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

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.

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.

So what do we do this? Well, psychology has helped us understand that there are certain emotions that motivate human beings that do not motivate the other animals. We often talk about how we’re animals and how we’re like the other animals. But there are some ways that we’re really different. And one of those ways is our self-conscious emotions. These emotions begin to develop in the first half — sorry the second half of the first year 18 months to two years. By the two-year time we have what we call ‘the terrible twos’ because the toddler is saying, ‘No, I’m in here, the world is out there, this is mine and no’. And that’s the beginning of the birth of the ego in the human being and then that development of the self-conscious emotions, it continues particularly through our maturation until about 25 years old and gives us what we call executive functioning — our ability to govern our lives to make decisions for ourselves.

At the same time, these self-conscious emotions do not drop away once they’re sort of no longer needed for motivation but they actually organize our being moment to moment when our, you might say, ego is aroused. And at that moment we’re motivated to feel that we are separate from everything that’s out there and to compare ourselves to others. That’s what these emotions do. They do many good things for us but they also load onto us an enormous load of negativity if we engage in them.

So I’ve put four of the self-conscious emotions up here that are an example of the way they motivate us. This is not the whole list. I will just say that the others that are often talked about are pride and self pity and embarrassment. But these four are biggies when it comes to how you feel about yourself.

So let me focus especially first on Shame. Shame is one of the self conscious feelings that the very best people – they come to see me in therapy — generally feel a lot of and this is the desire to hide, cover up, lie or die, because you feel defective, because you feel like there is something about you that you cannot change, that is just you but it’s different from other people in a defective way. And of course, it might be feelings of inferiority, more often it’s that; sometimes feelings of superiority as the young man who sat across from me and said he was suffering from that. But the feeling of shame is not the same thing as the feeling of guilt. Guilt is the desire to repair wrongdoing; shame is the desire to hide it, to cover it up. And so when you feel shame, when you feel defective, the only thing you can do is stay at home, cover up, lie, disappear. And when you feel guilty, you can repair your wrongdoing or your bad action because you feel responsible for what you’ve done. But even then guilt is an uncomfortable self-conscious emotion, many people feel responsible for having created a life in which they feel they’ve made the decisions that led to this or that.

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By Pangambam S

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