I did a lot of spiritual practice this last weekend. I spent all day Saturday with a heralded Tibetan lama (see above photo) and on Sunday switched to yoga nidra, crystal bowls, and kirtan with my dear friend Hannah. To top it off, I saw “Inside Out” on Sunday evening and cried at how disconnected we can get from our own joy (This will only make sense if you go see it. Go see it!).
I'm not sure how lovely this all sounds but trust me when I say that this weekend was also deeply uncomfortable for me. I ate too much at the breakfast potluck accompanying the Lama’s visit, even though I vowed that I wouldnt. I felt disconnected from the people around me in a way that felt unbridgeable. When I heard Hannah’s beautiful music, my first reaction was jealousy because I too wanted to sing such beautiful songs to God.
So by the end of such an enlightened weekend my pants felt tight, my jealous skin squirmy and my ego 10 sizes too big. In short, I felt like a big mess.
In the past I would have assumed that this discomfort meant I wasn’t doing my spiritual work correctly. I would beat myself up for not already transcending the shallow, insecure parts of myself that I so desperately wanted to escape.
Because if I was doing my spiritual work right, then I would only feel happiness and joy right? My yoga mat would turn into a little cloud and my angel wings would finally break free and we’d end the whole scene with a wild dance party in heaven.
Hahahahaha. This is the sound of my ego cackling from its high throne upon which she’s perched. This whole train of thought falls completely in-line with her master plan of comparison, separation and confusion. She has me right where she wants me.
Through lived experience, I’ve learned that my ego is a cruel ruler who brings nothing but misery to her subject (me). She feeds on drama and loves adding fuel to the fire. She’s a dictator and bully and will stop at nothing until everyone is miserable around her.
Now you be asking who elected my ego to be the high ruler of my kingdom. This is the part when I sheepishly raise my hand and look down at the ground. Um, I’ve been giving her pretty solid authority for a while now.
I elect her when I choose to believe her. The truth is that we all feel defensive, jealous, and separate from the people around us from time to time. This is being human.
I put my ego firmly in charge when I find myself believing that I could actually be better or worse than other people. I can tell when I am doing this because it feels like I’m living through a thick layer of plexiglass. Everything looks so appealing on the other side of the separation yet when I try to actually touch it, my fingertips meet plastic instead of beauty.
I crave beauty, thus I work to dethrone my ego. Like any power hungry tyrant, she will not go down without a fight. When threatened by honest spiritual inquiry she gets particularly vicious. She gets wrathful on meditation retreats, throwing every shameful memory and character default in my face. When I spent 10 days in solitude in the Amazon, she loved going for the jugular and had me in tears most days.
As hard as I’ve tried, I can’t see a way around this pain when engaged in authentic spiritual practice. I wish I could save myself and others from having to battle the ego, but I’ve learned that without a break down in our destructive thought patterns there is no breakthrough into a deeper sense of self.
The cool thing is that after each of these tough battles, I emerged much stronger and grounded in myself. My most triumphant moments of growth have always been preceded by a time of deep insecurity and my darkest thoughts rising to the surface. Since I like the getting stronger part of spiritual growth, I have accepted the painful parts as well.
As we soldier on in our own development, understanding and preparing for these hard moments can cushion the journey. This cushion is vital because it gives us the necessary perspective to push through the hard moments instead of running away.
The following tips and ideas have helped me care for myself during the tough but important process of true spiritual growth:
- Pain is natural. Understand that you can’t grow without cracking through the safety of a fixed self image. Nature does it all the time. Caterpillars liquefy to become butterflies. Wet baby birds peck through the tough eggshells that have kept them safe. You are way more than you know that you are. You will not be happy unless you are actively searching for the truth and letting go of untruth. Do your liquefying and your cracking. Embrace the vulnerability it takes to grow and move into a life of deepening self awareness. This isn’t weakness, it’s strength. Be the wet baby bird, the unraveling butterfly. You are stunning in the shakey space of change.
- Learn to feel your feelings. Learn to feel your resistance to your feelings. Learn to recognize the ways you habitually numb in order to avoid feeling your feelings and your resistance to your feelings. Learn that we all do this and that you aren’t any more messed up than anyone else. Learn to share about this struggle in safe spaces. Learn to laugh at yourself when you are taking it all too seriously. The ego hates laughter and joy. Learn to rinse and repeat this train of thought. You will go through it more than once. You will think you’ve mastered the ego and then it will come back stronger. I’m not quite sure why this is except that without a villain, storylines aren’t very interesting. They tend to move the plot along, sinister laughter and all.
- Get strong. We need to be internally strong to handle pain. The best way I’ve found to be internally strong is through Kundalini yoga. It’s a weird yoga system that doesn’t often make sense to my brain but it’s highly effective in giving me more strength. Kundalini teachers ask you to do wacky things like hold your arms out straight for 11 minutes. After a minute or two, this really hurts. My ego really rears up at the first sign of pain. It tells me that I can’t possibly hold my arms up any longer. It tells me that I’m weak and the teacher is stupid and that I need to leave and go eat a chocolate croissant right away. I tremble and tremble and think I must give up soon. Then I dig a little deeper and recommit. I can feel pain. I can do hard things. Eleven minutes will end eventually. This is when the anger dissolves into honest tears and I realize how deeply sad I am about so many things. I cry my way through the rest of the time and realize that my arms feel absolutely fine. Kundalini gives us the tools to strength our nervous system so it can handle both the physical pain and the emotional pain of growth. Within it I feel more love and freedom and potential than I thought possible.
- Take care of yourself. Our egos wait for our most vulnerable moments to gain more power. This is good war strategy, right? They wait for when we’ve forgotten to eat both breakfast and lunch. They wait for when we’ve had our second night of bad sleep in a row. They wait for when we’ve taken on that extra project at work and overcommitted ourselves socially. Then they pounce! Oh how they pounce! They knock out our knees from under us, pound on our ribs, put us in a headlock (can you tell I had an older brother who loved WWF?). Exhausted and hungry, we have no choice but to surrender and believe the worst about ourselves. When we do this habitually it leads to low self esteem. The best way to avoid this low-blow attack to practice good basic self care every day. You’re worth it, even if your ego wants to tell you differently.
- Pull up an extra chair. In my hardest moments, I like to imagine my heart is a long wooden table. Every aspect of myself gets a seat. Of course my joy likes to sit like Mother Teresa at the head of the table. My strength wanders in and gets the hero’s welcome. Happiness takes an extra serving of pasta. But the bidders of my ego--my fear and shame and anger--fester in the shadows. They are used to being cast away. They are so very hungry. No wonder they are so mean! When I sense them close, the most revolutionary thing I can do is offer them a seat at the table. They come forward timidly at first. I serve them a plate of food. They eat hungrily, elbows on the table and slurping their soup. Once full, they fall asleep and make cute little snoring sounds. It’s tough work being the bad guy! They need more love than the “good ”parts of myself ever will. As I recognize them and give them a proper seat, these “flaws” of mine stay out of the way. With them in the backseat, my life gets clearer.
I hope those help. If none of them really do then please remember that you are not alone. We all have an ego, we all struggle, we all want to be better in some way. Knowing we are not alone in battling our egos gives us courage. We need this connection if we ever hope to liberate our spirits.
Like I said, spiritual work is not easy work. However when we show up and do it, it all works out in the epic movie kind of way. Except it’s not an epic movie. It’s your epically beautiful life and you’re the star. The witch is dead. The crowd cheers you on. You are stunning. It doesn’t get any better than that.