brain or from our awareness or whatever.

And then with his sense of self-importance, that is this focus on ourself as center, we don’t feel important at all. Instead actually we often feel haunted by negative commentary, like judging ourselves in terms of the way we look, what we are capable of doing, we compare ourselves to others in terms of our thinnest, our wealth, our fastness, our smarts and we always come up lacking. Even if we feel superior we come up lacking, because we feel superior.

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I had a young man come to see me in therapy one day and he sat down across from me and very nice-looking graduated from a college like Middlebury, it wasn’t Middlebury. And I said, “So, what’s up?” And he said, “I am suffering from feelings of superiority” and of course, those feelings made him feel very bad about himself.

So this tendency to feel that we control our lives, that we manage things ourselves actually has been enhanced in this period of time you must recognize that. And it is a very big mistake, we are not the fixers, or the fashioners of our own lives. But it’s a mistake that we’re making a lot and pretty much I think untroubled by reality and making it.

So let me look at happiness then in the way that I’m defining it, because I think that happiness is something you all recognize from your own experience. And I’m defining happiness as that state of being in which you do not want to be in another state. When you’re happy you’re not restless, you’re not distracted. You don’t have a desire to be doing something else. In fact, you’re completely engaged and involved in your direct experience and you recognize this from your own experience. It occurs when you’re making love; it occurs not always but sometimes. It occurs when you’re maybe rock climbing, maybe again not always but a lot of the time. When you’re — sometimes when you’re doing yoga meditating, problem solving, certain kinds of problems, certain kinds of creativity, it’s been widely studied and sometimes it’s called being in the flow or being in the zone.

So what happens to yourself when you’re really happy is that that sense of self drops away altogether; doesn’t it? You know, you forget yourself and you’re certainly not comparing yourself to someone else at those moments or you lose that flow. We all know that in our experience.

Also, when we’re in this state of happiness as I’m calling it, we don’t have the experience or the sense that we are fashioning our own world. Instead our ideas come to us and they seem to come in a way that’s kind of like a flow, in other words, whether we want them or not. And so instead of having the sense that we’re thinking things up or we’re making something happen, it seems as though things are happening to us. So you can see right off that there is a real contrast between this kind of self-importance in which we don’t feel important at all and happiness in which the sense of self disappears.

I became a Buddhist a long time ago. It seems embarrassingly long actually, I think I may be 105 up here. Actually I’m older than I look and I don’t like to talk about my age, because I feel there’s a lot of prejudice. So I’m not going to tell you how old I am. You can find out easily. Everything’s on the web these days.

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So I did take vows in 1971 and I practice something called Zen Buddhism and also something called Vipassana and I’ve been practicing for many years. I’m now a meditation teacher as well as a lot of other things. Also, I became a psychologist in 1980. I finished my PhD and in 1986, I became a union analyst. So you know, I did a lot of becoming for a long time. And then I’ve done a lot of practicing of those things.

And over these years I’ve really wondered about trying to put together two things that come from these practices that are hard to convey. One thing is a self – a sense of what is an individual self. If I ask you guys, what do you think a self is, I’d get as many answers that there are people in the room.

And the other thing is this Buddhist teaching of no self or non-self. Very hard to convey to people, even though it’s kind of available to you when you’re having direct experience as I am a moment ago. So I have actually brought along a painting that could help us a little bit in putting together these two concepts that are hard to teach. This is actually a contemporary replica of a fifth or sixth century type of Chinese landscape painting. As you see the world is presented as a vast and mysterious place. And over here on a cliff, those are us there, that’s you. Tiny little being, intense little being, a little storytelling being that stands on the edge of the cliff and looks out at this vast world telling stories.

Now the Chinese meant to indicate that we should pay much more attention to this vast and mysterious world than to this little point over here, because they believed that nature was actually making us conscious that it was teaching us. Now in this period of time we have a much more complex sense of a lot of things than the Chinese had. But I think this painting helps in one very important way, which is that the world as it is appearing to you and to me, in this moment, we are in this space together, all together and all at once. That means I’m not over here with my little separate self and you’re over there with yours. We are participating in a fabric of being that we do not understand. And if you are not fascinated by that all of the time, it is because you are collapsing back into this tiny little center and you are worrying yourself to death with your self-consciousness.