Life & Style

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.

Listen to the MP3 Audio here: getting-free-of-self-importance-is-the-key-to-happiness-by-polly-young-eisendrath-at-tedxmiddlebury-2013


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.

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.

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.


Now I’m going to say a few things about responsibility in a moment. But let me just touch on envy and jealousy. Envy is the motivation to destroy your attack what someone else has, because you don’t feel you can get it for yourself. And jealousy is the desire to compete with someone else who has what you want, because you do feel you could get it. So envy and jealousy in the self-conscious emotions motivate very different things but in both cases they make us restless. Envy makes us restless in terms of attacking what someone else has, like putting it down, belittling it, minimizing it or even sometimes attacking the other person outright. And jealousy to compete with others and to see ourselves really always as not having enough for some how to succeed.

So these self-conscious emotions motivate us in a way that makes us feel like we control our lives and our decision making and that we should manage everything. Now, of course, we are responsible for our actions and we’re responsible for our speech. But we are not responsible for all the contingencies in our lives and that sort of mysterious universe that actually is always a point of fascination.

So what to do in order to arrive at a point where you can feel genuine happiness on a moment to moment basis? Without years of sitting meditation, without having a direct experience of the no-self, how can you shift your view a little bit and come back to a point of view that I think people have had traditionally? So first, I would recommend that you experiment. And so experiment with these three things that I’ve put up on the board.


The first one is to go back to that Chinese painting. And imagine that you are tiny and the world is large and at any moment that you feel bored that you feel bored with yourself, stop and be in contact with the world in a simple way, feel the air on your face; look at the light in the room; see the colors, they’re not personal. But you can be in contact with the world in a very simple and fascinating way quickly and it will change, it will shift your point of view.

Second, spend a day or two or three without looking in the mirror. We are obsessed with the way we look in this period of time. People did not live with mirrors or photographs or anything like this, certainly not Facebook for eons of time. And so they were removed from their experience by looking at themselves.

Thirdly become engaged in your immediate world. People often talk about and many wonderful things have been said here today about how to help in the world out there. But also look at the immediate environment in which you are rising moment to moment. That is the room that you’re in when you walk through a door when you look up from what you’re focusing on within yourself. Look up and see if someone needs help, if someone needs a smile, if a door needs to be opened, I guarantee if you do that you will find that the world is reaching out to you all of the time.

And so if you put these three things together, and you recognize how fascinating this world is, always and you stop looking at yourself in the mirror and you open yourself to the way that the world is reaching out to you, happiness is guaranteed almost 27/7.

Thank you very much. I hope that you’ll find it and I wish you blessings.



By Pangambam S

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