She went to the door of the Beloved and knocked.
A voice asked: “Who is there?” She answered: “It is I.”
The voice said: “There is no room here for me and thee.”
The door was shut.
Arrogance is not an attitude of mind that opens the doors to a spiritual practice. If we show up with hubris, the Zen Master will shut the door, metaphorically speaking, in some way. If we’re one of the lucky ones, the door is opened with an invitation to tea. As we sit in anticipation of a warm brew and some enlivening “spiritual” conversation, we’ll watch the Zen teacher top the tea cup up to overflowing. We will watch in dismay until we can’t stand it anymore and exclaim our protest at this unnatural behavior, at which point the Zen teacher will gently and calmly explain that we’re not ready to train. Our cup is so filled with the “I” of ego that there is no space for anything else.
After a year of solitude and deprivation
she returned to the door of the Beloved.
A voice from within asked: “Who is there?”
She said: “It is Thou.”
The door was opened.
The journey between “It is I” and “It is Thou” is not a linear progression. To the ego the journey is “solitude and deprivation,” but to the “seeker” it’s a movement towards the intuited but as yet unrealized. The signature of this journey is a wearing away of egocentricity, an attrition of false identity. As the Guide says in Sweet Zen, “We have to pursue what we are seeking in that wholehearted manner until there is nothing left of us to pursue it. And then there will only be what you are seeking.”
Zen Awareness Practice offers a way to empty the teacup, to notice and surrender the “I” over and over until there is a growing awareness that “Awareness is all that is and it is all of me.” We’re encouraged to seek what mirrors our True Nature, to calibrate to the still small voice until we recognize it as us. Embodied in that encouragement is a tremendous trust in the adequacy of the individual and the structure of the process to navigate the dangers of ego territory. Ego of course does not see it that way. For the ego, anything that challenges its control is controlling! But at the beginning of a spiritual journey, ego is in temporary retreat and that which is seeking has the upper hand.
Initially, therefore, there is tremendous willingness to follow the “dictates” of a Practice. We recognize that we need the training wheels, and we gratefully accept them, even when ego puts up a fuss. We are willing to say, “Oh, that’s just ego resistance,” and reach for the tools that will help us through the identification. At some point, we become pretty “good” at practicing. The tools are familiar. We have a pretty consistent R/L practice. We sit regularly. We participate in the offerings of our practice and the “intensity of suffering” recedes. Sure, there is identification, but it’s not as obvious or as painful as it used to be. At this juncture, there is danger of being talked out of practicing, forgetting that practicing got us to this well-being in the first place. But if we’re lucky, we fall into a suffering hole again and we return to practicing.
The undulation of complacency happens frequently enough for us to begin cultivating humility. We’re up against a worthy opponent, and the vigilance that the Buddha emphasizes time and time again in the verses of the Dhammapada becomes a non-negotiable aspect of our practice.
If we examine what happens in a plateau of well-being, we come upon a signature of ego that is downright frightening. Let’s call this hubris.
Hubris is a fatal flaw in a personality that ultimately results in his/her downfall. In Greek tragedy, the character usually enjoys a powerful position which results in an overestimation of capabilities to such an extent that contact with reality is lost. The hero deludes himself (there are few females in the Greek pantheon!) into believing he is a god and attempts to defy the Gods and his fate, which never ends well.
The Buddha exhorts us never to simply accept what a spiritual teacher says, not because it is not trustworthy, but because our salvation lies in going beyond beliefs in order to have our own direct experience of what is True. But what is the experience of direct experience? An intuitive knowing, a fleeting glimpse into something that has a ring of truth, a growing sense of a flame within that will guide us through the darkness? How do we ever know that this still small voice is not the voice of ego?
Zen’s answer is that we never know. No matter what practice we follow, we can never lose sight of the humility of “not knowing.” Anything in us that is absolute is suspect. It’s extremely difficult to know this place of hubris in ourselves, but it is so easy to spot in “someone else.” The energy of resistance is palpable. There is a subtle challenging of practice frameworks. There is selectivity in which aspects of practice are followed. Guidance is appreciated, even received with gratitude, but the actions that follow do not conform to guidance. The level of collusion with ego is blatant, but the identification is so absolute that it is imperceptible to the practitioner.
That said, there is a subtle place in practice where the intuition of inner guidance appears to contravene a teaching. The exit ramp from ego danger at this juncture is to clue into “appears to.” In the moment that I “know” my experience is contrary to practice, I have stepped into egocentricity. Each time I identify with the ego that “knows,” I am in opposition (however subtle this position) to the practice that guides me. Yes, my experience in this moment is X, but in life, ALL experiences are TRUE in the moment. The quality of existence is inclusive. Humility means that I can accept my experience while holding in awareness every other possibility that IS ALSO SO. Humility is a receptivity that recognizes differences and then looks for the underlying oneness. How is that “other” also true? When we come up against something in our experience that is hard to reconcile with what a practice offers, humility keeps looking until there are no barriers to oneness. Debating whether practice is right or wrong, or what aspects of practice we agree or don’t agree with, is a guaranteed way to end up in ego’s camp. In this place, ego’s position might be articulated by these lines from William Ernest Henley:
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.
These lines are a paean to the indomitable human spirit that remains uncrushed by terrible odds. Yes, that determination not to give up is the fire that fuels our practice. But ultimately what we seek comes to us in our depths of despair, not in our heights of glory—especially if we suffer from hubris. It appears that we are given circumstances that break us to cause us to surrender control, to destroy the hubris that says “I” can do it, on my own, and on my terms. We’re given the “difficult” times because we won’t surrender “my will” to “Thy will” otherwise.
Inherently, the spiritual path is one in which we intuitively accept that any trace of “me” will be washed away. Spiritual freedom is not the utopia of an “enlightened ego,” where “I” gets to reign supreme. If we practice diligently, the “fall” of ego is inevitable. If we can embrace the “fall” in humility and compassion, we learn the valuable lesson that is perhaps why we set out on the path in the first place. That lesson? The Unconditional truly loves unconditionally.
Awareness Practice then is not a Greek Tragedy.
We are never punished.
We are always redeemed.
In the words of Joseph Campbell, in all heroes' journeys we arrive at the realization that “…all that we see is but the reflex of a power that endures, untouched by the pain... a transcendent anonymity regarding itself in all of the self-centered, battling egos that are born and die in time.”